France's president defended his decision to pull the country's 2,000 combat troops out of Afghanistan two years early, telling French soldiers stationed in the east on Friday that "the time for Afghan sovereignty has come."
While Paris will still support Kabul and keep some trainers behind, France's decision to leave ahead of other NATO allies has spawned fears that more nations in the U.S.-led coalition will withdraw early as well. A speedy withdrawal by others nations would destabilize the plan for Afghan forces to gradually take charge of the country's security over the next 2 1/2 years.
French President Francois Hollande told world leaders at a NATO summit this week in Chicago that he would not renege on his campaign promise to pull French troops out by the end of the year — well ahead of the end of the alliance's combat mission at the close of 2014.
The French president said that while Paris will withdraw its 2,000 combat troops — out of a total of 3,400 troops plus 150 gendarmes — by Dec. 31, it was not renouncing all support for Afghanistan. France so far has not pledged to help bankroll the Afghan security forces beyond 2014, but Hollande said some French forces would stay behind and help train Afghan soldiers and police.
"Is this an abandonment?" Hollande asked rhetorically during a function at the French Embassy in Kabul. "No. This is a continuation, and will be a further engagement, but in a different form."
France, which has lost more than 80 soldiers in the war, is the fifth largest contributor of troops after the United States, Britain, Germany and Italy.
The United States is pulling out 23,000 troops by the end of September, on top of the 10,000 it withdrew last year.
Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said this week that on Sept. 30 there will be 68,000 American and about 40,000 other coalition forces in Afghanistan — compared to more than 130,000 last year.
Many European countries face disillusionment and fatigue from the decade-long war and are wrestling with their own economic crises.
In an appeal to war-weary voters in a difficult re-election campaign, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to withdraw all French troops by the end of next year. Sarkozy announced the accelerated withdrawal after four French troops were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier in January.
Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy and took office this month, made this year's pullout a pillar of his election campaign.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the 2,000 troops leaving this year "conduct operations" and that those who will remain include "hundreds" of trainers, troops handling logistics for the pullout and others who help protect the French hospital, air bases and support staff. He added that defense officials were currently deciding how many would remain in each capacity.
French troops are deployed in the Surobi district of Kabul province, Kapisa province to the north of the capital and at Kandahar Air Field in the south where France has three fighter jets. Burkhard said most of the French troops will be withdrawn from Kapisa and Surobi. The French military equipment would leave Afghanistan along ground routes.
"You have carried out your mission," Hollande told French soldiers stationed in Nijrab district of Kapisa. "The terrorist threat that targeted our territory — while it hasn't totally disappeared — is in part lessened."
Hollande told Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a lunch meeting that trainers will continue to work with the Afghan security forces, but he did not say how long they would stay.
"Between now and the end of the year, the Afghan army will take control of the zones protected by our forces," Hollande said. The transition will be carried out "intelligently and with complete and friendly cooperation with the Afghan authorities."
The Afghan army and police have started taking charge of security in areas that are home to 75 percent of the population. The goal is for Afghan forces to be in the lead across the country by mid-2013. NATO and other foreign forces would then assume a support role for the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces until the end of 2014.
Ashraf Ghani, head of a commission overseeing the transition, said earlier this month that "the risks in Kapisa are containable and within our capability."
Mohammad Hussain Khan Sanjani, chief of provincial council in Kapisa, said the French troops were active in reconstruction, worked with the Afghan army and police and conducted patrols in Alasay and Tagab districts, the two most restive areas of the province.
"Let's wait and see," Sanjani said about the effect of the French exit. "I hope the French government will continue to pay attention to training and equipping the Afghan police and army. If they do not help us, our forces will face difficulties."
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Angela Charlton and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris, contributed to this report.