In a surprise visit to Afghanistan, French President Francois Hollande defended an “imminent” exit from the war and pledged to keep to a long-term cooperation treaty signed with Kabul earlier this year.
Speaking to French troops at Nijrab Base in the northeastern province of Kapisa, where the majority of France's 3,550 troops in the country are based, he defended his decision to withdraw them from combat operations two years before the rest of the 130,000 U.S.-led NATO contingent.
It is Hollande's first visit to Afghanistan since taking office earlier this month and he was also due to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The calendar for the French withdrawal is expected to be drawn up within days.
“It's a sovereign decision. Only France can decide what France does. It will be conducted in good understanding with our allies, especially President Obama, who understands the reasons, and in close consultation with Afghan authorities,” Hollande said.
“Without having totally disappeared, the terrorist threat from Afghanistan to our and our allies' territory has been partially curbed,” he added.
He said France would continue development projects in Afghanistan but said the time had come for Afghans to “take the path they choose freely” in deciding the future of their country.
France has been asked to contribute just under $200 million a year for long-term funding for Afghanistan, part of an annual bill estimated at $4.1 billion to maintain Afghan forces after 2014. Hollande has signaled that he will commit to nothing until it is clear how the money will be managed.
Hollande, who defeated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in a May 6 election run-off, was accompanied on his trip by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
83 French soldiers have died since late 2001, when U.S.-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime after the Sept.11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.
France provides the 5th largest contingent to the 130,000-strong U.S.-led NATO force battling Taliban insurgents, but Kabul has downplayed the effect of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.
Other NATO allies agreed in Chicago to an unconditional withdrawal by the end of 2014, leaving Afghans responsible for national security.
Paris has so far reserved judgment on contributing to the cost of the Afghan security force budget, estimated at $4.1 billion a year from 2015.