May 25, 2012 | Guardian UK
French president tells troops they will be home by Christmas and says ‘the time for Afghan sovereignty has come’
In defiance of American wishes, he added that the early withdrawal of France’s soldiers from the region by the end of the year, a key policy of his recent election campaign, was “non-negotiable”.
He said he wanted France to remain involved in Afghanistan but “differently”, suggesting a more civil or economic role.
“The time for Afghan sovereignty has come,” he said in a speech to troops in Kabul in the presence of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
Hollande, who visited two French bases outside the Afghan capital, said he had come to Afghanistan to pay tribute to the soldiers and explain the reasons he had brought forward the date of their withdrawal to two years before the planned pullout of the rest of Nato‘s troops.
He was accompanied by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the new French defence minister, and Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister.
The French leader had reiterated his election pledge when he met Barack Obama at a Nato summit in Chicago earlier this week, said by observers to be the only note of discord in an otherwise cordial meeting between the two men.
Hollande said the withdrawal would be done in a way that was “organised and co-ordinated” with France’s coalition partners in the country, “notably with President Obama, who understands our reasons, and in direct consultation with the Afghan authorities”.
He reminded his audience that France had gone into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York “to fight against those who had encouraged terrorism”. However, he added: “The terrorist threat that menaces our national territory and that of our allies since Afghanistan has not totally disappeared but has been partially put down. We can be proud of this.”
French forces have been stationed in eastern Afghanistan, mostly in the restive Kapisa province, where there is a strong insurgent presence and they have seen heavy fighting. Control of Kapisa province was officially handed over to Afghan forces earlier this month as part of the gradual withdrawal of western troops, paving the way for the departure of French soldiers.
Hollande told the French troops: “You have carried out your mission and you will carry it out right to the end.”
He added: “It is not for the allies to define the future of Afghanistan, but the Afghans and they alone to take the path that they freely choose. France will maintain its links with the country. We will continue our development projects.”
He mentioned co-operation in the fields of “education, culture and even archaeology”, adding that there were other economic areas of possible joint projects in “housing, renewable energies, looking for petrol or agriculture”.
For decades Paris has funded some of the capital’s most prestigious public schools. One of the words for high school in the Dari language, spoken in much of Afghanistan, is even derived from the French lycée.
France also funds a cultural centre that is one of the few large venues for art exhibitions and live performances in crowded Kabul.
“We want France to remain in Afghanistan but differently from the past,” the president said.
France has around 3,500 military personnel in Afghanistan, 2,000 of whom are to be withdrawn in the next seven months. The remaining battalion will be tasked with pulling out military equipment and will include a unit based in Kabul and engaged in training local troops and “co-operation” with the Afghan authorities. Hollande said there would be no combat troops remaining after the end of 2012.
According to a diplomat present this withdrawal will take place in two phases, with the first pullout of several hundred troops between now and the end of June and the rest by the autumn.
“You will be home for Christmas,” Hollande said to a group of young soldiers whom he spoke to before leaving Kabul.