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French decision to accelerate exit causes some Afghans to question NATO

KABUL, Afghanistan — The announcement by France last week that it would speed up the exit of its troops from Afghanistan has been greeted with a mixture of cynicism, disbelief and concern by politicians here.

"It may have a bad impact on other NATO allies," said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian and chairwoman of the National Assembly's defense committee. She said the announcement "might provide an excuse for other countries" to leave Afghanistan before the end of 2014, when NATO is scheduled to end its combat mission.

Mawlawi Qalamuddin, a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council and formerly the Taliban's minister of vice and virtue, dismissed the statement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy — which came after an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers on Jan. 20 — as mere rhetoric.

"Emotional comments are not credible," said Qalamuddin, "and it doesn't seem logical. It's not possible that France will withdraw before scheduled because France is member of NATO, and the rest of NATO is here."

While NATO officials pledged this week in Brussels to stick to their plan to hand security responsibilities over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, the French decision has reverberated mightily in Afghan political circles and prompted some to wonder whether it could fracture NATO solidarity or further undermine the confidence of locals in the U.S.-led coalition.

After the killings on a French base in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul, Sarkozy said that French troops in Kapisa would transfer security to Afghan authorities in March — four months earlier than planned.

It is not clear yet what led to the attack at Kapisa. Fifteen other French soldiers were wounded in the shooting, eight of them seriously. It was the latest in a series of attacks by Afghan security personnel on their U.S. and NATO counterparts that have become more frequent in the last few years.

The attacks are often carried out by insurgents who have infiltrated the Afghan police or army and are designed to create distrust between the U.S.-led coalition and Afghanistan's fledgling security forces. However, U.S. military reports have suggested that some such attacks are motivated by anger among Afghan personnel at the way their Western counterparts treat them or behave toward other Afghans.

As NATO defense ministers prepared to open a meeting Thursday in Brussels to discuss their Afghanistan policy, the reactions of some politicians here to Sarkozy's announcement indicates that a fresh layer of mistrust may have been added to the already tense relationship between Afghans and their allies.

Barakzai, for instance, described the shooting as "a really unpleasant action from the Afghan soldier," but she said Sarkozy's response to it had been even more damaging. She suggested that the push for an early French withdrawal might be linked to France's forthcoming presidential election, in which Sarkozy's key rival, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, has called for French troops to come home even sooner — by the end of 2012.

Barakzai said foreign politicians shouldn't endanger the future of Afghanistan because of their own domestic political calculations.

"Maybe later on Sarkozy will say something different, but the impact of this message will damage badly the Afghan people's minds and hearts," Barakzai said. "We thought our allies are with us, but right now it seems to me that we were counting on the wrong partners, unfortunately."

Qalamuddin, who served as a minister under the Taliban government but has undergone something of a rehabilitation and was named by President Hamid Karzai to serve on the peace council, which is tasked with promoting negotiations with the insurgency, said he was confident that French troops would remain with other NATO nations until the end of 2014. "The president of France made these comments to calm the people of France and the families of those who were injured or killed by the Afghan soldier," he said.

If France or other NATO members leave before the expected date, Afghanistan will return to the state it was in after Russian forces left in the 1980s, ushering in the era of the Taliban, he said.

"The Russians left, and a 10-year war lasted 30 years," said Qalamuddin. "I don't think the world wants to repeat that mistake by leaving Afghanistan as it is now."

Attaullah Jan Habib, a parliamentarian from the restive southern province of Kandahar, said U.S.-led forces should remain in Afghanistan "because they promised when they came that they would demolish the Taliban, that they would fix Afghanistan. They have not done that yet."

Afghans felt sorry about the killings of the French soldiers in Kapisa, said Habib. However, he added, sacrifices had to be made in the fight against insurgents, and troop-contributing nations had to be prepared to absorb such losses.

Haji Ata Mohammad Amiri, the head of the elected provincial council in Panshir — a province that borders Kapisa and which strongly supports the U.S. presence — warned that if French troops left Kapisa earlier than scheduled, insurgents would see it as a sign of weakness and infiltrate the area to show strength.

"This shooting was not supported by the people of Kapisa," said Amiri. "This was the act of one man, and the actions of one man are making a problem for all the people of Kapisa."

Amiri compared the incident to one in July, when three NATO personnel were shot in Panjshir by a disaffected local. An American soldier and a civilian died, and a third man was injured. Amiri wondered why the French were withdrawing when the Americans had made no such move.

"That shooting was also the work of one man," said Amiri. "There was no difference between what happened in Panjshir and what has happened in Kapisa."

Barakzai said Afghans had also made a lot of sacrifices in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, accepting the presence of foreign forces in their country for more than a decade because "we thought these bad days would one day go."

"We even accepted that they should control our freedom, where sometimes we were not even able to walk freely in our own country," she said.

Barakzai had a blunt message for NATO defense ministers: If alliance members wanted to demonstrate leadership, they would not give up on Afghanistan.

"Right now it seems to me everyone wants to find an exit," she said, "sometimes with excuses, sometimes without."

(Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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