President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday that France would pull its forces out of Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, a week after the killing of four French servicemen by a renegade Afghan soldier.
After meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris, Sarkozy said France had decided to transfer security in the eastern Kapisa province, where most of the 3,600-strong French contingent is based and the scene of the shooting, to Afghan forces from March of this year.
“The pursuit of the transition and this gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will allow us to plan for a return of all our combat forces by the end of 2013,” Sarkozy said, adding that 1,000 troops would return in 2012.
“President Karzai has assured us that Kapisa province where the French contingent is based will pass under Afghan responsibility from March,” he said.
This decision was made “in agreement with president Karzai and in agreement with our allies, in an organized and reasonable way,” Sarkozy added.
“A few hundred” French troops would stay on after 2013 to train Afghan troops, Sarkozy said.
End to frontline military operations
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.
Sarkozy said he would encourage NATO to consider transferring all its combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, instead of the scheduled deadline of end-2014.
French training operations in Afghanistan, suspended after the shooting, would resume on Saturday, the French president added.
Sarkozy said he would speak to U.S President Barack Obama on Saturday..
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the French announcement was part of the “managed effort” to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“This was not precipitous ... this was worked through carefully with NATO, with the Afghans and in consultation with all of us,” she told reporters.
“There were some concerns expressed in NATO countries... as well as in Afghanistan that whatever was done needed to be done in a consultative fashion, needed to be done in a managed fashion,” Nuland said.
“And what we see now is just that, a consulted and managed effort.”
A NATO spokeswoman said only: “We take note of the French statement.”
Karzai is on a five-day European trip to sign long-term strategic partnership agreements aimed at bolstering support for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development.
He was next to travel to London to meet Prime Minister David Cameron.
In time for elections
Most French -- 84 percent of them -- want their troops back home by the end of 2012, according to an opinion poll published this week.
Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande, tipped to beat Sarkozy in elections in three months, pledged Thursday to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan this year if he becomes president.
After the deaths of the four soldiers, Sarkozy sent Defense Minister Gerard Longuet to Kabul to evaluate ways to improve the security of French troops training the Afghan army.
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.
Sarkozy warned after the attacks that he may accelerate France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, prompting NATO’s chief to call on contributing nations to remain committed to the security transition.
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he understood French concerns, but noted that NATO nations had agreed on a 2014 date to withdraw combat forces and transfer security to Afghans.
Longuet said he was told the killer was a Taliban infiltrator in the Afghan army, but Afghan security sources said he opened fire because of a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban insurgents.
The United States, Britain, Germany and Italy are the main contributors to the NATO-led force of some 130,000 troops fighting a 10-year insurgency by hardline Islamist Taliban forces ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks.
More than 2,500 foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001. The latest killings take the French toll to 82.