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What Happens When French Troops Leave Afghanistan?

In the next six months, French troops will be leaving Kapisa province, handing it back to Afghan control. What does the future hold for this hotbed of insurgency?

French troops in Kapisa (Armée française)
French troops in Kapisa (Armée française)
Frederic Bobin

MAHMUD-I-RAQI - The governor is very optimistic. Short, with a thick dark beard, he wears a suit and tie and speaks fluent English. Mehrabuddin Safi's manner suggests the confidence of a high-ranking official who is deaf to the surrounding danger. French President François Hollande has moved up the departure date of French troops from the province of Kapisa by a year; they will be gone by the end of 2012. But this doesn't particularly worry him : "Afghan forces are ready to take over the responsibility of ensuring the province's security."

Yet there is reason to doubt so: one look at the governorate's headquarters - a fortified camp in Mahmud-i-Raqi, the capital of Kapisa, to the north of Kabul - says it all. Heavy reinforced concrete walls, barbed wire, nervous guards loaded down with automatic rifles – the place is like a citadel under siege, and rightly so. That same morning, the explosion of a crude bomb under a bridge just outside Mahmud-i-Raqi, on the road to the district of Nijrab, wounded several Afghan police officers. And of course the recent death of four French soldiers during a suicide attack on June 9 in Nijrab – ordinarily a calmer district – confirms that the insurrection in Kapisa hasn't lost any of its murderous intent.

In the face of so much instability, even members of the Governor's team are starting to voice doubts. "I'm afraid that our Afghan forces will not be able to defend the province after the French leave," says one official. "We don't have enough troops, and they haven't had enough training. I am very worried about what's going to happen now."

Deadly battlefields

From a window in the Governor's office I can see the green Shomali Plain, a strategic stronghold between the Panjshir Valley and the outskirts of Kabul. This was a bloody battlefield between Commander Massoud's mujahedeen (Massoud was assassinated in September 2001) and Taliban troops from 1996 to 2001. A checkerboard of vineyards surrounded by high, snow-peaked mountains, this lush landscape gives off a false appearance of calm, but in fact the area constitutes an invisible boundary between a zone to the west and north where the population is Tajik, and generally hostile to the Taliban, and the steep-sided valleys to the south-east dominated by the Pashtun and Pashai people, where there is a lot of rebel activity.

This ethnic split lies at the heart of the Kapisa insurrection. Mahmud-i-Raqi is a Tajik stronghold, where there are more fighters who fought with Massoud than there are Taliban sympathizers. Their staunch anti-Taliban stance isn't the norm in this province – especially in the Tagab or Alasay districts. This is a complex political and ethnic arena, where there is a lot of ambiguity towards foreign troops. Kapisa is an allegory of the fractured and elusive Afghanistan, a hell trap that ensnares and breaks the world's armies.

Four Tajik friends are sitting cross-legged on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the mauve waters of the Panjshir River. On the opposite bank, a watchtower looms over a small fort with compact walls enforced with wire mesh filled with stones and synthetic foam. At regular intervals, the sky fills with the deafening sound of fighter jets or the rumble of jumbo jets taking off from nearby Bagram Airfield (the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan). The men aren't bothered, they are used to this military brouhaha. Barefoot on the purple carpet, they are eating plates of rice with mutton and bowls of goat milk yoghurt. With their broad-rimmed pakols - wool berets - full beards and aquiline noses, they all look alike, enduring images of an Afghan legendary figure: Massoud.

A conversation starts. French soldiers? Their opinion is mostly positive. "The French are our friends, they've always supported the Afghan people," says Mohammad Yasin. "In Kapisa, they built roads, schools and clinics, installed electricity in some of the bazars," adds Said Gol. "The problem is, they mostly help in insurgent strongholds, not in our more peaceful districts'. Said Gol wonders: "Does that mean we need to take up arms for them to come and help us?"

The war is our problem

The four men agree that it's time for the French to leave Kapisa. "It's a good thing that they're leaving," says Janat Gol. "The war in Afghanistan is our problem. If we can't resolve it ourselves, the French or the Americans won't do it for us." For him, the long-term presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan can only serve to perpetuate the war cycle. "If the French stayed in Kapisa, the Taliban chiefs would be able to continue inciting people to ‘Fight the foreigners!" The departure of the French will weaken the Taliban stance."

Chewing on a piece of bread, Abdul Zaher wonders: "But who will replace the French after they leave?" His friends answer: the Afghan forces, or for certain missions – before they leave in 2014 -- the Americans. To this, Abdul Zaher cries: "Not the Americans! They can't replace the French! It would just be worse. It would antagonize the Taliban even more."

The four friends are under no illusions about what the future holds. They know that the retreat of foreign forces will usher in a period of heavy challenges. "If neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran stop meddling in our affairs, the situation could stabilize," believes Mohammed Yasin. "If not: the war will go on."

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Armée française

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