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France forgets alliance solidarity

May 22, 2012

As the NATO summit began, Secretary General Rasmussen pledged solidarity in the alliance. But France's new president Francois Hollande isn't playing ball.

French President Francois Hollande, center, poses for picture with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, and President Barack Obama as he arrives at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Sunday, May 20, 2012.
Image: AP

The new French president, Francois Hollande, has already provoked anger among his allies at the beginning of the NATO Summit in Chicago. The socialist maintains his intention to withdraw the French troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2012. In fact, the alliance had agreed that the last troops would not leave the country until the end of 2014. As the summit began, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped that France would remain part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

"We went into Afghanistan together. We also want to pull out together," she said. At least Hollande received plaudits for his decision from the radical Islamic Taliban rebels. The new French president has acted in an exemplary manner, the Taliban said in a statement in Kabul.

Will France remain stubborn?

Hollande, who took up his post last Tuesday, stuck to his guns at a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama at the G8 two days prior to the NATO summit. The White House said Obama had accepted this, but Hollande would increase France's financial contribution to the training and salaries of the Afghan security force. Hollande assured, "France will still be committed to Afghanistan."

With 3,300 troops, France is presently the fifth-largest troop contributor to the ISAF. Germany currently has 4,900 Bundeswehr soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. With 90,000, the United States makes up the lion's share of the ISAF force. Chancellor Merkel expressed confidence that President Hollande would be more likely to reconsider after the French parliamentary elections in mid-June. "I think we will have to wait a bit there," she said.

NATO wants to act in solidarity

Speaking to reporters, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tried to wrest something positive from Hollande's attitude: A politician should always keep his promises, Rasmussen said unconvincingly. The top NATO diplomat tried to allay concerns that other ISAF countries could now follow the French example, by simply pulling forces out without lengthy coordination.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks to the media
Rasmussen: "No rush for the exits"Image: dapd

"There will be no rush for the exits," Rasmussen said, adding that the timetable for the handover of responsibility to the Afghan security forces remained unchanged. President Hollande must show commitment to Afghanistan in a different way, Rasmussen said: "I feel confident that we will maintain solidarity within our coalition."

Canada and the Netherlands showed the way. They have already withdrawn their combat troops from Afghanistan. When Australia announced a similar move in April, NATO defense ministers managed to get Australia to commit to the original withdrawal date in 2014. The gradual change in the duties of ISAF troops from combat to support should continue despite the current debate, Rasmussen said.

Currently, the area the Afghan security forces are responsible for covers about 50 percent of the population. In the summer, that should go up to 75 percent. In 2013, ISAF is to stay out of possible combat operations and only provide training and support until the end of 2014. Rasmussen announced that NATO would be leading a new education and training mission in Afghanistan from 2015 onwards.

NATO pays Afghan army

Following the withdrawal of ISAF troops, NATO will continue to pay the Afghan army and police. Of the estimated annual cost of $4.1 billion (3.2 billion euros), the Afghan government will pay $500 million. The United States will provide $1.6 billion. Germany will contribute $195 million. NATO intends to collect other firm commitments at the summit. By the time of a planned donor conference in July, it will be clear how the bill is to be divvied up between the allies.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is playing a key role at the summit in Chicago. For six months, his country has blocked one of the two main supply and exit routes. In negotiations with the United States before the summit began, he demonstrated a willingness to reopen the exit route to the port of Karachi. Pakistan demanded a high price: $5,000 duty per sea container is the amount talked about. Pakistan is also demanding political assurances that US troops will curtail their targeted killings of suspected terrorists in Pakistan. The partnership agreement that Afghanistan signed with Pakistan's arch-enemy India is a thorn in Islamabad's side.

President Barack Obama meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the White House
Obama and Rasmussen: Unity wantedImage: AP

Although President Obama said "diligent progress" had been made with the Pakistanis over the supply route dispuite, no deal between Washington and Islamabad emerged during the summit.

Author: Bernd Riegert / sgb
Editor: Spencer Kimball