President Francois Hollande visited Afghanistan on Friday to defend France’s imminent departure from the war, telling troops that it would be coordinated closely with Afghan and NATO allies.
Hollande met French soldiers deployed in the volatile province of Kapisa and held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on his first visit to the country where French troops have been fighting the Taliban since the 2001 US-led invasion.
He explained his decision to recall French combat troops by the end of 2012, a year earlier than Paris initially planned, and two years before NATO allies.
“It’s a sovereign decision. Only France can decide what France does,” he told soldiers at Nijrab Base in eastern province Kapisa, where most of France’s 3,550 troops in the country are based.
“It will be conducted in good understanding with our allies, especially President (Barack) Obama, who understands the reasons, and in close consultation with Afghan authorities,” Hollande said.
Kapisa, which commands part of the access to Kabul from Taliban flashpoints on the Pakistani border, has proved a tough fight for the French, troubled by turf wars between the Islamist insurgents and drug dealers.
Hollande conceded that the threat posed by terrorists in Afghanistan had been not been eradicated since the 2001 invasion toppled the Taliban regime for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.
“Without having totally disappeared, the terrorist threat from Afghanistan to our and our allies’ territory has been partially curbed,” he said.
Hollande said 2,000 French soldiers would leave by the end of the year, but added that France would continue development projects. He has also indicated that French troops will continue to train Afghan police and soldiers.
But the time had come, he said, for Afghans to “take the path they choose freely” in deciding the future of their country.
Hollande told Obama in Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago that he would not renege on a campaign pledge to repatriate French combat troops by 2012.
France has lost 83 soldiers in Afghanistan.
It provides the fifth largest contingent to NATO’s 130,000-strong US-led force, but allies have downplayed the effect of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.
Paris has reserved judgment on contributing to the cost of the Afghan security budget, estimated at $4.1 billion a year from 2015.
The relatively quiet Kabul district of Surobi, where French troops are also based, was handed over to local control in April.
Kapisa has been included in the third of a five-phase transfer, which Afghan officials say could take as little as six months, but which NATO’s International Security Assistance Force has timetabled at 12-18 months.
But analysts have expressed concern about NATO’s withdrawal, pointing out that Afghan forces have a mixed record at best and questioning whether a security vacuum will only heighten violence if not hasten a return to civil war.
“Clearly there is a rush for the exits by Western leaders, but there is no Plan B to address worsening battlefield conditions and political crises if they occur,” wrote veteran Afghan watcher, Ahmed Rashid, in The New York Review of Books.
More Afghan civilians died in 2011 than the total number of NATO troops, 3,009, killed since 2001. And last year’s 3,021 civilian deaths marked the fifth straight year that the toll has risen, according to UN figures.
The number of internal refugees last year hit nearly half a million, the highest for about a decade, part of what Amnesty International has called “a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis”.
And more than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum abroad last year — another 10-year high. Thousands of others make their way abroad illegally.
He was accompanied by French defence and foreign ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Laurent Fabius, and chief of army staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud.