French President Francois Hollande has defended his decision to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan two years earlier than planned while making his first visit to the country since taking office.
Speaking to French troops at Nijrab base in the northeastern Afghan province of Kapisa, where the majority of France's 3,500 troops are based, French President Francois Hollande said the French withdrawal of combat units "would be coordinated and in line with our allies."
He reiterated his decision to pull out of combat operations two years before his NATO allies, who had agreed on 2014 as the joint withdrawal date.
"It's time for a sovereign Afghanistan," Hollande said, adding that "the terrorist threat that had threatened our territory had not completely disappeared, but had been curbed." He added that the withdrawal was "a sovereign decision" and that "only France can decide what France does."
'Focus on civilian fronts'
Hollande's first visit to Afghanistan since being sworn in earlier this month had not been announced for security reasons. At a news conference with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, Hollande said "we will stay in Afghanistan but with a different role, our cooperation will focus on civilian fronts."
"France will continue its cooperation with Afghanistan in both military and civil issues, focusing more on health care, agriculture and electricity after 2014," he added.
Last week, NATO allies had agreed at a summit in Chicago to withdraw troops by the end of 2014, leaving Afghans responsible for national security.
Eighty-three French soldiers have died since late 2001, when US-led troops invaded Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban regime after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the US. France provides the fifth-largest contingent to the 130,000-strong NATO ISAF force.
ng/tj (AFP, Reuters)