NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels this week to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan, among other issues. The previously-scheduled gathering comes in the wake of the French president’s announcement that he wants his combat troops out of Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule.
It was just last week that French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he wants his troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
The announcement came during a visit to Paris by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, just days after four French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is taking the French announcement in stride.
“Actually, I think all this will take place within the roadmap we already outlined in November 2010, gradually transfer lead responsibility to the Afghan security forces, hopefully see that process completed by 2014," said Fogh Rasmussen.
U.S. and NATO troops have been in Afghanistan since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They have been fighting Taliban and al-Qaida forces, and training Afghan troops to take over.
But it has been a slow process, and the NATO allies decided at a summit in 2010 to set a firm deadline for withdrawing their combat troops - by the end of 2014. Even then, the training mission will continue.
Rasmussen says the transition to Afghan control will be well underway by the time President Sarkozy wants his troops to leave.
“Actually, there is not that much new in this debate because for a very long time we have known that from mid-2013, there will be a change - because from that time on we have handed lead responsibility to the Afghans, and we will gradually transform our operation from combat to support," he said.
Rasmussen says NATO nations, including France, will continue their training mission in Afghanistan, even beyond 2014.
Still, some experts are concerned that the French move might put NATO’s already-ambitious plan in jeopardy. Giles Merritt is the director of the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels think tank.
“The worry was always that there was going to be a race to the exit," said Merritt. "And I think the French going ahead of schedule, basically breaking ranks, renews the doubts about whether or not we're going to see an unseemly rush to leave Afghanistan.”
NATO has promoted a policy "in together, out together” for Afghanistan. The impact of the French move will likely be a topic for discussion at this week’s NATO defense ministers’ meeting. The ministers will also discuss missile defense and efforts to overcome financial constraints by sharing military capabilities. NATO’s top leaders are to make final decisions on some of those issues at their next summit in Chicago in May.