PARIS – France and Afghanistan agree NATO should speed up by a year its timetable for handing all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday, raising new questions about the unity of the Western military alliance.
Sarkozy also announced a faster-track exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan – marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal comes a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.
Sarkozy, alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai who was in Paris for a previously planned visit, said France had told the U.S. of its plan, and will present it at a Thursday-Friday meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. He said he would call President Barack Obama about it today.
“We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013,” Sarkozy told reporters.
A sense of mission fatigue has been growing among some European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan. The new idea floated by Sarkozy would accelerate a gradual drawdown of NATO troops that Obama has planned to see through until the end of 2014.
France’s announcement could step up pressure on other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan – even if the U.S. has the lion’s share by far. But the leaders of those European nations don’t face elections anytime soon: Sarkozy does.
Sarkozy said France will withdraw combat troops by the end of 2013, a reversal from his repeated commitment in recent months to stick with other allies on a U.S.-led schedule.