Hollande defends French exit in Afghanistan

Hollande defends French exit in Afghanistan

French president meets soldiers deployed in volatile province

President Francois Hollande visited Afghanistan on Friday 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 explained his decision to recall French combat troops by the end of 2012, 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 eastern province 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 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 that 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 9/11 attacks.

“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.

But 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 2012.
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 $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 in April.

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 12-18 months.

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