By Laura King, Los Angeles Times –
KABUL, Afghanistan — French President Francois Hollande, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, defended France’s controversial decision to end its combat role ahead of schedule, and insisted Friday his government would step up its assistance via other means.
The newly inaugurated French leader met with President Hamid Karzai and visited French troops, who are mainly deployed in Kapisa province, east of the capital.
Earlier this week, at a NATO gathering in Chicago, Hollande stirred tensions among the allies by declaring he would adhere to a campaign pledge to pull out French troops by the end of this year, two years before the NATO combat role is to end.
Some fear the French stance is widening cracks within the alliance, and will lead other U.S. military partners to seek a speedier exit. The Obama administration has begun drawing down U.S. forces, but at a much slower pace. About 68,000 combat troops remain in Afghanistan, down from a high of about 100,000.
“What we want is that France has a presence in Afghanistan, but in a different way,” Hollande said at a joint news conference in the capital with Karzai. “We, along with other (European) friends, came to Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. Today we are happy to see Afghanistan standing on its feet and getting more responsibility.”
The NATO force has begun handing parts of the country over to the control of the Afghan police and army, with the hopes that Afghan forces will soon be taking the security lead in areas where three-quarters of the population lives.
However, not a single Afghan province has yet been certified as having completed its “transition” to full Afghan control.
Hollande said France was particularly interested in extending greater aid in the civilian sector, including health care. “We will help Afghans … with whatever resources we have at our disposal,” Hollande said.
French public opinion opposing the Afghan mission was galvanized by the deaths of four French troops earlier this year in a “green-on-blue” attack — a shooting of international troops by a member of the Afghan security forces — and in the wake of that, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had already moved to shorten the French deployment.
France has said some troops may remain beyond the year’s end in a non-combat capacity. But many in its military ranks are wary of continuing in a training role, which requires close daily contact with Afghan troops, such as the one who opened fire on their compatriots.
French officials said Hollande was accompanied by his foreign minister and defense minister — an unusually high-ranking delegation to visit simultaneously. The visit was not disclosed in advance for security reasons.
At the joint news conference, Karzai raised no public objections to the early French exit, but said Afghan forces need more modern equipment in order to take over security responsibilities.
“We have had our own questions regarding the proper equipping of the Afghan army,” the Afghan leader said, adding that the Afghan forces required “the necessities of a modern army” if they were to tackle the task of confronting the insurgency as NATO troops wind down their role.