France to begin Afghan pullout in July and finish end 2012

France to begin Afghan pullout in July and finish end 2012

Francois Hollande (FOTO ANTARA/REUTERS)

I am making this engagement here and I will be the guarantor for this operation."
Tulle, France (ANTARA News/AFP) - French President Francois Hollande said Saturday France will begin its pullout from Afghanistan next month and complete it by year-end, after four French troops were killed on the eve of key elections.

Hollande said France would pay a "national homage" to the men killed in a Taliban suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan earlier Saturday and that the five other wounded would be repatriated rapidly.

The withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan was one of Hollande`s presidential electoral promises. It "will begin in the month of July, will be carried out and be completed at the end of 2012," the French president said.

"In the meantime, everything must be done for our troops to meet their obligations but with the highest level of security and with the greatest vigilance for the lives of the soldiers.

"I am making this engagement here and I will be the guarantor for this operation," Hollande said in Tulle, where he was to attend a commemoration of the massacre of civilians by the Nazis on June 9, 1944.

According to the French defence ministry, the soldiers targeted in Saturday`s attack were participating in a "control operation" in the province bordering Pakistan where insurgents are very active.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP the attacker was disguised as a woman wearing a burqa.

Three of the five wounded were in critical condition Saturday.

They were the first French soldiers to be lost in Afghanistan since January 20, when an Afghan soldier shot dead four unarmed soldiers and wounded 15 others.

Some 3,500 French soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul and in the eastern Kapisa province where Saturday`s attack occurred.

Since January`s attack, France has began accelerating the withdrawal of its troops, and French soldiers have been given instructions to minimise their exposure.

While former right-wing French president Nicolas Sarkozy had fixed a deadline of end-2013 to bring home combat troops, Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in May presidential elections, has decided to bring the timetable forward.

France returns to the polls on Sunday in the first round of legislative elections in which Hollande`s Socialists and their allies are hoping to win control of the National Assembly from the conservatives.

Although Hollande`s decision met with little resistance from NATO partners during a recent summit in Chicago, the actual pullout remains a complex process.

It would involve bringing 2,000 combat troops home within six months, with the remaining personnel to stay behind to take charge of repatriating military equipment including 900 armoured vehicles and over 1,000 containers.

Francois Heisbourg from the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that the withdrawal of Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1990s took place with little losses.

"Normally, it is not in the interest of the insurgents to delay the withdrawal, but they are divided among themselves and some could try to outdo the others," he said.

France provides the fifth largest contingent to NATO`s 130,000-strong US-led force. Allies have downplayed the impact of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.

The relatively quiet Kabul district of Surobi, where French troops are also based, was handed over to local control in April.

Kapisa has been included in the third of a five-phase transfer, which Afghan officials say could take as little as six months, but which NATO`s International Security Assistance Force has timetabled at 12-18 months. (*)