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France steps back from commitment in Afghanistan

By Mark Magnier and Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times –

JAIPUR, India — President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement Friday that France is suspending joint combat and training programs, and considering an early withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the Taliban’s possible payoff for efforts to discourage its foes from continuing to fight a long, unpopular war.

(GRPHIC: Chart shows the top 10 contributing nations to the NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) inAfghanistan; France has suspended its military training operation in Afghanistan and may withdraw early from the NATO coalition.)

Sarkozy said his country would review its role in the U.S.-led war after four French soldiers were killed and more than a dozen wounded by an Afghan soldier who turned on them Thursday in Kapisa province, just north of Kabul.

The possible departure of France’s 3,600 troops could weaken Washington’s hand as it tries to launch talks with the Taliban in the hopes of forging a peace deal before the Americans leave at the end of 2014.

Thursday’s attack against the French was the second in three weeks. On Dec. 29, two French troops were killed by another Afghan soldier. The deaths bring to 82 the number of French troops killed in the decade-long war.

Sarkozy is seeking re-election April 22 against foes who say they would move more quickly to end France’s participation in the war. His Socialist opponent, Francois Hollande, said Friday that if elected, he will pull all French troops out by the end of 2012.

Sarkozy said he would decide on a possible withdrawal after a previously scheduled meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai next week. “The French army is not in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers,” he said.

Defense Minister Gerard Longuet and Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the head of the military chiefs of staff, were dispatched to Afghanistan to investigate the incident.

Karzai expressed his deep sadness over the attack on the French soldiers. “France has been generous to provide extensive assistance to Afghanistan over the past 10 years,” Karzai said.

NATO said in a statement in Kabul that a suspect had been arrested but gave no further details. Military trainers say that such deadly clashes between Afghan and foreign troops are often cause by perceived personal slights or cultural gaffes. But even if it was not responsible, the Taliban is quick to claim credit, seeking to create more dissent among average troops and boosting its clout in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.

Overall, analysts said the Taliban objective was to raise the cost of remaining in Afghanistan to U.S. allies.

“Divide and conquer is clearly the No. 1 part of their strategy,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a Paris-based expert on terrorism and financing of terrorism. “They’ve repeatedly … said their strategy is to harass foreign troops to hasten their withdrawal, which they would accomplish if Sarkozy is serious about this.”

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Sarkozy’s actions would boost Taliban morale.

In private, U.S. officials have been worried for months about waning support among their allies for keeping combat troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. They are hoping to keep the alliance unified until a NATO meeting in May, when they want to announce they are speeding up the transition to a strategy more focused on training Afghan forces and turning more areas of the country over to Afghan control.

The killing of the French soldiers deepened doubts about the vetting of Afghan recruits, and whether the Taliban is succeeding in infiltrating their ranks.

U.S. officials refrained from criticizing Sarkozy’s announcement, saying such decisions must be made by individual governments. Voters in most countries that have troops in Afghanistan are unhappy with the rising body count and cost of the war.

Didier Andre, 48, a Paris bank employee, said France needed to get out now. “The whole history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan has always ended badly,” he said. “Why should we imagine it would be any different this time?”

In addition to Hollande, who is considered Sarkozy’s main challenger, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen also raise the prospect of a quick withdrawal. “If security conditions are not clearly established, then we should think about pulling the French army out,” she said.

“Clearly, we are in the process of training an Afghan army of which a certain number of members are not loyal to France,” she said.

Didier Francois, a defense specialist for Europe 1 radio, said French forces were in an “extremely difficult zone” in Afghanistan. If Sarkozy intends to pull them out, he said, it would take nearly a year to make sure roads are clear, and that the danger of bombs and ambushes had been removed.

Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said he believed an early pull out was necessary, but that it would leave the U.S. and its remaining allies with the difficult problem of how to patrol Kapisa province.

“It’s true that if we decide to pull out material this year, we will be forced to stop missions in that region,” he said. “As a result NATO operations will be threatened. The discussions (about this) will be very important. Everything is possible and much depends on what the Americans want.”

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