Afghans 'can take over if French troops pull out'

The Afghan government said Monday its forces are ready to take responsibility for security in 2013, downplaying the risks if French president-elect Francois Hollande recalls 3,400 troops early.

Paris is the fifth largest contributor to the US-led NATO force battling Taliban insurgents in the country and Hollande made a campaign promise to withdraw the contingent this year.

The move would end his country's combat role two years earlier than NATO's carefully crafted plan to hand security control to Afghans by 2014.

"For us a NATO stance is more important than individual decisions by individual nations," Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP.

"And Afghanistan is well prepared to take over all security responsibilities in 2013."

Last week Hollande said pulling out by the end of 2012 was the "right thing" to do, but he has insisted France would coordinate with NATO allies to avoid leaving a security vacuum when French troops leave unstable Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul.

A senior Afghan defence official doubted whether an early withdrawal was feasible, and said the pledge appeared to have been aimed at a French audience.

"From a military point of view I think it's not practical to withdraw troops within what's left of 2012," the official told AFP, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media on the issue.

"I think it was rather an election campaign promise than a practical decision. They won't withdraw this year."

Hollande, who won power on Sunday in a close race against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, will meet fellow NATO leaders at a summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in Chicago on May 20-21, just days after being sworn in.

NATO military officials said the alliance had already made contingency plans for Socialist candidate Hollande defeating right-winger Sarkozy.

Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said France was making a valuable contribution in Afghanistan and stressed its commitment to training local forces.

"They signed a long term agreement with Afghanistan, they made clear their commitment to train the Afghan forces. It's a very strong sign to the insurgency, the Taliban," he told AFP.

Nevertheless, a diplomat acknowledged that the new leader's stance "was not warmly welcomed" at alliance headquarters.

The early French pullout challenges NATO assurances that there would be no "rush to the exit", 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 international troops.

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