TULLE: President Francois Hollande said Saturday France will begin its Afghanistan pullout next month and complete it by year-end, after four French troops were killed in a Taliban attack.
Hollande said France would pay a “national homage” to the men killed in a suicide bombing and that five wounded soldiers would be repatriated rapidly.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is due to reach Afghanistan on Sunday after he was told by the French president to head there, hours after the attack.
Hollande said the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, one of his presidential campaign pledges, “will begin in the month of July, will be carried out and be completed at the end of 2012.”
“In the meantime, everything must be done for our troops to meet their obligations but with the highest level of security and with the greatest vigilance for the lives of the soldiers.”
“I am making this engagement here and I will be the guarantor for this operation,” Hollande said in the central town of Tulle, where he was to attend a commemoration of the massacre of civilians by the Nazis on June 9, 1944.
He added that the attack “does not change anything, it neither accelerates nor delays” withdrawal plans.
While some have called for the pullout to be sped up, “it is not possible to go faster,” he said.
The four killed on Saturday were the first French soldiers to be lost in Afghanistan since January 20, when an Afghan soldier shot dead four unarmed soldiers and wounded 15 others.
According to the French defence ministry, the soldiers taking part in a “control operation” in the eastern province of Kapisa bordering Pakistan where insurgents are very active.
Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP the attacker was disguised as a woman wearing a burqa.
Three of the five wounded were in critical condition.
Some 3,500 French soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul and in Kapisa, the fifth largest contingent in Nato's 130,000-strong US-led force.
Since January's attack, France has begun accelerating the withdrawal of its troops, and French soldiers have been given instructions to minimise their exposure.
Allies have downplayed the impact of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.
While former right-wing French president Nicolas Sarkozy had set a deadline of end-2013 to bring home combat troops, Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in a May election, has decided to bring the timetable forward.
France returns to the polls on Sunday in the first round of legislative elections in which Hollande’s Socialists and their allies are hoping to win control of the National Assembly from the conservatives.
Although Hollande’s decision met with little resistance from Nato partners during a summit in Chicago, the actual pullout remains a complex process.
It would involve bringing 2,000 combat troops home within six months, with the remaining personnel to stay behind to take charge of repatriating military equipment including 900 armoured vehicles and over 1,000 containers.
Francois Heisbourg from the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that the withdrawal of Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1990s took place with little losses but warned that insurgents' actions are unpredictable.
“Normally, it is not in the interest of the insurgents to delay the withdrawal, but they are divided among themselves and some could try to outdo the others,” he said.
The relatively quiet Kabul district of Surobi, where French troops are also based, was handed over to local control in April.
Kapisa has been included in the third of a five-phase transfer, which Afghan officials say could take as little as six months, but which Nato’s International Security Assistance Force has timetabled at 12-18 months.