Election Puts French Afghan Force on Notice

Kabul – A spokesman for the French military here said that about a fourth of French troops were on course to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, while they awaited word on whether the new French president would speed up their withdrawal.

Troops from France, the fifth-biggest troop-contributing country in the NATO-led coalition, would drop to 2,600 by the end of the year, from 3,400 now, according to Lt. Col. Francois Guillermet, a spokesman for the French military.

About 200 French troops, mostly combat forces, left Afghanistan in March ahead of schedule in the wake of an attack by a rogue Afghan soldier that killed four French soldiers and wounded 15.

President-elect François Hollande of France had said during the election campaign that he would withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 — a year sooner than France’s already accelerated withdrawal.

“There are election promises and then there are postelection realities,” said a NATO officer here on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities of the issue. The officer expressed confidence that Mr. Hollande would wait until after this month’s NATO summit meeting on Afghanistan in Chicago before reviewing his position.

“For the United States, Afghanistan represents a strategic interest,” said a European diplomat, suggesting it would not be difficult for France to pull its troops out if Mr. Hollande wanted to do so. “It’s not the same for France and the European Union. There should be more role-sharing in the world. France is more involved in North Africa.”

At a news conference Monday at coalition military headquarters here, a NATO spokesman, Dominic Medley, referred to an agreement that the departing French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, signed with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan this year.

“France is a very strong partner of Afghanistan and the Afghan people, with a very long history here and a long commitment to the future already signed in their strategic partnership agreement for after 2014,” Mr. Medley said.

In signing that agreement, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Karzai agreed that French troops would complete the handover to Afghan control a year early, by 2013 instead of 2014. Mr. Sarkozy had earlier suspended all training programs in response to the attack on French forces.

Colonel Guillermet said officials were waiting to see what new orders would come from Mr. Hollande, and expected that would likely happen after the NATO conference in Chicago this month. But French military officials expressed confidence that the Afghan military units they work with, largely in eastern Kapisa Province, have improved greatly and were already doing most of the fighting, with French troops largely in a combat support or advisory role, he said.

Another French officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military policy, said that French troops had not accelerated their withdrawal this year because of attacks, but were responding to a general improvement in security in the areas they control and to increased capacity by Afghan forces.

This article, “Election Puts French Afghan Force on Notice,” originally appeared in The New York Times.