President Francois Hollande ended his first visit to Afghanistan today after telling French troops and President Hamid Karzai that he was pressing ahead with a campaign promise to withdraw all combat soldiers this year.
Hollande, who took office on May 16, completed a six-hour visit in Afghanistan accompanied by his foreign and defense ministers. Hollande first stopped at the Nijrab base in the Kapisa region to meet with French soldiers and then went to Kabul to meet with Karzai. The two held a joint press conference and Hollande then met members of the local French community.
“The time for Afghan sovereignty has come,” Hollande said in remarks in Nijrab. “Are we abandoning Afghanistan? No. Our commitment will come in another form,” he said citing support for the training of Afghan security forces and cooperation in the cultural, health-care and education fields.
France plans to withdraw most of the 3,308 soldiers based in the central Asian country. Hollande said he will order the pullout of 2,000 combat troops by the end of 2012, a year ahead of the schedule announced by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The 600 soldiers stationed in Nijrab will be replaced by 600 Afghan troops he said.
“The pullout won’t be easy to organize,” Hollande said in a speech to the French community in Kabul.
Hollande told a May 21 NATO meeting in Chicago that the timing and pace of France’s withdrawal hasn’t been set. Trainers for the Afghan army and troops in charge of equipment withdrawal will stay longer, he said.
“After 2014, there won’t be any French troops in Afghanistan,” he told reporters on May 21.
The withdrawal will be “orderly” and done using common sense in cooperation with allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Hollande said.
A total of 83 French soldiers have died in Afghanistan since France’s mission began in 2001. “We must limit the number of casualties as much as possible,” Hollande said in Kabul today.
At one point, France contributed almost 4,000 of the 130,000 troops in the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the fourth-largest contingent.
“The terrorist threat targeting our territory is partly under control, though it hasn’t disappeared. We have accomplished our mission; it is ending,” he said.
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