Sarkozy Unexpectedly Calls Earlier French Troop Exit From Afghanistan

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Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images

French soldiers from the 1st Infantry Regiment return to the Nijrab FOB (Forward Operating Base) military base in Tora, in the Surobi province in Afghanistan, on Dec. 31, 2011.

So it turns out France is indeed leaving Afghanistan earlier than planned, and will seek to bring the last of its current 3,900 troops home by the end of 2013. Despite signs earlier in the week from French government officials indicating no premature pullout was in the works (and stories like mine explaining why that was the case), French President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday announced he’d draw French troops down a year ahead of the current 2014 NATO departure date—and will moreover urge Alliance partners to replicate France’s stepped-up hand-over of security duties to Afghan forces.

Sarkozy’s decision came after a meeting with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It also occurred one week after Sarkozy threatened to pull French forces from Afghanistan after four unarmed French troopers were gunned down in a fortified base by an allied Afghan army soldier. Infuriated at those killings—which came less than a month after two other French soldiers were killed by presumably friendly Afghan forces—Sarkozy suspended training of and joint patrols with Afghan units. He also said he’d consider withdrawing France’s entire contingent rapidly if the risk from  Afghan allies couldn’t be diminished. In making their comments in Paris Friday, Karzai and Sarkozy sought to allay fears that moves were afoot to bring the NATO operation to an end before its current 2014 deadline. But they also said the ability and numbers of Afghan forces had increased to the point where they could now assume responsibility for the country’s security ahead of the current NATO time table.

In making the decision, Sarkozy seemed to strike a balance between his earlier warning—rapid and full withdrawal—and indications members of his cabinet had given during the week that there was no question of France advancing its pullout ahead of NATO’s plans. He also said Washington had been informed before the French move, and that Paris would formally put the idea of an advanced collective withdrawal to NATO partners at a summit in February.

“It’s important that you understand that this agreement was done with President Karzai and with our allies in an organized and reasonable manner,” Sarkozy said, stressing the studied and calm manner in which the phased-in hand-over process is to take place. “President Karzai has assured us that Kapisa province where the French contingent is based will pass under Afghan responsibility from March.”

Sarkozy also said the suspension in French training and joint patrols with Afghan troops would resume after a week’s pause—though Le Monde has reported at least some of those collective operations continued despite the president’s order. The paper has also run two stories since Sarkozy’s early withdrawal warning citing French military officials saying a significantly stepped up pullout would be difficult and very costly to organize. Evidently those obstacles weren’t large enough to prevent Sarkozy from making this move—the logic of which he’ll now try to impress upon NATO allies. Though American reaction to the announcement was sympathetic and even supportive of France and its efforts in Afghanistan till now, some reports aired both resentment by Western officials about how the early French departure will effect the overall international operation—and skepticism at Paris’ ability to convince the entire alliance to change its plans.

As earlier reported, there was a significant amount of scoffing at Sarkozy’s early pullout warning, the critics calling it a non-starter the president was using as a ploy to reconnect with voters ahead of his expected but uphill re-election bid. That suspicion now appears unfounded, though there are indications his decision could lift his depressed polling numbers a bit. A new French poll shows fully 84% of respondents saying they support a full pullout by the end of this year. Sarkozy says that would be impossible and irresponsible—perhaps in part due to the fact that the Socialist candidate (and current front-runner in the polls) backs an end-of-2012 deadline.