Hollande’s promise represented a clear-cut difference with the Obama administration. Given the Afghanistan war’s unpopularity in Europe, specialists warned, it also carried the danger of encouraging other nations to follow suit at a two-day NATO summit starting Sunday in Chicago.
A number of governments in the 40-nation Afghanistan coalition, faced with growing opposition to a war that does not have a clear end in sight, already have signaled that they want to speed up withdrawals, according to Francois Heisbourg, a veteran military specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. The schedule was decided in November 2010 at a NATO summit in Lisbon.
The new French timetable is likely to be a subject of discussion when Hollande meets President Obama for the first time at breakfast Friday morning at the White House, Hollande’s aides have said. The two leaders — and others in the coalition who are looking for an exit — also will have an opportunity to exchange views on Afghanistan and other issues at the Group of Eight summit at Camp David on Friday and Saturday and then at the NATO gathering Sunday and Monday.
Now, combatants only
Hollande, who has little foreign policy experience, initially pledged to withdraw by year’s end all the 3,400 French military personnel deployed in Afghanistan and nearby countries in support of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. But he refined that later to say he would pull out only combatants.
The definition and number of combatants still have to be worked out by the new president and his advisers, said the Defense Ministry spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard. Soldiers acting as trainers or carrying out other duties can be assigned to combat at any time, he noted, making the category hard to define with precision.
In any case, the pullout of combatants would leave in place hundreds of military trainers. They, along with 150 French paramilitary gendarmes, are assigned to prepare the Afghan military to take over security responsibilities.
The French trainers have trimmed their mission amid a spate of incidents in which Afghan trainees opened fire on their mentors, but they are still a key part of NATO’s training program. It was the assassination of four French trainers by an Afghan recruit on Jan. 20 that led Sarkozy to decide on an early pullout.
Sarkozy said then he would also propose that NATO consider accelerating the timetable for everybody. Although he consulted the Obama administration before his announcement, the suggestion was regarded in Washington as an unwelcome complication of an already delicate problem.