PARIS (Reuters) - French troops will start handing over security to the Afghan army in March and focus on training until pulling out of Afghanistan completely at the end of 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday.
Sarkozy suspended training and support operations on the ground last week and sent his defense minister and armed forces chief to Kabul after four of their soldiers were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier.
While the French decision was not an outright retreat, the move effectively brings an end to Paris’ frontline military operations, a decision that could prove a boost to Sarkozy ahead of a presidential election.
Paris has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. French troops mainly patrol Kapisa, a mountainous province near Kabul.
Speaking after talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Paris, Sarkozy said France would only have a training-and-support role once Kapisa is handed over.
“President Karzai has assured us that Kapisa province where the French contingent is based will pass under Afghan responsibility from March,” Sarkozy said.
One thousand French troops were due to leave by the end of 2012 and the rest by 2014.
“From that point on France will engage in training and support activities,” Karzai said.
“It is right that Afghanistan has to provide for its own security and protection of its own people and provision of law and order. Afghanistan is now ready to take more of this responsibility.”
In Washington, the State Department gave a measured response to Sarkozy’s decision, which it said had been thoroughly discussed both with NATO and with the Afghan government.
“What we are gratified by is that this was not precipitous, that this was worked through carefully with NATO, with the Afghans and in consultation with all of us,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
“This was a national decision of France. It was done in a managed way. We will all work with it,” Nuland said, referring any questions on the operational impact of the French pullout.
Sarkozy said he would speak with U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday and Paris was preparing a plan to present to NATO at a defense ministers meeting on February 2-3 proposing the handover of all foreign combat operations in Afghanistan next year.
“It’s important that you understand that this agreement was done with President Karzai and with our allies in an organized and reasonable manner,” Sarkozy said. “Our soldiers have done a tremendous job in Kapisa. We are not an occupying force.”
Sarkozy said French troops would resume training operations tomorrow after receiving security guarantees from Karzai and the two leaders would also ask NATO to look deeper into the problem of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan army and police.
Sarkozy’s Socialist rival Francois Hollande, who is comfortably ahead in the polls, has pledged to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of this year if he wins the election held in two rounds in April and May.
In a CSA survey published on Thursday, 84 percent of people said they were in favor of troops leaving by the end of 2012.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has ruled out a “hasty” retreat and most analysts believe it will technically be difficult for Paris to drop out of the NATO-led coalition so quickly.
“Announcing a French withdrawal could set off panic among other European countries in Afghanistan,” said military analyst Jean-Dominique Merchet.
The killings in the Taghab valley of Afghanistan’s eastern Kapisa province were the latest in a series of incidents in which Afghan troops have turned on Western allies.
More than 2,500 foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001. The latest killings take the French toll to 82.
NATO has been rapidly expanding the Afghan security forces so that they will be able to take over all responsibility for security when Western combat forces leave in 2014.
Kabul and Paris also signed a cooperation treaty for post- 2014. The agreement will see several hundred French military advisers stay to continue training Afghan soldiers and police. It will also set out several scientific, cultural, technical and infrastructure accords for various sectors ranging over agriculture, health and transport.
Reporting By John Irish