KABUL, Afghanistan - France’s call for a speedier NATO exit from Afghanistan reflects the depth of war fatigue in the West and raises fears that other countries in the US-led coalition will succumb to rising political pressure and pull their troops home early.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to fast-track its withdrawal - just days after an Afghan soldier gunned down four French troops - is the latest crack in a coalition strained by economic troubles in Europe and the United States, the Afghan government’s sluggish battle against corruption, on-again off-again cooperation from neighboring Pakistan, and a bloodied but dogged Taliban.
The international coalition is rushing against the clock to meet President Hamid Karzai’s goal of having the Afghan police and army in charge of the nation’s security by the end of 2014. France’s break with that timetable, which was agreed to by NATO members, now raises the question: Can the coalition stay together until then?
Resetting the date to end the coalition’s combat mission could strengthen arguments for President Obama to accelerate US troop withdrawals beyond the 33,000 he is sending home by the end of this year, and it could reopen a debate over whether setting a withdrawal deadline allows the Taliban to seize more territory once foreign forces are gone.
It is unclear whether Sarkozy’s call for all foreign forces to hand security over to the Afghan forces in 2013 will have any traction when it is presented next week at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels. If other nations see France’s move as a green light to speed up their withdrawals, it will complicate the current strategy for a coordinated pullout.
In a gentle rebuke to France, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said in London yesterday that withdrawals should be dependent on security conditions on the ground. Britain has said it is keeping to plans to withdraw its 9,500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“The rate at which we can reduce our troops will depend on the transition to Afghan control in the different parts of Afghanistan, and that should be the same for all of the members of NATO,’’ Cameron said after meeting with Karzai.
Other nations facing extreme economic problems, such as Italy and Spain, are not planning early withdrawals.
“We are a responsible country. We are a big country that honors its commitments that it agrees to make,’’ said Italy’s defense minister, Giampaolo Di Paola. Italy signed a pact this week aimed at supporting Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw in 2014.
Germany also said it agrees with the goal to hand over security responsibility by the end of 2014 and withdraw combat troops.
Sarkozy said France will speed up its withdrawal and pull 1,000 - up from 600 - out this year and bring all combat forces home at the end of 2013. Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in Kapisa Province, where the French troops were killed this month, by the end of March.
France, which now has about 3,600 soldiers in the coalition force, joins the United States, Britain, Germany, and Italy in the top five largest troop-contributing nations.
Talk of an accelerated exit alarmed many Afghans, especially those who have cast their lot with the US-backed government but have little confidence in their country’s own security forces. Some said France was reneging on its promises.
Afghan lawmaker Tahira Mujadedi, who represents Kapisa, said Afghan forces there are not ready to go it alone in fighting the Taliban insurgency, which is especially strong in several of the province’s districts. She warned that if NATO forces pull back from Kapisa, it could destabilize nearby Kabul.
Foreign forces should consider staying even longer than 2014, she said.
“When military forces are present in a war zone, anything can happen,’’ said Mujadedi, who expressed sadness about the French troops who were killed.
But she added: “They are not here for a holiday.’’
Abdul Hadi Khalid, former Afghan interior minister and military analyst, said Sarkozy’s decision was clearly political.