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French decision to accelerate exit causes some Afghans to question NATO

By Jon Stephenson, McClatchy Newspapers –

KABUL, Afghanistan — The announcement by France last week that it would speed up the exit of its troops from Afghanistan has been greeted with a mixture of cynicism, disbelief and concern by politicians here.

“It may have a bad impact on other NATO allies,” said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian and chairwoman of the National Assembly’s defense committee. She said the announcement “might provide an excuse for other countries” to leave Afghanistan before the end of 2014, when NATO is scheduled to end its combat mission.

Mawlawi Qalamuddin, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and formerly the Taliban’s minister of vice and virtue, dismissed the statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy — which came after an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers on Jan. 20 — as mere rhetoric.

“Emotional comments are not credible,” said Qalamuddin, “and it doesn’t seem logical. It’s not possible that France will withdraw before scheduled because France is a member of NATO, and the rest of NATO is here.”

While NATO officials pledged this week in Brussels to stick to their plan to hand security responsibilities over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, the French decision has reverberated mightily in Afghan political circles and prompted some to wonder whether it could fracture NATO solidarity or further undermine the confidence of locals in the U.S.-led coalition.

After the killings on a French base in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul, Sarkozy said that French troops in Kapisa would transfer security to Afghan authorities in March — four months earlier than planned.

As NATO defense ministers prepared to open a meeting Thursday in Brussels to discuss their Afghanistan policy, the reactions of some politicians here to Sarkozy’s announcement indicates that a fresh layer of mistrust may have been added to the already tense relationship between Afghans and their allies.

Barakzai, for instance, described the shooting as “a really unpleasant action from the Afghan soldier,” but she said Sarkozy’s response to it had been even more damaging. She suggested that the push for an early French withdrawal might be linked to France’s forthcoming presidential election, in which Sarkozy’s key rival, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, has called for French troops to come home even sooner — by the end of 2012.

Barakzai said foreign politicians shouldn’t endanger the future of Afghanistan because of their own domestic political calculations.

“Maybe later on Sarkozy will say something different, but the impact of this message will damage badly the Afghan people’s minds and hearts,” Barakzai said. “We thought our allies are with us, but right now it seems to me that we were counting on the wrong partners, unfortunately.”

Qalamuddin, who served as a minister under the Taliban government but has undergone something of a rehabilitation and was named by President Hamid Karzai to serve on the peace council, which is tasked with promoting negotiations with the insurgency, said he was confident that French troops would remain with other NATO nations until the end of 2014. “The president of France made these comments to calm the people of France and the families of those who were injured or killed by the Afghan soldier,” he said.

If France or other NATO members leave before the expected date, Afghanistan will return to the state it was in after Russian forces left in the 1980s, ushering in the era of the Taliban, he said.

“The Russians left, and a 10-year war lasted 30 years,” said Qalamuddin. “I don’t think the world wants to repeat that mistake by leaving Afghanistan as it is now.”

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