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Afghanistan, An Indecent Silence

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It's rarely talked about on television anymore, and the images are few and far between. When there are images, they're always the same -- soldiers trekking through sand-colored highland villages under the suspicious gaze of stoic men. Commentators have left the scene, leaving the usual suspects to repeat the same sound bites over and over again. And yet, the war that shook Afghanistan -- and in which France has actively participated for a decade -- is not over. On Friday morning, four unarmed French soldiers were killed on a base near Kapisa by a man wearing an Afghani uniform. Their death, reported by a nearly indifferent media, was a cruel reminder that the war continues.

Given the scale of losses, and his incomprehensible stance on the war, President Sarkozy was unable to avoid his recent shocking declaration, in which he implied an early return for the French army. This was a complete reversal of all his previous statements, in which he stressed his plans to remain in Afghanistan.

For ten years, over 50,000 of our soldiers have gone through the "Afghan theater," as it is nicely referred to in military jargon. 82 have not come home. Very shabby theater indeed. Even though the pride of our military has been felt -- the pride of having participated in a large scale OPEX (External Operation), of having fought "at an American level" for a decade, of feeling like a great nation capable of so much -- all that's left today is weariness and doubt.

But this weariness and doubt, whether felt by officers or enlisted men, is kept quiet. Each soldier knows that nobody is interested -- not even his friends, let alone the public. Only his immediate family knows what's really on his mind. Imagine when, at a bar, your friends ask you to explain what really happened in Afghanistan, how many people you took out, and you have to explain that you, in fact, did not kill anyone. No, you did not shoot one single bullet, did not even see anything close to the Taliban. Because that is the other side of war: waiting, watching, knowing that you are being watched, not understanding, doubting, and being killed.

But who sent the military to Afghanistan? Who made the decision at the highest level that France would join in this war, would participate gallantly in an international coalition dominated by U.S. forces, both in terms of finances and resources? Politicians. Our politicians, those that we have had the opportunity to elect in our good old democratic society, where elections are not distorted like they are in distant lands, where we are quick to give lessons in democracy. The politicians that we are about to elect again in less than three months.

So why are they silent? Why, during the Socialist primary, which were covered to death by the media, no one even dared to utter the word "Afghanistan?" Except Martine Aubry, who only mentioned it during the last ten seconds of the third debate to point out that no one had talked about it.

Why, on the side of the majority, do we continue to hear the same awkward silence, the same ignorance of the realities on the ground? Why is it, that for every French soldier that dies in Afghanistan, the same official, impersonal statement is copied, pasted, and used again, with only the name, age, and rank changed? In Canada, a high-ranking soldier always gives a short speech on the life of the individual who has sacrificed his life in the name of who-really-knows-what. The official may not have known the fallen soldier, but this ritual at least honors the dead. And the media are there, with the consent of the families, to film the departure of the coffin from Afghanistan, its arrival in Canada, and the journey to its final resting place. People gather on bridges and roads, some waving flags, to pay tribute. "These are images of what would never happen here in France," have confessed so many saddened French soldiers to me.

Why? Are we ashamed of what we have done -- or not done -- in Afghanistan? Has this topic become taboo? What prevents us from talking about it, from dumping it into the public sphere for discussion, alongside the loss of France's triple-A rating, PIP implants, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon's calling Marine Le Pen "semi-insane," etc..

I prefer to think that our politicians are silent out of complete ignorance, merely following the American example, and daring not to raise an issue that is seen with such ambiguity by the French population (the real question is: have we won or lost the war?). I dare not think that they are silent because they know. They know that this war is no longer "fashionable" and that with the current planned troop withdrawal for 2014, the pack of journalists have abandoned the field. They know that the strategies against Afghan insurgencies have not worked (On Friday, this hostile act against our soldiers was perpetrated; on December 29, 2011, two legionnaires were also shot and killed on a secure base by Afghan police officers that were trained and armed by us, Westerners). They know that we have not won the confidence of the indigenous people, or that we have not won enough. They know that "Afghanization," a pure marketing ploy to help sell a departure "with our heads held high," is second-rate. They know all of this, but they say nothing.

So, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed candidates: what do you have to offer on the subject of Afghanistan, beyond the mandatory question of withdrawal? You, politicians who have been unable to organize even a parliamentary debate, answer. Enter the discussion, and draw conclusions about this military engagement -- it has cost us many lives, and yet it is still neither approved of or understood by the public. After ten years, we still lack clear and convincing answers.

Anne Nivat is a freelance reporter and author of The Fog of War, Fayard, 2011.