WASHINGTON – French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday after talks with his US counterpart that France’s planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this year would not affect NATO “unity” at an alliance summit in Chicago.
The departure of French combat forces by the end of 2012 — two years before a scheduled NATO pull-out — should not pose “major difficulties” at the NATO summit in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, Le Drian told AFP in an interview.
Speaking after a 40-minute meeting with Leon Panetta in Washington, the first between the two men, Le Drian said the discussions were cordial and that he believed the French position was “understood.”
The French troop exit “will not be a major subject tomorrow” in Chicago, he said.
“The unity of the alliance and the solidarity of the allies will be reiterated. This will be, in my opinion, a summit of consensus,” the minister said.
After the meeting, the Pentagon hailed “the outstanding cooperation between our two countries on many defense issues” and expressed appreciation “particularly for the significant contributions that France has made to ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)” in Afghanistan.
Citing French President Francois Hollande’s stance, Le Drian said combat troops mostly deployed in the Afghan province of Kapisa and the district of Surobi would be pulled out in a way that ensures “the best security conditions for French forces and allied forces.”
“The logistical withdrawal will take longer and will also require providing for security,” he said.
Some French troops will remain on the ground to train Afghan forces, as well to safeguard the return of some 900 vehicles and 1,400 containers, he said.
“Of course, this is not to say we are quitting the coalition but our presence will be different,” he added.
Asked about how many of the 3,500 French troops currently deployed would be returning to France, Le Drian said he was not ready to provide specific figures.
Discussions between the French military chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, and the commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, US General John Allen, would work out details of the withdrawal, “in terms of numbers and geographic location,” he said, adding the pull-out was not a “scenario for disruption.”
During his visit to Washington, Le Drian, accompanied by Admiral Guillaud, also held talks with General Allen.
As for France’s plans to continue to train Afghan security forces, Le Drian said he expected Admiral Guillaud to present options soon to the French president after consulting with Allen.
After meeting President Barack Obama on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande repeated his campaign promise that combat troops in Afghanistan would depart by the end of the year and that the policy was “not negotiable.”
US and NATO leaders had previously appealed to allies to avoid a “rush to the exits” and to back an alliance plan for a gradual drawdown culminating at the end of 2014.