French President Francois Hollande visited Afghanistan yesterday 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 was accompanied by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Army Chief of Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud.
He explained his decision to recall French combat troops by the end of this year, 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 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 US 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 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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
“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.
However, 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 the end of the year.
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 US$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 last month.
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 to 18 months.
However, 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,” veteran Afghan watcher Ahmed Rashid wrote in The New York Review of Books.