France will gradually pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said, speeding up the withdrawal of NATO’s fourth-largest contingent in the Asian country.
France will leave a “few hundred” soldiers in Afghanistan in 2014 to help train the Afghan army, he said.
Sarkozy’s decision was announced after a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris, where the leaders discussed the French military’s future in the country after Afghan soldiers killed five French soldiers in two incidents within the past month. France previously had planned to follow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s calendar of a withdrawal of all foreign troops during 2014.
“We are not an occupation force,” Sarkozy said. “We have confidence in the ability of President Karzai.”
Sarkozy said he’d ask NATO to consider passing control of all combat missions to the Afghan National Army by the end of 2013. France has 3,900 troops in Afghanistan, and 82 have been killed since their arrival in 2001, the fourth-highest death toll after the U.S., Britain and Canada.
Killed While Jogging
France will resume training and support missions with the Afghan army tomorrow, Sarkozy said. They were suspended Jan. 20 after an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers as they jogged at their camp.
Sarkozy said Karzai had pledged “to do everything” to improve recruiting standards to prevent Taliban infiltration of the Afghan military.
Sarkozy also said 1,000 combat troops will come home this year, up from the 600 originally planned. France also will hand over security control of Kapisa province, just east of the capital Kabul, to the Afghan army this March.
Sarkozy said he’d speak to President Barack Obama tomorrow to explain France’s moves.
The Obama administration plans to pull most U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last month warned that the Taliban remain intent on regaining control of the country, and a debate is under way within the administration about the pace of the U.S. withdrawal.
Afghanistan has become an issue in France’s presidential elections, with Socialist challenger Francois Hollande -- who is leading Sarkozy in the polls -- saying in his first major campaign speech Jan. 22 that the mission “is finished” and that he’d start bringing home the troops if elected in May.
Afghan troops or police attacked NATO personnel in more than three dozen incidents between 2007 and last year, according to a classified report by the coalition cited Jan. 20 by The New York Times. In one of the deadliest cases, an Afghan air force pilot on April 27 killed eight U.S. military personnel and a contract employee of the coalition.
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