Planned Afghan exit risks spoiling Hollande's US visit
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French President François Hollande has vowed to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan before the New Year, placing him in a difficult diplomatic position as he holds his first talks with US President Barack Obama on Friday.
French President François Hollande faced a difficult diplomatic test as he met US President Barck Obama for the first time on Friday. The ongoing war in Afghanistan could cause friction between the two leaders, with Obama pushing to keep some 3,300 French troops in the war-torn country, and Hollande seeking to bring them home by the end of the year.
Hollande, who was sworn in as president on May 15, was greeted by Obama in Washington on Friday morning just hours ahead of a meeting at Camp David, and one day before a NATO summit in Chicago. The two will find common ground over responses to Europe’s debt crisis and sensitive dossiers, like Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but seem miles apart on the Afghan question.
On May 3, three days before he won his country’s presidential runoff, Hollande repeated his campaign pledge to withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan. “I will have to confirm this position at the Chicago summit and give instructions to the chiefs of staff for our withdrawal,” Hollande told FRANCE 24, adding that French personnel in charge of military and logistical equipment could stay on after December 2012.
On the other hand, 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 President 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 South East 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 specialized 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. Any turn of its helm will not produce any change in direction for at least six months.”