Latest update: 12/07/2011
- Afghanistan - France - French military
France to begin Afghan withdrawal by end of 2012
France will pull out a quarter of its 4,000 troops based in Afghanistan by the end of 2012, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said during a brief visit to the country.
REUTERS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during a visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday that France would pull out 1,000 troops from its mission there by the end of 2012, as it speeds up its withdrawal with the United States.
Sarkozy, on an unannounced five-hour visit to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and General David Petraeus and drop in on French troops in the region of Surobi, said France's remaining soldiers would be based in Kapisa province.
"We will pull out a quarter of our contingent, which is to say 1,000 soldiers, between now and the end of 2012," Sarkozy said in a speech to French troops at a base near Kabul.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the withdrawal would be limited to the Surobi region. "We believe this region is now secure and the time has come to pass the baton to the Afghan troops," Juppe told France Info radio in Paris.
Sarkozy's visit followed a trip by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the weekend and comes after the United States and France said in June that they would pull soldiers out faster than expected from the nearly decade-old military campaign against Taliban insurgents.
French soldiers have been involved in the U.S.- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation since 2001 and France has lost 64 soldiers from its 4,000-strong contingent, including a soldier killed on Monday by an accidental shot from his own camp in Kapisa.
The quicker pullout could give Sarkozy a boost ahead of the April 2012 presidential election, where he faces a tough battle from the left-wing opposition to win a second term.
An opinion poll after the U.S. killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed more than half of French people support a withdrawal.
Sarkozy's speech to French soldiers came two days before France's "Bastille Day" national day, which marks the start of the 1789 revolution and will this year honour troops on foreign missions.
Sarkozy's trip also comes shortly after the surprise release of two French TV journalists who had been held hostage by the Taliban for a year and a half in Afghanistan and who were greeted as heros on their return to France at the end of June.
The visit coincided with the killing of Karzai's influential brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.
U.S. troop withdraw
Facing growing political opposition to the nearly decade-old war, U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month plans to pull out about a third of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of summer 2012, faster than the military recommended.
His announcement followed the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May by U.S. troops in a secret raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
The war in Afghanistan began when U.S-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Islamist Taliban government in 2001 when it refused to hand over al Qaeda militants, including bin Laden, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Obama's withdrawal plans call for the first 10,000 U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Another 23,000 will pull out by the end of next summer, with the goal of gradually handing over lead security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Some U.S. military leaders worry they will not have enough time and resources to solidify the headway they have made in pushing the Taliban out of strategic areas of southern Afghanistan. Critics have also said Obama's troop withdrawal plan could jeopardise the next major push of the war, to unseat insurgents in the east of the country bordering Pakistan where the situation has deteriorated.
Nearly 1,700 U.S. military personnel have been killed since the war began.