Afghan concern over French combat troop withdrawal

kiev toursAfghans have warned that a hasty French withdrawal from their country could lead to more instability. President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that all of France’s troops would leave by the end of 2013, one year earlier than an agreed NATO timetable.

Sarkozy's decision, which came a week after four French troops were shot dead by an Afghan army trainee suspected of being a Taliban infiltrator, raises new questions about the unity of the U.S.-led military coalition.

It also reopens the debate over whether setting a deadline for troop withdrawals will allow the Taliban to run out the clock and seize more territory once foreign forces are gone.

Daoud Sultanzoy, a former Afghan member of parliament said France should not pull out too early and “wish for peace and stability.”

"Afghan forces are not self-sufficient yet. They still need more training, more equipment and they need to be stronger," said military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, Afghanistan's former interior minister.

Khalid said the decision by Sarkozy was clearly political. Sarkozy's conservative party faces a tough election this year, and the French public's already deep discontent with the Afghan war only intensified when unarmed French troops were gunned down by an Afghan trainee Jan. 20 at a joint base in the eastern province of Kapisa.

Sarkozy announced France's new timetable on Friday alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in Paris for a previously planned visit. He also said Karzai had agreed with him to ask for all international forces to hand security over to the Afghan army and police in 2013, a plan he would present at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

NATO has been slowly handing over security in parts of the country to Afghan forces over the past few months.

But other areas are more volatile where attacks by Taliban insurgents remain common.

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.

France now has about 3,600 soldiers in the international force, which is mostly made up of American troops. A total of 82 French troops have been killed there since the start of their deployment in 2001.

"The pursuit of the transition and this gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will allow us to plan for a return of all our combat forces by the end of 2013," Sarkozy said, adding that 1,000 French troops would return in 2012. Most French – 84 percent of them – want the troops back home by the end of 2012, according to a CSA opinion poll published this week.

Afghan lawmaker Tahira Mujadedi said Afghan security forces will not be ready in time for any early NATO withdrawal, saying the current timetable already is rushing the training of national forces.

"That would be a big mistake by the Afghan government if they accept it," Mujadedi said of Sarkozy's plan. "In my view, they should extend 2014 by more years instead of cutting it short to 2013."

France's early withdrawal announcement could step up pressure on other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan.

"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.

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