France threatens early withdrawal from Afghanistan

France threatened Friday to unilaterally speed withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, underlining growing doubts about coalition unity in the U.S.-led effort to leave behind a lasting government in Kabul after more than a decade of war.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and key members of his government made the threat in a burst of anger over the killings of four French soldiers and the wounding of more than a dozen by a renegade Afghan soldier who turned an automatic rifle on his trainers Friday morning at a mountaintop base northeast of Kabul.

The attack, coming after a similar shooting less than a month ago, sabotaged confidence here in the training and transition effort that has become the top focus of U.S. and allied troops.

“We are friends of the Afghan people, allies of the Afghan people,” said a visibly upset Sarkozy. “But I cannot accept that Afghan soldiers fire on French soldiers.”

A precipitous pullout by any of the major members of the U.S.-led coalition would undermine the withdrawal plan NATO agreed to in November 2010 and increase domestic pressure on President Obama to speed the drawdown of U.S. troops.

International concern over the Afghan mission has grown amid repeated instances in which Afghan troops — infiltrated Taliban extremists or individuals with a score to settle — have shot weapons or exploded bombs in attacks designed to kill and wound NATO forces. A report commissioned by the U.S. military said at least 58 Western military personnel were killed in 26 attacks by Afghan soldiers or police between May 2007 and May 2011, when the report was finished.

“Such fratricide is fast leading to a crisis of trust between the two forces, if it hasn’t reached this point already,” the report concluded. Its author, Jeffrey Bordin, wrote that the attacks “do not represent ‘rare and isolated events’ as currently being proclaimed.”

Bordin’s study suggested that personal clashes and insurgent infiltration threaten one of the conflict’s most important relationships — that between Western troops and the Afghans, who in two years will take over combat operations as well as the war’s sprawling architecture.

The report mentions Afghan complaints about bullying, arrogance and an unwillingness to listen as creating dangerous animosity between the forces. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the study’s findings in June.

Military officials acknowledge that the relationship between NATO and Afghan forces varies across provinces and units, and they have suggested that attempts to characterize the overall relationship as troubled or tense are reductive and inaccurate. Officials say the study is not indicative of a widespread threat to the war effort.

But as attacks against foreign trainers have increased, the United States has committed to training a force of Afghan counter­intelligence agents to keep insurgents out of the military and police.

Amid concerns by some in NATO that members would begin to make plans to leave Afghanistan, the alliance agreed at its last summit, 14 months ago in Lisbon, to gradually withdraw coalition combat troops by the end of 2014. The date certain — four years away when it was set — was designed to head off domestic pressure across Europe for ending involvement in the coalition.

It was thought that the time­table would allow sufficient training of Afghan troops to take over security tasks, improvement in Afghan governance and progress in negotiations with the Taliban to end the war.

Over the past year, however, the Obama administration has felt the most pressure to front-load the plan by withdrawing the bulk of its troops sooner rather than later. Alliance members plan to discuss the pace of the drawdown at NATO’s next summit, in Chicago in May.

Sarkozy, speaking Friday to foreign diplomats, said all French training and other aid operations were being suspended immediately while France’s deployment is reviewed.

Although the French role in Afghanistan has often been criticized domestically — particularly since Sarkozy relaxed rules limiting exposure to combat — it has never been seriously brought into question in Parliament.

But Sarkozy has moved into campaign mode, running for reelection in a two-round vote scheduled for April 22 and May 6. Any suggestion that he is not vigorously protecting French troops abroad could be disastrous for his hopes of a second term.

Sarkozy’s main opponent in the election, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, reacted to the killings Friday by announcing that, if elected, he would bring French soldiers home from Afghanistan “as fast as possible, at the latest by the end of 2012.”

“This operation has gone on long enough,” he said.

About 400 French soldiers were pulled out of Afghanistan in October, leaving an estimated 3,600 in the country. Friday’s statement by Sarkozy is likely to reopen doubts about the depth of commitment to Afghanistan in Europe, where the war has long been unpopular and where leaders have been increasingly reluctant to put their troops in harm’s way.

Some European allies have also expressed concern about the long-term cost of maintaining Afghanistan’s security forces, estimated at between $4 billion and $6 billion a year beyond 2014.

The shootings Friday were the second such attack on French troops in less than a month. Two French Foreign Legion members were shot and killed Dec. 29 by an Afghan soldier in mountainous Kapisa province, which is France’s main area of responsibility. Kapisa is a relatively peaceful zone, but it includes key infiltration routes used by the Taliban to move fighters and supplies from havens across the border in Pakistan.

Friday’s shootings occurred in the same general area. The French soldiers were finishing a workout on an Afghan-commanded base when they were joined by an Afghan army contingent that was to accompany them on a training patrol later in the day, according to reports in Paris. As a result, they were not armed or able to defend themselves, French officials said.

The killings came on the same day that new details emerged about a helicopter crash Thursday in the southern province of Helmand, which claimed the lives of six U.S. Marines. The cause was under investigation Friday, but U.S. officials said insurgent fire did not appear to be involved.

Sieff reported from Kabul. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.