KABUL (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during a visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday that France would pull out 1,000 troops by the end of 2012, as it speeds up its withdrawal alongside the United States.
In a surprise five-hour trip, Sarkozy met Afghan President Hamid Karzai, had a working lunch with General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the country, and visited French troops in the region of Surobi, east of Kabul.
Sarkozy, who followed U.S. President Barack Obama’s June announcement of faster troop withdrawal, said France’s remaining soldiers would be based in Kapisa province and that all combat units would be brought home by the end of 2014. After that, some soldiers would remain in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces.
“You have to know how to end a war,” Sarkozy said.
Sarkozy’s third trip to Afghanistan since he came to power in 2007 coincided with the killing of Karzai’s influential brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who was apparently shot by one of his bodyguards.
France has 4,000 troops in Afghanistan and has seen 64 of its soldiers killed since it joined the U.S.- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation in 2001. The latest casualty was killed on Monday by an accidental shot from his own camp in Kapisa.
The quicker pullout could give Sarkozy a boost ahead of the April 2012 presidential election, where he faces a tough battle from the left-wing opposition to win a second term.
An opinion poll after the death of former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed more than half of French people support a withdrawal from the nearly decade-old military campaign against Taliban insurgents.
Facing growing political opposition to the war, Obama announced plans to pull out about a third of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of summer 2012, faster than the military has recommended.
His announcement followed the killing of bin Laden in May by U.S. troops in a secret raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France’s withdrawal would be limited to the Surobi region, east of Kabul. “We believe this region is now secure and the time has come to pass the baton to the Afghan troops,” he told France Info radio.
Sarkozy’s visit followed a trip by U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the weekend and came two days before France’s “Bastille Day” national day, which marks the start of the 1789 revolution and will this year honour troops on foreign missions.
The trip also comes shortly after the surprise release of two French TV journalists who had been held hostage by the Taliban for a year and a half in Afghanistan and who were greeted as heroes on their return to France at the end of June.
The war in Afghanistan began when U.S-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Islamist Taliban government in 2001 after it refused to hand over al Qaeda militants, including bin Laden, following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Obama’s withdrawal plans call for the first 10,000 U.S. troops to leave by the end of this year. Another 23,000 will pull out by late 2012, with the goal of gradually handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Some U.S. military leaders worry they will not have enough time or resources to solidify headway made in pushing the Taliban out of strategic areas of southern Afghanistan.
Critics say the withdrawal plan could jeopardise the next major push of the war, to unseat insurgents in the east of the country bordering Pakistan where the situation has deteriorated.
Nearly 1,700 U.S. military personnel have been killed since the war began.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Alexandria Sage in Paris, and Michelle Nicols in Kabul; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Louise Ireland