France to gradually pull troops from Afghanistan

Following America’s lead, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Thursday that his nation would begin to gradually withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

Sarkozy did not specify the number of troops to be brought home but said French forces would start handing over areas they control to the Afghan military. He made his announcement shortly after speaking with President Obama by telephone.

In a national address Wednesday, Obama announced that the United States would withdraw 10,000 of its more than 100,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, and another 23,000 by September 2012. The U.S.-led coalition plans to formally hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan army and police by 2014 if those forces are ready.

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“France shares America’s analysis and aims and congratulates President Obama on his decision,” Sarkozy’s office said in a statement Thursday.

“Given the progress we have seen [in Afghanistan], France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements.”

Sarkozy is expected to seek reelection in May, at a time when the conflict in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular with the French public. France has about 4,000 troops in the nation and has suffered 62 deaths since it deployed forces as part of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization military operation in 2001.

French Foreign Minister Gerard Longuet said the decision to pull out was the result of the killing last month in Pakistan of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “and the work of troops on the ground.”

“A transition is a transition; it means there have to be Afghan police and military to take the place of French soldiers,” he told French journalists.

He said details of the withdrawal would remain secret to avoid the information being used by the Taliban.

Willsher is a special correspondent.