French president defends Afghan exit

French President Francois Hollande reviews troops in Nijrab, in the Kapisa, Afghanistan.
French President Francois Hollande reviews troops in Nijrab, in the Kapisa, Afghanistan. (JOEL SAGET / Associated Press)

The decision to leave spawns fears more nations in the U.S.-led coalition will withdraw early.

Posted: May 27, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan - France's president defended his decision to pull the country's 2,000 combat troops out of Afghanistan two years early, telling French soldiers stationed in the east on Friday that "the time for Afghan sovereignty has come."

While Paris will still support Kabul and keep some trainers behind, France's decision to leave ahead of other NATO allies has spawned fears that more nations in the U.S.-led coalition will withdraw early. A speedy withdrawal by others nations would destabilize the plan for Afghan forces to gradually take charge of security over 21/2 years.

French President Francois Hollande told world leaders at a NATO summit last week in Chicago that he would not renege on his campaign promise to pull French troops out by the end of the year - well ahead of the end of the alliance's combat mission at the close of 2014.

The French president said that while Paris will withdraw its 2,000 combat troops - out of a total of 3,400 troops plus 150 gendarmes - by Dec. 31, it was not renouncing all support for Afghanistan. France so far has not pledged to help bankroll the Afghan security forces beyond 2014, but Hollande said some French forces would stay behind and help train Afghan soldiers and police.

"Is this an abandonment?" Hollande asked rhetorically during a function at the French Embassy in Kabul. "No. This is a continuation, and will be a further engagement, but in a different form."

France, which has lost more than 80 soldiers in the war, is the fifth-largest contributor of troops after the United States, Britain, Germany, and Italy.

The United States is pulling out 23,000 troops by the end of September, on top of the 10,000 it withdrew last year.

Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said this week that on Sept. 30 there will be 68,000 U.S. and about 40,000 other coalition forces in Afghanistan - compared with more than 130,000 last year.

Many European countries face disillusionment and fatigue from the decade-long war and are wrestling with economic crises.

In an appeal to war-weary voters in a difficult reelection campaign, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to withdraw all French troops by the end of next year. Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy and took office this month, made this year's pullout a pillar of his election campaign.

France's military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, said the forces remaining include trainers, troops handling logistics for the pullout, and others who help protect the French hospital, air bases, and support staff.

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