- Afghanistan war - NATO - USA
Hollande faces NATO wrath over Afghan troop pullout
French President François Hollande's vow to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, two years before NATO's planned pullout, was set to cause friction amongst NATO leaders as they met for a summit in Chicago on Sunday.
The thorny issue of international efforts in war-torn Afghanistan caused friction on Sunday as a two-day summit of NATO leaders summit kicked off in Chicago.
With the Taliban still highly active and continuing to launch deadly attacks, the future of the military mission in Afghanistan is a growing concern among NATO leaders. Reports that two NATO soldiers were killed in the south of the country as the leaders gathered in Chicago underlined the volatile security situation.
France’s new president François Hollande has caused consternation by reaffirming his pre-election pledge to withdraw his country’s troops by the end of 2012, two years before NATO’s planned pullout.
His decision was not expected to go down well with the other leaders of the 28 member states when he comes face-to-face with them over the next two days.
Less than a week into his new job, Hollande remained steadfast, standing by his pledge when he met US President Barack Obama at the White House for the first time on Friday.
“The decision is a sovereign act,” Hollande said, tactfully adding that any withdrawal would be “coordinated with our allies”.
“There will be several meetings over the coming days with the Minister of Defence and the military leaders to organize the withdrawal,” Hollande said.
In recent days, Hollande has tried to play down the potential for any row with Obama and other Western nations. He insists only “combat troops” will be withdrawn, while training personnel and those in charge of military and logistical equipment could remain.
Some analysts doubt the withdrawal of France’s 3,300 soldiers out of a total NATO force of 130,000 will hamper the overall exit strategy.
“There will be a complex discussion over the withdrawal of materials and the reorganisation of the mission, but there is no reason for it to be too traumatising,” said François Heisbourg, president of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Hollande is expected to brief NATO leaders on the finer details France’s exit plan over the next two days.
He will also discuss the exit strategy with Afghan President Hamid Karzai when the two leaders meet for the first time on Sunday. Karzai supports Hollande’s decision for the early withdrawal of France’s troops.
Losing the appetite for war
In Obama, Hollande may have found an ally for his stance on the eurozone crisis, but the US president is also the man he is most likely to anger if he sticks to his guns.
The White House confirmed this week that it remained on track to hand over security operations to the Afghan National Security Forces only at the end of 2014, and that Chicago would provide a forum to discuss the “responsible” winding down of the war.
The French and American positions on Afghanistan widened even before Hollande assumed office this month. After the killing of four French soldiers in January, former president Nicolas Sarkozy temporarily halted French training of Afghan soldiers.
At the time, Sarkozy, who struggled to cement ties with Obama throughout his mandate, evoked the possibility of an early withdrawal, but later reassured Washington, saying he would respect the coalition’s timetable.
An early French exit from Afghanistan could be potentially embarrassing for Obama, who is waging his own battle to win a second term in office.
France’s commitment of 3,300 troops is the fifth-largest national contingent in the NATO-led force. The presence of French forces in Kabul and southeastern Afghanistan – areas of fierce resistance – has cost the country 82 soldiers since 2001.
While that figure is a small fraction of the total casualties suffered by the alliance – over 2,500 – the war effort has become increasingly unpopular at home. Opinion polls indicate that three-quarters of people in France are now opposed to their army’s presence in the country once ruled by the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the French army has won great respect from its American and British counterparts for its record in Afghanistan, according to Alexandre Vautravers, head of the international relations department Webster University in Geneva and a military history expert.
France’s specialised Alpine battalions have been a significant asset in the country’s high altitude battlefields.
The military scholar said an early withdrawal of French combat troops would deal a significant blow to the NATO coalition. “There is a real concern over who will fill in for the French troops. The Germans and Italians don’t seem able or willing. Not a lot of countries are ready to take France’s place,” he said.
High stakes for Hollande
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France Inter radio on Friday morning that Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed with France over early troop withdrawal, as he reassured voters that Hollande would not backpedal on his pledge.
Nevertheless, observers expected Hollande to demonstrate some flexibility or risk tarnishing critical relationships – and not just with Obama.
A sudden and unilateral disengagement would irritate Washington, but also leaders in London, Berlin and Rome, who have a long list of issues for discussion with France’s new head of state in the context of the European Union.
An Afghan exit could also weaken the new president’s support in France. “Such a decision will alienate the French military, who has invested and endured a lot in the past decade. It will widen the gap between the French political and military leadership,” Vautravers warned.
Whether Hollande adopts an unbending stance or adjusts to shifting winds at the Chicago summit, Vautravers said not to expect any big military overhaul in the short term.
"As Obama discovered when he came to power, the military is a big ship," he said. "Any turn of its helm will not produce any change in direction for at least six months."