Interview with Lt-Gen Olivier de Bavinchove (France), commanding general of Eurocorps
“We interact with the Americans as equals”
By Olivier Mirguet | Thursday 19 July 2012
Lieutenant-General Olivier de Bavinchove, commanding general of Eurocorps, is the commander of military operations for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for 2012.
What is the nature of the Eurocorps mission in Kabul?
We make up a core group within the ISAF command structure to direct and command military operations. The first challenge is the multinational nature of this operation. Fifty countries are members of this coalition headed by the United States. We had to set up a deployment that could be effective immediately: we are engaged in large-scale warfare operations. The third challenge is the transfer of responsibility from the previous Eurocorps team, deployed for the first six months of the year, to the new team that has just arrived from Strasbourg. This summer we are in the midst of the most sensitive period, just before Ramadan, with operations that have resumed on a large scale. I do not want any break in the pace of operations at the time of this handover in the different branches, operations, intelligence and logistics support.
The year 2012 marks a turning point for the international commitment in Afghanistan. How do you see the transition that will take place until 2014?
It was decided at the Lisbon summit, in 2010, and reiterated at the NATO summit in Chicago last May that we were engaged in transmitting to the Afghans the tools of sovereignty that will enable them to cope with the insurrection. The year 2012 is seeing the first major withdrawals of NATO troops: 23,000 Americans will have left by 15 September. France will have pulled out its brigade in Kapisa and Surobi by the end of the year, around 2,000 troops. A total of 500 German and 500 British troops will also be leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2012. The Afghan security forces have increased in number. In the coming weeks they will comprise 352,000 men, recruited, educated, trained and equipped. But there are still zones and unstable situations in certain regions, mainly in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, in what we call the Pashtun arc.
Will the Afghan National Army and police be operational before you withdraw?
The Afghan forces are not uniform yet. We need to continue our training effort to tackle illiteracy. This is essential. An effort is also needed in organising and planning operations, based on a medium and long-term approach. The Afghans are too focused on the conduct of operations, where they excel. The coalition has given them very modern, effective equipment for a budget of US$10-12 billion a year. They have to put in place a logistics and maintenance system, which is still lacking.
What will happen once the ISAF forces have been withdrawn?
The ISAF will last beyond 2014, in a form to be defined in the coming months by the member nations in NATO. I don’t know what this mission will be called. Its key aim will be to continue to provide substantial assistance to the Afghans in the areas that are still lacking: logistics support, preparation of the work of the military staff and planning, air operations support and possibly intelligence. This is being discussed by the nations.
Will the economic support for Afghanistan decided by international community in early July in Tokyo be useful and sufficient?
For the Afghan state, the cost of the 352,000 men assigned to the army and police will come to US$4.1 billion. The Tokyo conference clearly defined the financing and burden-sharing formula for the nations that belong to the coalition and other states that wish to help Afghanistan, like certain Persian Gulf states. The Afghan state must also raise the necessary revenues by improving its mode of governance, reducing the endemic corruption that prevails at every level and ensuring that taxes collected at borders reach the Finance Ministry without being pocketed for personal use, as is the case today. We have done a lot of work in this area to try to reduce corruption.
As the embryo of a European army and with this command within the ISAF, has the Eurocorps strengthened the idea of an EU defence?
The mission entrusted to Eurocorps by NATO in Afghanistan is first of all a recognition of the capacity of this tool, created 20 years ago in the framework of the agreements between Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand. Other framework nations quickly joined: Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. We have acquired effective operational experience, in NATO and the European Union, with different operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, and twice in Afghanistan after our initial operational deployment in 2005. We are conducting studies to give Eurocorps new capacities in joint force command. Eurocorps will benefit from the incredible experience of having been at the heart of the ISAF for a year.
What might be the next deployments for Eurocorps? Libya, Syria?
Eurocorps is capable of assuring the command of a corps over a long period, in operations very distant from Europe and in an extremely uncertain environment. The next deployment could be any or all of the theatres mentioned, provided there is a political agreement. I cannot venture to say which theatres are possible, but we are prepared to commit without delay.
How have you managed to impose your authority in the international coalition dominated by the United States?
We interact with the Americans as equals. In the structure put in place by NATO, I am the Eurocorps commander but I am first and foremost ISAF chief of staff. I have authority over all forces in the theatre of operations. I am also the commander-in-chief of the French troops in the theatre in the framework of the Pamir operation.
Will early withdrawal of the coalition’s contingents create problems in terms of the security of troops and material?
The redeployment of all troops has been underway for months. We will have redeployed 33,000 Americans by 15 September, 23,000 of them in 2012. We are going to redeploy 2,000 French soldiers in the coming months, with a number of other contingents, ie around 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers. The year 2013 will see the redeployment of many nations. I don’t have the exact figures yet. It’s time to go back home. Logistics problems do exist and should not be denied, but they do not seem insurmountable at all. Pakistan announced, in early July, that its borders were open again. We have opened the Northern Distribution Network, which makes it possible, going through Uzbekistan, to reach hubs in Northern Russia, in Riga, Latvia, and to head towards Germany. Russia is going to make available to the ISAF a platform in the Southern part of the country to group material and move it out by rail. From the security standpoint, we are going to implement all measures so that this withdrawal does not take place under pressure from insurgent groups that would try to take advantage of our departure. We will coordinate closely with the Afghan security forces, army and police.
What is the value of this mission for Eurocorps?
The coalition that we command this year has shown exceptional endurance, to the benefit of Afghanistan and to ensure that this country does not return to the Middle Ages, as during the difficult period for the Afghan people, from 1996 to 2001, when barbarism and obscurantism ruled. The political message is this capacity by large European countries to join forces over a long period, from 2001 to 2014, to help a country that is suffering.