At a press conference with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday that French troops will begin handing over security to the Afghan army in March and leave the country completely by the end of 2013.
AP - France and Afghanistan will ask NATO to hand over all combat missions to the Afghan military in 2013, a year earlier than planned, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday.
It signaled a sharp break by France, the fourth-largest troop contributor in Afghanistan, from its previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal was made a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.
Sarkozy, who made the announcement during a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said France has informed President Barack Obama of the plan, and will present it at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. Sarkozy said he was planning a phone call with Obama on the matter Saturday.
“We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013,” he said.
The French leader also announced his country’s troops will withdraw by the end of 2013 and restart training missions Saturday. Last week, Sarkozy suspended France’s training missions and joint military patrols with Afghan forces following the shooting death of the four French troops on Jan. 20.
A sense of widespread fatigue has been growing among European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan. The latest idea floated by Sarkozy would accelerate a gradual drawdown of NATO troops that Obama has planned to see through until the end of 2014.
France’s announcement could step up pressure in other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan - even if the U.S. has the lion’s share by far.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the timetable announced by France was worked through by both the Afghans and NATO as part of efforts to transfer security authority to Afghanistan.
“We, obviously, want to continue to work together to ensure that this is implemented in a way that is consistent with the efforts of all of NATO to give increasing authority to the Afghans, and that it is smooth,” she said.
Nuland said the U.S. was pleased the move was not “precipitous.”
“So you know, this was a national decision of France. It was done in a
managed way. We will all work with it. As the president has said, with regard to our own presence, we are working on 2014,” she said.
“The alliance as a whole is working on 2014. But we are also going to work within this French decision,” she added.
NATO reacted tersely to Sarkozy’s statement.
“We have taken note of the statement,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu
said in Brussels.
Sarkozy also said France will speed up its own withdrawal timetable, pulling out 1,000 of its current 3,600 soldiers by year-end - the previous target was 600 - and bring all combat forces out by the end of 2013.
Karzai had said previously that the goal was to have Afghan security forces in charge of security across the entire nation by the end of 2014. Afghan forces started taking the lead for security in certain areas of the country last year and the plan has been to add more areas, as Afghan police and soldiers were deemed ready to take over from foreign forces.
According to drawdown plans already announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations, the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan will shrink by an estimated 40,000 troops at the close of this year. Washington is pulling out the most - 33,000 by the end of the year. That’s one-third of 101,000 U.S. troops that were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of the U.S. military presence in the war, Pentagon figures show.
With Karzai at his side, Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in the strategic province of Kapisa east of Kabul, where nearly all French troops are deployed, to the Afghans in March.
“A new phase is starting with the Afghans in which civilian and development projects will progressively take the handoff from our military presence,” Sarkozy said, adding Afghan security “is the business of Afghans.”
Karzai, who praised the role of France and other NATO allies, didn’t object when Sarkozy said the 2013 timetable was sought by the two countries.
But the Afghan leader appeared to suggest that it was a high-end target.
“Yes, Mr. President, it is right that Afghanistan has to provide for its
own security and for the protection of its own people, and for the provision of law and order,” Karzai told Sarkozy.
“We hope to finish the transition - to complete this transition of authority to the Afghan forces, to the Afghan government, by the end of 2013 at the earliest - or by the latest as has been agreed upon - by the end of 2014,” Karzai said.
The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan has been steadily handing over responsibility for security to the government’s army and police ever since the alliance’s last summit in Lisbon in 2010. There, NATO leaders decided to move the Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban by 2014 and end the coalition’s combat role.
Afghan forces are already now in the lead if over half of the country’s population in terms of security, and the transition process remains on track.
In London, the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office had no immediate response to the French proposal. Britain plans to bring its 9,500 troops home by the end of 2014.
Prime Minister David Cameron is due to hold talks with Karzai at his country residence near London on Saturday.
Sarkozy’s government has been under political pressure to withdraw French troops before the United States’ pegged pullout in 2014. Polls show most French want an early withdrawal.
Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, told The Associated Press this week that a quick exit would also pose logistical problems for French forces, who hope to bring home much of the heavy equipment deployed in Afghanistan.
Francois Hollande, the Socialist nominee for presidential elections this spring, repeated on French TV on Thursday his hope to bring all French forces home this year.
Polls show Hollande leading the conservative Sarkozy, who has not formally announced whether he will run in the two-round election in April and May. Most political observers believe he will.
Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations, said public support of the war in Europe started sliding fast after the coalition agreed to end the combat mission in 2014.
“It has become more and more difficult to justify every single casualty, since it’s now clear that these are wasted lives,” said Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency.
“Most European policymakers realize that on a purely cost-benefit assessment, we would all leave Afghanistan tomorrow,” Witney said, adding that “it’s difficult for any single government to break with its allies without being accused of lack of solidarity.”