Interview: French left preps NATO allies for fast Afghan exit

PARIS Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:16pm IST

A French soldier of the NATO-led coalition secures the area during a joint patrol with U.S. and Afghan troops in the village of Hajian, in the mountains of Wardak Province in Afghanistan July 12, 2009. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/Files

A French soldier of the NATO-led coalition secures the area during a joint patrol with U.S. and Afghan troops in the village of Hajian, in the mountains of Wardak Province in Afghanistan July 12, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov/Files

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PARIS (Reuters) - France's Socialists will pull all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a year ahead of an accelerated withdrawal planned by the government, and has already discussed this with Britain and the United States, their chief defence adviser says.

In an interview, Jean-Yves Le Drian, chief defence aide to Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande, also told Reuters France would press for a review of long-standing demands for a bigger say in the U.S.-led NATO alliance's integrated military command structure.

Le Drian, tipped as probable defence minister in a left-wing government, said Hollande believed French combat troops had no business in Afghanistan now and a pullout should be executed within eight months if he wins an election where the final runoff takes place on May 6.

"NATO has announced a withdrawal date of 2014. We believe it's time to leave now," said Le Drian, who visited Washington and London in the past few weeks to discuss the message with France's main NATO partners as election day looms.

"I can't say I was greeted with cheers of applause in London or the United States but I don't think on the other hand that either of those two parties was surprised either," he said. "This is the position and it will be implemented."

Le Drian's comments came as President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election but expected to lose to Hollande, described the Socialists' end-2012 target for combat troop pullout as "totally irresponsible, and even dangerous".

After the killing of several French soldiers in Afghanistan by a rogue shooter, Sarkozy announced in January that he planned to accelerate a pullout of combat troops to 2013 from 2014.

Le Drian declined to elaborate on the details of how such a delicate troop pullout would be managed but said France would remain supportive of the broader political transition in the country after the withdrawal.

"This doesn't mean we're abandoning Afghanistan. We are determined to continue cooperation on a technical front," he said, citing training of Afghan military and police and also education and sanitation work in the country.

Defence analysts say it may prove technically complicated to withdraw by the end of the year without putting remaining troops in danger.

As well as some 2,200 combat troops, France has about 14 helicopters, 400 vehicles and 1,000 containers that would need to be shipped out. It would need to negotiate authorisations from Uzbekistan and Pakistan for road passages as well as agreements to hire planes large enough to carry such loads.

Preliminary U.S. estimates of pullout costs were circulating and one of those ballpark guesses was that the pullout might cost in the region of $150 million in France's case, said Le Drian.

NATO GRIPE

Hollande has also expressed reservations about Frances's 2008 decision under Sarkozy to rejoin NATO's integrated military command, from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966.

Le Drian, a veteran politician from the Brittany region who has known Hollande for nearly 30 years, said France under left-wing leadership would also seek reassurance on existing demands for a greater say in NATO, as Sarkozy had sought back in 2008.

The two key, and still outstanding, demands were that France be given a bigger say as a result of its decision to rejoin the military command structure and that the move would facilitate work on a European defence entity.

"France is not going to change foot on such important things every two weeks," he said.

If Hollande wins the election that takes place in two rounds on April 22 and May 6, one of his first big international dates will be the successive summits of G8 and NATO leaders on May 18 and 20 respectively.

"He (Hollande) will say 'Here I am, I am not going to break anything'."

(Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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