French election throws Afghan exit into disarray

François Hollande's promise to withdraw troops this year means Nato allies may have to fill the gap

The critical timetable for the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan will come under major strain if Nicolas Sarkozy loses the presidency in the French elections, with his socialist opponent warning that his country's forces will be pulled out within seven months if he gets into power.

François Hollande's defence spokesman, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who is a possible choice for defence minister, told British officials in no uncertain terms during a visit last week that French troops would end their combat mission a full two years before the UK and US are scheduled to do so in 2014.

The latest polls suggest Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande are tied in the first round of voting, due to be held on 22 April. But Mr Hollande is the frontrunner for the all-important run-off on 6 May, which would leave France with its first Socialist president in almost two decades.

Nato commanders and the Afghan government could then be faced with hastily drawing up plans to replace the 3,600-strong French contingent based in an area which has seen a steady rise in the scale of insurgent attacks.

Nato's exit planning had already been affected by Mr Sarkozy's announcement that he would bring forces home by the end of 2013, a year before schedule, after an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers and injured 15 others in January. Grave doubts at the time about the ability of Afghan forces to replace the French by the end of next year led to contingency plans for coalition forces to fill the gap.

Bringing the deadline forward by a further 12 months at a difficult time, with increased tension between President Hamid Karzai and his Western sponsors, would result in significant added problems, according to British and US officials. A rapid deterioration in security would mean that other forces, almost certainly American, would have to move into the area now under French military jurisdiction – centred in Kapisa in northern Afghanistan – from the south of the country. This could, in turn, mean British troops having to replace Americans in parts of Helmand, although senior UK officers stress that this has not been proposed at this stage.

Mr Le Drian declared during his London visit that full consultations would take place with Western allies about the French withdrawal, but he was adamant that Mr Hollande's campaign promise could not be changed.

A summit in Chicago next month is supposed to lay out the blueprint for transition to Afghan control of security and the future commitment to Afghanistan by the international community. The French elections, however, will take place just before that meeting and Nato planners remain uncertain about the stance which will be taken by Paris.

Mr Le Drian said he understood the difficulties which would arise in Chicago, but a Hollande government would not be willing to make any commitment until it got into office.

* A British soldier has died from injuries suffered in an explosion in Afghanistan more than two months ago. The serviceman from The Queen's Royal Hussars (The Queen's Own and Royal Irish) was surrounded by his family at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. The number of UK troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 stands at 408.

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