PARIS -- France and Afghanistan Agree NATO Should Speed Up by a Year Its Timetabl
Byline: Associated Press
PARIS -- France and Afghanistan agree NATO should speed up by a year its timetable for handing all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday, raising new questions about the unity of the Western military alliance.
Sarkozy also announced a faster-track exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan -- marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal comes a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.
Sarkozy, alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai who was in Paris for a previously planned visit, said France had told the U.S. of its plan, and will present it at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. He said he would call President Barack Obama about it today.
"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," Sarkozy told reporters.
A sense of mission fatigue has been growing among some European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan. The new 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. But the leaders of those European nations don't face elections anytime soon: Sarkozy does.
Sarkozy said France will withdraw combat troops by the end of 2013, a reversal from his repeated commitment in recent months to stick with other allies on a U.S.-led schedule.
At the same time, he said France will restart its training missions of Afghan troops Saturday. After the shootings Jan. 20, he immediately suspended the training and joint French military patrols with Afghan forces.
In Washington, the White House offered no criticism of Sarkozy's remarks.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor noted the NATO coalition had agreed to Karzai's goal of completing the transition to Afghanistan by 2014.
"That transition has begun, and we have made considerable progress toward this goal over the past year, thanks to the gains of the military surge and the development of Afghan security forces," he said.
NATO reacted tersely to Sarkozy's statement.
"We have taken note of the statement," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in Brussels.
Sarkozy said France will speed up its 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.
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. …