PARIS (Reuters) - France and the international community should begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the months ahead to help push Afghanistan towards democracy, a senior French foreign affairs official said on Friday.
Axel Poniatowski, a member of the ruling UMP party and head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision this week to delay the inauguration of parliament was a “bad sign for democracy”.
Karzai ordered a one-month delay after a special election court that he set up asked for more time to look into fraud allegations in the Sept. 18 parliamentary election.
France has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, although the U.S.-led war has been largely unpopular in the country. At least 50 French soldiers in Afghanistan have been killed since 2001.
“I am convinced that the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of international troops from the summer of 2011 would keep the pressure on the Afghan authorities by indicating that our commitment is not unlimited,” Poniatowski said in a statement.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan is about 150,000-strong, including about 100,000 Americans. U.S. President Barack Obama says some of the extra U.S. troops he sent last year will start to go home in mid-2011.
The presence of French troops in Afghanistan is a factor contributing to a heightened state of vigilance in France against a possible attack by Islamic militants.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned on Friday that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to remove its forces from Afghanistan gave his followers a green light to kill French hostages held around the world.
Bin Laden’s warning — his second targeting French policy — was made in an audio clip broadcast by al-Jazeera television and could not be independently verified.
Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said France remained committed to the international force in Afghanistan.
Karzai promised there would be no delay beyond a new Feb. 22 target for forming a national assembly, but by then Afghanistan will have been without a parliament for more than five months.
More than 200 members of parliament condemned the court as unconstitutional, chose a temporary speaker and planned an unofficial opening for the original inauguration day, Jan. 23.
“While the independent electoral commission (IEC) had invalidated an important part of the ballot because of fraud and irregularities during the election last autumn, elected members should be able to begin to sit,” Poniatowski said.
“One can only wonder why President Karzai has created a ‘special court’ which aims to challenge the decisions of the IEC.”
Defence Minister Alain Juppe has called the war in Afghanistan a “trap” for all parties involved, adding to expectations France will start bringing home troops based in Afghanistan this year and withdraw from the country entirely ahead of an April 2012 presidential election.
Former defence minister Herve Morin said last year that Paris would try to hand over responsibility in one of the two zones it controls to Afghan forces over the course of 2011.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)