Friday, January 27, 2012

France Says It Will Speed Up Departure From Afghanistan

France will speed up troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by one year

By Edward Cody and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post
Friday, January 27, 5:00 PM

PARIS—France said Friday that it will accelerate the pullout of its combat forces from Afghanistan by one year, to the end of 2013, and in concert with Afghanistan urged NATO to hand over all combat operations to the Afghan army by the same date.

President Nicolas Sarkozy made the unexpected proposal with the visiting Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, standing at his side. The French-Afghan initiative, which would speed up the agreed NATO timetable by one year, dramatized growing uncertainty—in Afghanistan as well as NATO countries—over the wisdom and effectiveness of the U.S.-led military campaign to force the Taliban to submit to Karzai’s U.S.-supported government.

The 2014 NATO withdrawal timetable was agreed on more than a year ago, when official and public attitudes about the Western intervention in Afghanistan were more optimistic. Since then, the war has not tipped drastically to one side or the other, grinding on with daily casualties, and the effort to put together a functioning Afghan government, army and police force has proven more difficult than anticipated.

In that light, European governments allied with the United States in Afghanistan have had increasing difficulty in explaining the need for continuing casualties in a faraway, little understood place and year after year of large expenditures during a time of economic crisis.

Obama administration officials insisted that the French decision followed extensive consultations and would not upset overall alliance plans to gradually withdraw their combat troops by the end of 2014.

“This was a national decision of France,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “It was done in a managed way. We will all work with it.”

Nuland said the French action “could have been a whole lot more precipitous.” Once France initially indicated it was considering withdrawal, “our request was that this be consulted, that this be managed.” France’s 2013 deadline, she said, “will allow us to do that, and we’re going to work within the decision of the French government.”

The announcement, however, threatened to throw a wrench into planning for the withdrawal of U.S. troops--a timeline that the administration is only beginning to address. With the departure by next September of the 33,000 surge troops President Obama authorized two years ago, U.S. troop strength will be down to 68,000. The Pentagon would like to see it remain there until just before the end of 2014, while domestic pressure is growing for a faster drawdown.

Sarkozy’s plan to ask NATO to move the deadline for ending all combat missions from 2014 to 2013 is also likely to upset overall plans for a smooth NATO path toward the exit in Afghanistan. The original 2014 decision, reached at NATO’s summit in Lisbon, was designed to keep European members from bolting at a time their governments were under strong domestic pressure to withdraw.

NATO’s next summit, to be held in Chicago in May, is supposed to continue that orderly process. By France’s unilateral decision, and Sarkozy’s proposal to change the entire NATO gameplan, may lead others to want to leave sooner rather than later.

“Frankly, we would rather that everyone stay in as long as they’ve committed to stay in,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue.

Sarkozy told reporters in Paris that he planned to talk with Obama by telephone on Saturday to explain his reasoning. In addition, the call for NATO to adopt an accelerated pullout schedule will be put forth next week at a scheduled NATO defense ministers’ meeting, he said.

“We will ask NATO to reflect on the Afghan Army’s taking total charge of NATO combat missions during 2013,” he added.

Sarkozy was said by his aides to have been deeply affected last Friday when an Afghan soldier opened fire with his automatic rifle on a group of French soldiers finishing a jog around their base. Four were killed and about 15 wounded.

That incident came less than a month after two French Foreign Legionnaires were shot and killed by another Afghan soldier, one of a growing number of such shootings over the last two years in what has been described as a sign of tension between Afghan recruits and their foreign trainers.

Sarkozy threatened then to accelerate France’s withdrawal and suspended all French training and other operations. In Friday’s talks with Karzai, Sarkozy said, they agreed the training operations will resume Saturday after a week of down time.

Sarkozy is at the start of a difficult political campaign for re-election in a two-round vote April 22 and May 6. His main opponent, Francois Holland of the Socialist Party, reacted to the four deaths last Friday by saying that, if elected, he would bring home all French soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Although the French role in Afghanistan has drawn little opposition in Parliament, even among Socialists and other opposition forces, public opinion has become increasingly hostile as French casualties rise. A survey published Thursday by the CSA polling firm said 84 percent of those queried want a total pullout this year.

Eighty-two French soldiers have been killed since France intervened alongside the United States in 2001, most since Sarkozy increased the number of troops and opened them to more combat operations after his election in 2007.

Sarkozy said Karzai also agreed with the early French withdrawal.

“It is important that you understand that this agreement was done with President Karzai and with our allies in an organized and reasonable manner,” he said. “The pursuit of the transition and a gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will allow us to plan for the return of all our combat forces by the end of the year 2013.”

France’s early withdrawal of combat troops is likely to have limited impact on the conduct of the war. Most of the 3,600 French soldiers in Afghanistan, although qualified as combat forces, have been engaged nearly exclusively in training operations since last summer, working mainly in the Kapisa area northeast of Kabul.

Nevertheless, the changed schedule means 1,000 soldiers will return home by the end of this year, French officials explained. The previous schedule called for 600 to return this year.

Despite the announcement, France’s training and aid role appeared likely to remain strong for years to come. France and Afghanistan have reached a strategic cooperation agreement that calls for several hundred French police and military trainers well beyond 2014.

The United States has yet to reach such an agreement, despite more than a year of negotiations. Among other things, the United States has refused to bow to Karzai’s demands that nighttime military raids be halted and that terrorist detention facilities be handed over to Afghan control.

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