- Feb 23, 2009
France, Breaking With NATO, Will Speed Afghan Exit
Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai, laid a wreath Friday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Friday that France would break with its allies in NATO and accelerate the French withdrawal from Afghanistan, pulling back combat troops a year early, by the end of 2013. Mr. Sarkozy also said that he and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, would ask the NATO alliance for a similar speedup of the transfer of primary security responsibilities to Afghan troops.
Mr. Sarkozy increased this year's withdrawal of troops to 1,000 from 600, and said that French troops would hand over security duties in one of their main areas of responsibility, Kapisa Province, northeast of Kabul, beginning in March, at least four months early.
"Continuing the transition and the gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will let us plan for the return of all our fighting forces by the end of 2013," Mr. Sarkozy said after a meeting here with Mr. Karzai.
The moves followed an attack a week ago by a rogue Afghan soldier who fired on unarmed French troops embedded with Afghan forces on a training mission in Kapisa, killing 4 soldiers and wounding 15, 8 of them seriously. The attack was a major blow for France, and occurred amid a tough re-election campaign for Mr. Sarkozy. His main rival for the presidency, the Socialist FranÃ§ois Hollande, has promised to pull all French troops out by the end of this year, contending just last Sunday that "our mission there is finished."
Mr. Sarkozy said that the level of Taliban infiltration in the Afghan Army "has been underestimated," but he insisted that the acceleration was not due to the deaths of the French soldiers, but due to "the outstanding job our soldiers have done" training the Afghans. A few hundred soldiers would probably remain in Afghanistan purely for training exercises with the Afghan forces under a cooperation treaty the two presidents signed on Friday.
Standing with Mr. Karzai at a news conference, Mr. Sarkozy said he had informed President Obama of the proposal to speed NATO's handoff and would discuss it with him this weekend.
"We have decided in a common agreement with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan Army over the course of 2013," Mr. Sarkozy said. At the last summit meeting of NATO, in late 2010, it had agreed to do so by the end of 2014.
France intends to broach the proposal first at a meeting of NATO defense ministers next week, he said.
A senior NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation, said the French decisions were bound to create problems for the alliance because they would give encouragement to the forces fighting the Afghan government, supporting the idea that attacks on NATO and coalition troops would push governments to leave Afghanistan sooner than planned.
But the accelerated French withdrawal has more symbolic than strategic weight. France has the fifth-largest contingent in Afghanistan, with an official count of 3,900 troops. Its forces have been in a largely defensive posture for the past year or longer, focused on preventing any further loss of troops' lives, according to a NATO official in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Since 2001, 82 French troops have been killed in Afghanistan.
Potentially more worrisome is the proposal for NATO to accelerate the transfer to Afghan control by a year, to the end of 2013 rather than 2014. So far only half of the country's population is in areas handed over to the Afghans. The most troubled areas remain under international forces. In many cases in the less troubled areas, Afghan control is only nominal and coalition forces remain as support.
Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Karzai cited changing circumstances in Afghanistan as the reason for NATO to change its calendar, but it may also serve as cover for the new French position.
After the attack on the French soldiers in Kapisa, Mr. Sarkozy suspended France's combat training work there and said he would consider an early withdrawal. He sent his defense minister, GÃ©rard Longuet, to Afghanistan to investigate. But this week, French officials said that alliance solidarity was important, that security must be reassessed, and that France would not accelerate its withdrawal this year. On Friday, they insisted that the early French withdrawal would be orderly, not hasty.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the announcement was not a surprise, and repeatedly saluted France, saying it had "performed superbly in Afghanistan" and been "a superb partner" in training.
"Our understanding, based on our consultations with our French allies, both bilaterally and in NATO, is that this timetable was worked through, both with the Afghans and with NATO," Ms. Nuland said, adding that "what we are gratified by is that this was not precipitous." She referred questions about the impact on American and other international forces in Afghanistan to NATO.
With the second stage of the transition to Afghan control last November, France's last militarily significant assignment — keeping the peace in the troubled district of Sarobi, in eastern Kabul Province — was handed over to Afghan military authority. French ground troops remain only in Kapisa Province, a relatively quiet area with little insurgent sympathy or activity, other than a few suicide bomb attacks on the French.
The announcement that French troops would leave there by March accelerates their withdrawal by at least four months, since the next stage of the transition, which may have included Kapisa Province, is expected this summer.
After leaving Kapisa, French troops will have little operational role in Afghanistan other than training and headquarters units, and no troops actually deployed in the field. Even now, other smaller coalition members have a more significant role militarily. Many of Poland's 2,472 troops are in difficult areas in eastern Afghanistan. The small Australian contingent of 1,550 troops includes a number of special forces in southern Oruzgan Province, which is much more dangerous than Kapisa.
Still, there are fears that other NATO and coalition leaders, many from countries whose populaces oppose the war, might be prompted to follow Mr. Sarkozy's lead. The coalition provides 40,000 of the 130,000 troops now on the ground, doing many of the support and lower-level jobs that free American combat troops to concentrate on the trouble spots. Britain has 9,500 soldiers, the second-largest contingent of troops after the United States. Germany and Italy are next, ahead of France.