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Afghans blast French plan to withdraw troops early
KABUL, Afghanistan -- France's plans to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan a year early drew harsh words Saturday in the Afghan capital, with critics accusing French President Nicolas Sarkozy of putting domestic politics ahead of Afghans' safety.
A wider proposal by Sarkozy for NATO to hand over all security to Afghans by the end of next year also came under fire, with one Afghan lawmaker saying it would be "a big mistake" that would leave security forces unprepared to fight the Taliban insurgency and threaten a new descent into violence in the 10-year-old war.
Sarkozy's decision, which came a week after four French troops were shot dead by an Afghan army trainee suspected of being a Taliban infiltrator, raises new questions about the unity of the U.S.-led military coalition.
It also reopens the debate over whether setting a deadline for troop withdrawals will allow the Taliban to run out the clock and seize more territory once foreign forces are gone.
"Afghan forces are not self-sufficient yet. They still need more training, more equipment and they need to be stronger," said military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, Afghanistan's former interior minister.
Khalid said the decision by Sarkozy was clearly political. Sarkozy's conservative party faces a tough election this year, and the French public's already deep discontent with the Afghan war only intensified when unarmed French troops were gunned down by an Afghan trainee Jan. 20 at a joint base in the eastern province of Kapisa.
Sarkozy announced France's new timetable Friday alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in Paris for a previously planned visit. He also said Karzai had agreed with him to ask for all international forces to hand security over to the Afghan army and police in 2013, a plan he would present at a Feb. 2 and 3 meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
In what could be seen as a gentle rebuke to France, British Prime Minister David Cameron said in London on Saturday that withdrawals must depend on security conditions on the ground.
"The rate at which we can reduce our troops will depend on the transition to Afghan control in the different parts of Afghanistan and that should be the same for all of the members of NATO who are all contributing and helping to [build] a strong, stable and peaceful Afghanistan, which is in all our interests,"' he said after meeting with Karzai.
Afghan lawmaker Tahira Mujadedi said Afghan security forces will not be ready in time for any early NATO withdrawal, saying the current timetable already is rushing the training of national forces.
"That would be a big mistake by the Afghan government if they accept it," Mujadedi said of Sarkozy's plan. "In my view, they should extend 2014 by more years instead of cutting it short to 2013."
She said she sympathizes in the matter of the French soldiers' deaths, but argued that they present no logical reason for France to deviate from the U.S. timetable for NATO to hand over security by 2014.
"When military forces are present in a war zone, anything can happen," Mujadedi said. The French troops "are not here for a holiday."
France now has about 3,600 soldiers in the international force, which is mostly made up of American troops.
Afghan forces started taking the lead for security in certain areas of the country last year and the plan has been to add more areas, as Afghan police and soldiers were deemed ready to take over from foreign troops.
According to drawdown plans already announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations, the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan will shrink by an estimated 40,000 troops at the close of this year. Washington is pulling out the most -- 33,000 by the end of the year. That's one-third of 101,000 U.S. troops that were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of the U.S. military presence in the war, Pentagon figures show.
Sarkozy also said France would hand over authority in the province of Kapisa, where the French troops were killed this month, by the end of March. Karzai's office confirmed that decision Saturday, saying it was made at the French president's request.
The NATO coalition has started to hand over security in several areas of Afghanistan, aiming to transfer about half of the country in the coming months. But Kapisa was not one of the provinces earmarked for handover, according to U.S. Navy Lt. James McCue, a coalition spokesman.
Mujadedi, a lawmaker who represents Kapisa, argued that Afghan forces in her province are not ready to go it alone in fighting the Taliban insurgency, which is especially strong in several of the province's districts. She warned that if NATO forces do pull back from Kapisa, it could also destabilize nearby Kabul.
"We have had so many attacks, ambushes and also suicide attacks in Kapisa," Mujadedi said. "Unfortunately, our national police and army, while present in Kapisa, are unable to provide good security for people."
France's early withdrawal announcement could step up pressure on other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan.
Karzai, who praised the role of France and other NATO allies, didn't object at Friday's joint news conference when Sarkozy said the 2013 NATO withdrawal timetable was sought by both France and Afghanistan.
However, the Afghan leader appeared to suggest that it was a high-end target.
"We hope to finish the transition ... by the end of 2013 at the earliest -- or by the latest as has been agreed upon -- by the end of 2014," Karzai said.
Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations, said public support of the war in Europe started sliding fast after the coalition agreed to end the combat mission in 2014.
"It has become more and more difficult to justify every single casualty, since it's now clear that these are wasted lives," said Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency.
"Most European policymakers realize that on a purely cost-benefit assessment, we would all leave Afghanistan tomorrow," Witney said.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.