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British troops to come home in 2014

By Agencies | London/Kabul | 29 Jan 2012

British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed on Saturday that he was sticking to an end-2014 deadline for withdrawing British combat troops from Afghanistan.

“We ... want to have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, long after our combat troops come home, and that will happen at the end of 2014,” Cameron said during a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the prime minister’s country residence Chequers outside London.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that French troops would pull out of Afghanistan at the end of 2013 and said Paris would propose to NATO that all foreign combat operations in Afghanistan should be handed over next year, a year earlier than the alliance currently plans.

However, France's plans to withdraw its troops a year early drew harsh words Saturday in the Afghan capital, with critics accusing Sarkozy of putting domestic politics ahead of Afghans' safety.

A wider proposal by Sarkozy for NATO to hand over all security to Afghans by the end of next year also came under fire, with one Afghan lawmaker saying it would be "a big mistake" that would leave security forces unprepared to fight the Taliban insurgency and threaten a new descent into violence in the 10-year-old war. Sarkozy's decision, which came a week after four French troops were shot dead by an Afghan army trainee suspected of being a Taleban infiltrator, raises new questions about the unity of the US-led military coalition.

It also reopens the debate over whether setting a deadline for troop withdrawals will allow the Taleban to run out the clock and seize more territory once foreign forces are gone.

"Afghan forces are not self-sufficient yet. They still need more training, more equipment and they need to be stronger," said military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, Afghanistan's former interior minister. Khalid said the decision by Sarkozy was clearly political. Sarkozy's conservative party faces a tough election this year, and the French public's already deep discontent with the Afghan war only intensified when unarmed French troops were gunned down by an Afghan trainee Jan. 20 at a joint base in the eastern province of Kapisa.

Sarkozy announced France's new timetable on Friday alongside Karzai, who was in Paris for a previously planned visit. He also said Karzai had agreed with him to ask for all international forces to hand security over to the Afghan Army and police in 2013, a plan he would present at a Feb. 2-3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. He said he would call President Barack Obama about his plan on Saturday.

Afghan lawmaker Tahira Mujadedi said Afghan security forces will not be ready in time for any early NATO withdrawal, saying the current timetable already is rushing the training of national forces.

"That would be a big mistake by the Afghan government if they accept it," Mujadedi said of Sarkozy's plan. "In my view, they should extend 2014 by more years instead of cutting it short to 2013."

She said she sympathizes in the matter of the French soldiers' deaths, but argued that they present no logical reason for France to deviate from the US timetable for NATO to hand over security by 2014. "When military forces are present in a war zone, anything can happen," Mujadedi said. The French troops "are not here for a holiday." France now has about 3,600 soldiers in the international force, which is mostly made up of American troops.

Afghan forces started taking the lead for security in certain areas of the country last year and the plan has been to add more areas, as Afghan police and soldiers were deemed ready to take over from foreign troops.

According to drawdown plans already announced by the US and more than a dozen other nations, the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan will shrink by an estimated 40,000 troops at the close of this year. Washington is pulling out the most — 33,000 by the end of the year. That's one-third of 101,000 US troops that were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of the US military presence in the war, Pentagon figures show.

Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in the province of Kapisa, where the French troops were killed this month, by the end of March. Karzai's office confirmed that decision Saturday, saying it was made at the French president's request. The NATO coalition has started to hand over security in several areas of Afghanistan, aiming to transfer about half of the country in the coming months. But Kapisa was not one of the provinces earmarked for handover, according to US Navy Lt. James McCue, a coalition spokesman.

Mujadedi, a lawmaker who represents Kapisa, argued that Afghan forces in her province are not ready to go it alone in fighting the Taleban insurgency, which is especially strong in several of the province's districts. She warned that if NATO forces do pull back from Kapisa, it could also destabilize nearby Kabul.

"We have had so many attacks, ambushes and also suicide attacks in Kapisa," Mujadedi said. "Unfortunately, our national police and army, while present in Kapisa, are unable to provide good security for people."