The announcement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that his troops would sharply accelerate their departure from Afghanistan cast a harsh light on potential cracks in the U.S.-led military coalition in the country.
Although the Obama administration and the NATO force sought to portray Friday’s declaration in Paris as neither surprising nor unilateral, it marked not only an effective end to France’s combat role in Afghanistan, but a breaking of Western ranks as an unpopular war drags into a second decade.
The French declaration also generated concern that attacks in which Afghan forces turn their weapons on Western mentors will now be seen by insurgents as an effective method of pushing wavering allies out of the fight. Four French troops were killed and more than a dozen injured Jan. 20 when an apparently rogue member of the Afghan army opened fire on them.
Numbering about 3,900, the French contingent is the alliance’s fifth-largest, but it is dwarfed by the U.S. troop strength of close to 70,000. Moreover, some of the smaller national contingents have been deployed in more fiercely contested areas of the country, and are seen as playing a more crucial battlefield role.
President Hamid Karzai’s office raised no public objection to the French decision, announced during a visit to Paris by the Afghan leader. But it drew swift expressions of dismay back home, particularly in northeastern Kapisa province, where Afghan forces hadn’t been scheduled to assume security control until later this year. Now that handover is to take place in March.
"We don’t accept this decision, because Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibility in Kapisa province," said Khwaja Ghulam Mohammad Zamarai, a member of the provincial council, echoing sentiments voiced by a number of local officials.
In Kapisa, some officials and tribal elders said France had maintained a largely defensive stance in the region, primarily guarding the safety of its own troops and having little real impact on the security situation in more dangerous areas of the province, such as the Tagab Valley. Even so, many believed the French pullout would embolden insurgents in the province, a gateway to the capital just 50 miles to the southwest.
"We will see a slide into violence," predicted Tahira Mujadedi, a lawmaker from Kapisa. "Insecurity will definitely grow."
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai lays a wreath at the unknown soldier's tomb at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Friday. Credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images