Having pledged to pull French troops from Afghanistan early, incoming French president Francois Hollande now has to work hard to reassure NATO allies that his plan will not upend the war strategy.
Hollande made a campaign promise to start bringing 3 300 French soldiers home this year, ending his country's combat role two years earlier than NATO's carefully crafted plan to hand security control to Afghans by 2014.
“I believe that, without taking any risks for our troops, it is the right thing to withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2012,” Hollande said last week.
The Socialist leader will bring this message to fellow NATO leaders when they meet at a summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in Chicago on May 20-21, just days after his oath of office.
NATO military officials say the alliance has already made contingency plans in the event Hollande defeated right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Nevertheless, a diplomat acknowledged that the new leader's stance “was not warmly welcomed” at alliance headquarters.
The Afghan defence ministry, whose troops will have to fight a resilient Taliban insurgency on their own once NATO soldiers leave, is also uneasy.
“If France pulls out by end of this year we will be concerned, but we will respect their decision,” defence ministry spokesman Daulat Waziri told AFP.
The early French pull-out challenges NATO assurances that there would be no “rush to the exit” in Afghanistan, even though the war is unpopular in the West after a decade of fighting that has killed almost 3 000 foreign troops.
In Chicago, NATO wants to show a united front, repeating its “in together, out together” mantra as it fine-tunes the final phase of a mission that has yet to defeat the Taliban despite the presence of 130 000 foreign troops.
Canada and the Netherlands have already switched to training missions while Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard indicated last month that her troops could begin leaving as early as next year.
Sarkozy himself had surprised some allies by deciding earlier this year to end France's combat mission in 2013 after four French troops were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier.
Hollande has insisted that France would coordinate with NATO allies to avoid leaving a security vacuum when French soldiers pack up and leave Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul.
“I will do this in good co-operation with our allies,” said Hollande.
A senior NATO military official said the transition would not be affected by Hollande's plan, as commanders had already anticipated the possibility that he might be elected and prepared accordingly.
Military planners “are paying attention to various nations and political situations all the time”, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The the transition would be “fairly well managed” despite France's new pullout date, he added.
Given the complex logistics of a withdrawal, French soldiers are unlikely to leave overnight: it generally takes between 12 and 18
months for foreign troops to hand control of a region to Afghan soldiers.
The French military also has to bring home 1 500 containers filled with equipment as well as 1,200 vehicles, including 500
heavily-armoured vehicles and 14 helicopters.
“That sort of thing takes time so as not to jeopardise the security situation,” the official said.
Francois Heisbourg, special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said the NATO alliance wanted to avoid any drama as it attempted a smooth withdrawal from Afghanistan, even if success was uncertain in the end.
“Everybody is aware of this, and NATO has no interest in creating a controversy” with Hollande, he said.
“The priority is to avoid giving the impression of a disorderly withdrawal.” - Sapa-AFP