French leader faces likely NATO ire on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — For President Barack Obama's relationship with France, it's out with "Sarkozy the American" and in with Francois Hollande the Socialist.

Freshly inaugurated, French President Hollande visits the White House on Friday and plans to announce a pullout of all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end. That could infuriate NATO allies and embarrass his re-election-minded host — and may well be logistically impossible.

Hollande, who has little international experience, will have to muster diplomatic finesse for the political thicket he faces in the United States.

First, he must defend France's interests while building a relationship with Obama, widely popular in France but seen by some in Hollande's camp as having been too friendly with his predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

Second, Hollande must convince partners at the Group of Eight economic summit at Obama's presidential retreat, Camp David, that his insistence on rethinking a European austerity treaty won't send the region deeper into debt crisis.

And third, Hollande must manage likely anger at a NATO summit in Chicago over his planned announcement to pull France's 3,300 troops out of Afghanistan two years ahead of schedule. Analysts say this could set a bad precedent for France's new commander in chief and raise questions about France's willingness to keep its commitments to the alliance.

Hollande was elected May 6 after voters ousted Sarkozy amid frustration over his handling of the economy. The Socialist party winner assumed France's presidency this week.

The contrast between the two men is striking. Sarkozy proudly bore the moniker "Sarko the American" for his U.S.-friendly attitude, bulked up France's presence in Afghanistan and NATO, took a major role in the NATO-led air campaign that helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and staked out what some analysts called an even harder line against Iran's nuclear program than Washington's.

Hollande will meet Obama for the first time on Friday before they head to the G-8 summit at Camp David. The subsequent, two-day NATO summit in Obama's home turf of Chicago has shaped up as Hollande's big showdown with the allies — and not just with the U.S.

As for Obama, he will be taking the measure of a leader whose campaign promises run counter to U.S. policy on both economic issues and Afghanistan. The White House has been stressing the areas of agreement and predicts Hollande will continue Sarkozy's strong alliance with the U.S. in imposing a tough line on Iran.

"We'll have to work through other issues," White House national security adviser Tom Donilon said Thursday. "The stances that President Hollande took during the course of his campaign obviously he intends to keep as president, but I at this point frankly see a good relationship building."

Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Moranes said last week he was "fully convinced" that Hollande will not withdraw troops early because "the responsibility of France in the Afghan commitment is above (Hollande's) personal opinion."

After more than a decade in the restive Asian country, French troops have dug in, so getting out before the rest of NATO does won't be easy. France has some 900 vehicles, 1,400 industrial containers, plus Mirage fighters and helicopters in Afghanistan, according to French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard. "The logistical time needed isn't just three days," he told reporters with understatement last week. Hollande, too, has said some equipment may be left behind.

Polls show most French, and many other Europeans, want their countries out of Afghanistan, as do Americans. Sensing the political winds, Sarkozy already had prepared to break with NATO's in-together, out-together mindset and announced during the campaign earlier this year that he'd pull out combat troops by the end of 2013, a year early.

Some analysts say Hollande is playing an unfair game by seeking to renegotiate deals that France struck under his conservative rivals.

"In international politics, you don't just commit a presidency, you don't commit a political party, you commit a country. Those are commitments that France undertook," said Nicholas Burns, a former No. 3 State Department official who is a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "I think it will be a divisive issue, and a lot of people will be very unhappy if he proceeds with his campaign promise."

Hollande has subtly eased his once-hardline stance: His 60-point campaign platform unveiled months ago said clearly he was committed to an "immediate withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan: There will be no French troops in this country at the end of 2012." But two weeks ago, at a news conference, he tempered that stance by saying French "combat units" would be out by year's end.

Hollande's foreign policy advisers suggest that could mean French advisers, or trainers for Afghan forces, remain beyond that — though they declined to discuss details.

Hollande says he supported the U.S.-led intervention against Afghanistan's Taliban regime in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, but says that more than a decade is long enough for international forces to be there. Burns says the timing for an early pullout is bad: Right when the U.S. is trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the war between Taliban insurgents and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"If the Taliban believe that the Europeans are rushing for the exits before 2014, the Taliban may have an incentive to wait us out and not negotiate seriously because they'll think we'll all be out of there," said Burns, who was U.S ambassador to NATO when its Afghan mission began in 2003. "There's got to be discipline here."

"France is a leader in NATO," said Burns. "If this is how one of the strongest countries acts, that does affect the alliance in a very adverse way."

NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance, stretched far beyond its Cold War roots when it committed to the Afghanistan mission. Now nearly a decade later, its success is uncertain — and seen by many as important to the future of the alliance.

Francois Heisbourg of the state-supported Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris said Hollande's move simply mirrors similar drawdowns from countries like Canada or the Netherlands, which were once much more in the thick of the anti-insurgent fight in Afghanistan but have scaled back. He also noted France's total deployment, mostly in the Kapisa region east of the capital Kabul, is but 3,400 among a 100,000-plus NATO force in Afghanistan.

Andrew Dorman, a professor of international security at King's College London, warned of a "domino effect" among other NATO allies — notably Germany, which has 4,900 troops in Afghanistan and where Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a re-election race next year.

"We might start to see a sort of wacky race — a charge to get out within the NATO partnership, which could precipitate an even earlier handover to Afghan forces, whether they're capable of being handed over to or not, and a bit of disintegration within NATO in terms of its collective strategy towards Afghanistan," said Dorman, who is also a fellow at Chatham House think tank.


Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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