Afghan President Hamid Karzai, flanked by French Defense Minister Gerard… (Lionel Bonaventure / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — After France, the deluge?
The announcement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that his troops would sharply accelerate their departure from Afghanistan cast a harsh light on potential cracks in the U.S.-led military coalition in the country.
Although the Obama administration and the NATO force sought to portray Friday's declaration in Paris as neither surprising nor unilateral, it marked not only an effective end to France's combat role in Afghanistan, but a breaking of Western ranks as an unpopular war drags into a second decade.
The French declaration also generated concern that attacks in which Afghan forces turn their weapons on Western mentors will now be seen by insurgents as an effective method of pushing wavering allies out of the fight. Four French troops were killed and more than a dozen injured this month when an apparently rogue member of the Afghan army opened fire on them, igniting outrage in France as a presidential election nears.
Numbering about 3,900, the French contingent is the alliance's fifth-largest, but it is dwarfed by the U.S. deployment of about 90,000. Moreover, some of the smaller national contingents have been deployed in more fiercely contested areas of the country, and are seen as playing a more crucial battlefield role.
President Hamid Karzai's office raised no public objection to the French decision, announced during the Afghan leader's visit to Paris. But it drew swift expressions of dismay back home, particularly in the northeastern province of Kapisa, where Afghan forces hadn't been scheduled to assume security control until later this year. Now that transfer is to take place in March.
"We don't accept this decision, because Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibility in Kapisa province," said Khwaja Ghulam Mohammad Zamarai, a member of the provincial council, echoing sentiments voiced by a number of local officials.
In Kapisa, some officials and tribal elders said France had maintained a largely defensive stance in the region, primarily guarding the safety of its own troops and having little real effect on the security situation in more dangerous areas of the province, such as the Tagab Valley. Even so, many believed the French pullout would embolden insurgents in the province, a gateway to the capital just 50 miles to the southwest.
"We will see a slide into violence," predicted Tahira Mujadedi, a lawmaker from Kapisa. "Insecurity will definitely grow."
More troubling to some was France's declared intention to urge other members of the coalition to complete their combat missions by the end of next year, rather than the previously agreed-upon winding down in 2014. Officials said France would raise the issue this week at a meeting of NATO defense ministers, and at an alliance conference in Chicago in May.
"This development will affect the morale of the Afghan forces, and also the thinking of the other NATO nations," said Atiqullah Amarkhil, a former Afghan army general who is now a defense analyst.
Although combat deaths inevitably serve as a grim reminder of the war's cost, few events do more to erode domestic political support in troop-contributing nations than fatalities that come at the hands of Afghan troops.
Underscoring the sense of grievance and mistrust between Western trainers and their trainees, the French soldiers who were killed and wounded were unarmed and clad only in athletic gear after a workout at their base. For France, it was the second such loss in a month, following a similar incident that left two Foreign Legionnaires dead.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said an early departure of French troops and transfer of Kapisa would not cause any significant military disruption.
"ISAF sees no effects to our current campaign plan," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the coalition. "We always have alternate and contingency plans when it comes to these types of potential changes or realignment of ISAF troops."
Western diplomats in Kabul took a studiedly neutral stance, saying privately that any criticism of the French move would only inflame the situation. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment, referring to remarks a day earlier in Washington by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who said the French move was not precipitous.
"This was a national decision of France," she said. "It was done in a managed way. We will all work with it."
Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said France's decision is "without a doubt unhelpful for the overall NATO operation in Afghanistan. It sends the wrong signal to the Taliban, and it sends a message of weakness from France."
"However, I don't think this is going to change the approach of the United States or Great Britain in Afghanistan," he said. "The war continues."
Coming just three months before a presidential election, Sarkozy's decision is a popular one with a French public overwhelmingly against the war. Sarkozy's main rival and the current leader in the polls, socialist Francois Hollande, has pledged a withdrawal by the end of the year.
Gardiner criticized Sarkozy for putting what he called his political self-interests ahead of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in Afghanistan, adding that he fears the French leader's action could influence other European nations, particularly Germany.
"This could place additional pressure on [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel to pull out German troops more quickly," he said.
Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington and special correspondents Aimal Yaqubi in Kabul and Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.