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France to keep Afghan mission despite defense cuts

PARIS (Reuters) - France will not withdraw from Afghanistan despite an annual cost of half a billion euros because the NATO mission there is preventing Afghanistan’s collapse, France’s defense minister said on Tuesday.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) salutes French Legion soldiers wounded in combat in Afghanistan during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris on July 14, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool

Speaking in a radio interview, Herve Morin said his ministry would make about 3 billion euros ($3.92 billion) in savings up to 2013 to help France bring its public finances under control, but Afghanistan would not be part of the savings.

“The French army must stay because there is no other solution,” the centrist politician said.

“If we weren’t there, Afghanistan would collapse,” he said, referring to the NATO-led international mission. “It’s difficult to make people understand this, but what’s at stake in Afghanistan is the stability of the region.”

The 3,500-strong French contingent makes up only about 2 percent of NATO’s U.S.-dominated force in Afghanistan, but French support is an important signal of European backing.

With Western powers keen to slash deficits run up during the financial crisis and voters tiring of steady troop losses in Afghanistan in return for modest success, many governments are seeking to define an exit strategy.

The United States, which accounts for two thirds of foreign troops in Afghanistan since tripling its force under President Barack Obama, is set to begin drawing down in mid-2011.

The Netherlands began pulling its 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan on Sunday, after a political row brought down the government in February.

Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government could also start withdrawing troops as early as next year, in line with international aspirations to hand Afghans full control of their security by 2014.

Despite an increase in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan to 150,000 troops, the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest since the hard-line Islamists were overthrown in 2001.

On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the leader of neighboring Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, to step up his country’s fight against terrorism, during a visit to Paris overshadowed by a spat between Pakistan and Britain.

Western concerns over the reliability of Islamabad’s support in the conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan have been heightened by the leak of classified U.S. military reports by the WikiLeaks website.

“The collapse of Afghanistan could have repercussions on Pakistan, which itself is not stable and unable able to control some of its areas,” Morin told France Inter radio.

France has lost 45 soldiers in Afghanistan since it took part in the U.S.-led mission in 2001 to oust the Islamist Taliban movement and fight its al Qaeda allies.

Morin said the leaked documents date back from at least last year and that NATO forces had now changed their strategy in Afghanistan, which aimed to not appear as an occupying force.

“We are closer to the population. We must respect it, its culture, families and traditions, so we don’t come across as an occupation force,” Morin said.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff