France and Afghanistan will ask NATO to hand over all combat missions to the Afghan military in 2013, a year earlier than planned, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday.
It signaled a sharp break by France, the fourth-largest troop contributor in Afghanistan, from its previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal was made a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.
Sarkozy, who made the announcement during a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said France has informed President Barack Obama of the plan, and will present it at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. Sarkozy said he was planning a phone call with Obama on the matter Saturday.
The effort comes at a time of widespread fatigue among European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan, and would accelerate a gradual drawdown of NATO troops that Obama has planned to see through until the end of 2014.
"We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013," Sarkozy said.
The French leader announced his country's troops will withdraw by the end of 2013 and restart training missions Saturday. Last week, Sarkozy immediately suspended France's training missions and joint military patrols with Afghan forces following the shooting death of four French troops by an Afghan soldier on Jan. 20.
Sarkozy also said France will speed up its own withdrawal timetable, pulling out 1,000 of its current 3,600 soldiers by year-end — the previous target was 600 — and bring all combat forces out by the end of 2013.
With Karzai at his side, Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in the strategic province of Kapisa east of Kabul, where nearly all French troops are deployed, to the Afghans in March.
Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations, said public support of the war in Europe started sliding fast after the coalition agreed to end the combat mission in 2014.
"It has become more and more difficult to justify every single casualty, since it's now clear that these are wasted lives," said Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency.
"Most European policymakers realize that on a purely cost-benefit assessment, we would all leave Afghanistan tomorrow," Witney said, adding that "it's difficult for any single government to break with its allies without being accused of lack of solidarity."