France and Afghanistan agree NATO should speed up by a year its timetable for handing all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday, raising new questions about the unity of the Western military alliance.
Sarkozy also announced a faster-track exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan — marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal comes a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.
Sarkozy, alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai who was in Paris for a previously planned visit, said France had told the U.S. of its plan, and will present it at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. He said he would call President Barack Obama about it Saturday.
"We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013," Sarkozy told reporters.
A sense of mission fatigue has been growing among some European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan. The new idea floated by Sarkozy would accelerate a gradual drawdown of NATO troops that Obama has planned to see through until the end of 2014.
France's announcement could step up pressure in other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan — even if the U.S. has the lion's share by far. But the leaders of those European nations don't face elections anytime soon: Sarkozy does.
Sarkozy said France will withdraw combat troops by the end of 2013, a reversal from his repeated commitment in recent months to stick with other allies on a U.S.-led schedule.
At the same time, he said France will restart its training missions of Afghan troops Saturday. After the shootings Jan. 20, he immediately suspended the training and joint French military patrols with Afghan forces.
A senior U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue that U.S. forces are continuing to plan to transition to the Afghans at the end of 2014, and that nothing has changed.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the timetable announced by France was worked through by both the Afghans and NATO as part of efforts to transfer security authority to Afghanistan.
"We, obviously, want to continue to work together to ensure that this is implemented in a way that is consistent with the efforts of all of NATO to give increasing authority to the Afghans, and that it is smooth," she said.
Nuland said the U.S. was pleased the move was not "precipitous."
"So you know, this was a national decision of France. It was done in a managed way. We will all work with it. As the president has said, with regard to our own presence, we are working on 2014," she said.
"The alliance as a whole is working on 2014. But we are also going to work within this French decision," she added.
NATO reacted tersely to Sarkozy's statement.
"We have taken note of the statement," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in Brussels.
Sarkozy said France will speed up its withdrawal timetable, pulling out 1,000 of its current 3,600 soldiers by year-end — the previous target was 600 — and bring all combat forces out by the end of 2013.
Karzai had said previously that the goal was to have Afghan security forces in charge of security across the entire nation by the end of 2014. Afghan forces started taking the lead for security in certain areas of the country last year and the plan has been to add more areas, as Afghan police and soldiers were deemed ready to take over from foreign forces.
According to drawdown plans already announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations, the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan will shrink by an estimated 40,000 troops at the close of this year. Washington is pulling out the most — 33,000 by the end of the year. That's one-third of 101,000 U.S. troops that were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of the U.S. military presence in the war, Pentagon figures show.
Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in the strategic province of Kapisa east of Kabul, where nearly all French troops are deployed, to the Afghans in March.
"A new phase is starting with the Afghans in which civilian and development projects will progressively take the handoff from our military presence," Sarkozy said, adding Afghan security "is the business of Afghans."
Karzai, who praised the role of France and other NATO allies, didn't object when Sarkozy said the 2013 timetable was sought by the two countries.
But the Afghan leader appeared to suggest that it was a high-end target.
"Yes, Mr. President, it is right that Afghanistan has to provide for its own security and for the protection of its own people, and for the provision of law and order," Karzai said.
"We hope to finish the transition — to complete this transition of authority to the Afghan forces, to the Afghan government, by the end of 2013 at the earliest — or by the latest as has been agreed upon — by the end of 2014," Karzai said.
The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan has been steadily handing over responsibility for security to the government's army and police ever since the alliance's last summit in Lisbon in 2010. There, NATO leaders decided to move the Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban by 2014 and end the coalition's combat role.
Afghan forces have started a process of taking the lead in over half of the country's population of 30 million in terms of security, and the transition remains on track.
Britain and Germany said France's announcement didn't change their pullout plans.
Britain said it's keeping to plans to withdraw all its 9,500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"We set out our long-term plans for no combat role by the end of 2014," a Foreign Office spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. "We have already set out plans for some withdrawals in 2012."
Prime Minister David Cameron will hold talks with Karzai on Saturday. The Foreign Office said their meeting "is about long-term partnership and commitment beyond 2014 and the need for progress on the political track."
In Berlin, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Germany's government had recently affirmed its troops' mandate "with a wide majority."
"We are in agreement with the international goal to hand over security responsibility fully by the end of 2014 and withdraw combat troops," the spokeswoman said on customary condition of anonymity.
During Karzai's stop Thursday in Italy as part of his European tour, Premier Mario Monti said his country would give economic and civilian support after a 2014 withdrawal. The two signed a long-term cooperation agreement.
Sarkozy's government has been under political pressure to withdraw French troops before the United States' pegged pullout in 2014. Polls show most French want an early pullout — and he may soon be up for re-election.
Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, told The Associated Press this week that a quick exit would also pose logistical problems for French forces, who hope to bring home much of the heavy equipment they have deployed in Afghanistan.
Francois Hollande, the Socialist nominee for France's presidential elections, repeated on French TV on Thursday his hope to bring all French forces home this year. Polls show him leading the conservative Sarkozy, who has not formally announced whether he will run in the two-round election in April and May — though most political observers believe he will.
Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations, said public support of the war in Europe started sliding fast after the coalition agreed to end the combat mission in 2014.
"It has become more and more difficult to justify every single casualty, since it's now clear that these are wasted lives," said Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency.
"Most European policymakers realize that on a purely cost-benefit assessment, we would all leave Afghanistan tomorrow," Witney said, adding that "it's difficult for any single government to break with its allies without being accused of lack of solidarity."
At the news conference with Karzai, Sarkozy didn't respond to a reporter's question about whether he believed France's announcement could weaken the alliance.
Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Jill Lawless in London, David Rising in Berlin, Colleen Barry in Rome, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.