The move dramatized growing uncertainty, in Afghanistan as well as in NATO countries, over the future of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban. It could also complicate the Obama administration’s deliberations over the pace of withdrawing U.S. troops.
The 33,000 “surge” troops President Obama sent to Afghanistan in 2010 are due to be home by the end of summer. The military believes that the remaining 68,000 should stay until the end of the 2014 summer fighting season to maintain and expand what they say are gains against the Taliban. Reopening NATO discussions on an end date would probably strengthen the hand of administration officials who envision a faster, phased drawdown that would save money as well as U.S. lives.
NATO first set the 2014 target 14 months ago and has scheduled a summit in Chicago in May to begin to flesh out withdrawal plans. That discussion is likely to be accelerated, with Sarkozy saying his government would propose the early drawdown at a meeting of alliance defense ministers next week in Brussels.
Sarkozy said he intended to explain his reasoning to Obama by telephone Saturday.
Obama administration officials reacted with skepticism to the broader proposal for advancing the overall NATO withdrawal date. Decisions within the Afghanistan coalition, a senior administration official said, “are taken by 50 countries, not one.” The coalition includes the 28 NATO members and an additional 22 countries.
“Anyone can propose anything for consideration,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming the issue.
The official said that while the administration “doesn’t necessarily disagree” that the transition process could be speeded up, turnover of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is now planned to take place in five “tranches,” with each taking up to 18 months from start to finish. So far, only two tranches have been turned over to Afghan security control, with the most difficult still to come. Ending the process by the end of next year would require beginning all of the remaining tranches this year.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that France had consulted ahead of time on its unilateral withdrawal decision and that “it could be managed” on the ground in Afghanistan. France is the fifth-largest contributor to the Afghan coalition, with 3,600 troops. Most are based in Kapisa province northeast of Kabul and engaged in training operations.
Sarkozy was said by his aides to have been deeply affected when an Afghan soldier opened fire with his automatic rifle on a group of French soldiers on Jan. 20 as they were finishing a jog around their base. Four were killed and about 15 wounded.
That incident came less than a month after two French Foreign Legionnaires were shot and killed by another Afghan soldier, one of a growing number of such shootings over the past two years in what has been described as a sign of tension between Afghan recruits and their foreign trainers.
Sarkozy threatened then to accelerate France’s withdrawal and suspended all French training and other operations.
In Friday’s news conference, he said that training would resume within 24 hours, but that French troops would begin handing over security control in Kapisa to the Afghans in March, several months earlier than expected. He said France would increase its plans for withdrawal this year from 600 to 1,000 troops, and would finish the process by the end of next year.
The broader NATO proposal, presented as a Sarkozy-Karzai agreement, was seen in Washington as a reflection of the unpopularity of the war in France, where Sarkozy is facing a reelection race this spring, and yet another example of Karzai’s penchant for throwing a wrench in the works of smooth policy formation.
A statement issued by National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described existing plans for transition to Afghan national security control by the end of 2014 as “Karzai’s goal,” to which NATO had agreed. NATO, working with Karzai, already has a rough idea of the timing of the gradual turnover. Half of Afghanistan is already under domestic security control.
Without mentioning the proposal to move the end date ahead by a year, Vietor cited Obama’s announcement in June that “the next phase of the transition” would be shaped in Chicago.
“The bottom line is that if Karzai doesn’t want us there, there’s nothing to say,” said a second administration official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re not going to try to stay over his objections. What happens, though, is that a statement like this is made and then immediately walked back.”
In late November, Karzai balked at a tentative confidence-building agreement reached in U.S.-Taliban talks, causing the deal to be at least temporarily scrapped. In early December, he publicly rejected one of its terms — the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar — only to later change his mind and approve of the Qatar venue.
Karzai aides complained at the time that he felt cut out of the U.S.-Taliban discussions, which began in late 2010. Since then, plans for the office have moved ahead, and administration officials have said it is intended as a venue for direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the insurgents.
This week, Marc Grossman, the administration’s top diplomat handling the talks, visited Qatar, where Taliban representatives have already established a presence. He then traveled to Italy, where he met with Karzai. The Afghan leader was in Europe to sign a series of bilateral agreements with Italy, France and Britain outlining their long-term support for Afghanistan after combat troops have departed.
The United States has yet to reach such an agreement, despite more than a year of negotiations. Among other things, the United States has refused to bow to Karzai’s demands that nighttime military raids be halted and that terrorist detention facilities be handed over to Afghan control.
Sarkozy, like Obama, is at the start of a difficult reelection campaign. His main opponent in a two-round vote to be held April 22 and May 6 is Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, who reacted to the four recent troop deaths by saying that, if elected, he would bring home all French soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Although the French role in Afghanistan has drawn little opposition in Parliament, even among Socialists and other opposition forces, public opinion has become increasingly hostile as French casualties rise. A survey published Thursday by the CSA polling firm said 84 percent of those queried want a total pullout this year.
Eighty-two French soldiers have been killed since France intervened alongside the United States in 2001, most since Sarkozy increased the number of troops and opened them to more combat operations after his election in 2007.