Thursday, October 28, 2010

\'French force may begin Afghan withdrawal in 2011\'

PARIS — France and some allied NATO armies could begin to withdraw some of their forces from the conflict in Afghanistan as early as 2011, Defence Minister Herve Morin said Thursday.

\"There\'s a fixed date for NATO in the framework of its new strategy, that\'s the start of 2011, because in 2011 we\'re going to transfer a whole series of districts to the Afghans,\" he told RTL radio.

\"At that moment, there could be the first movements or first withdrawals of Allied forces from Afghanistan. In any case, that\'s the calendar set by Barack Obama, that in 2011 the first American troops could quit Afghanistan.

\"And that\'s what a certain number of European countries have started to say,\" he explained, insisting that this has nothing to do with a threat issued against France on Wednesday by Islamist militant kingpin Osama bin Laden.

Asked whether the threat, contained in an audiotape broadcast by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was genuine, Morin said: \"We\'re still in the course of trying to authenticate it. It\'s too soon to say.

\"It\'s not impossible,\" he added. \"All of our services and all of allies believe Osama bin Laden is alive.\"

In the tape, the apparent voice of Bin Laden warns that, by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan and by banning the Islamic full face veil on its own territory, France had left itself open to retaliation.

He also said that last month\'s kidnap of five French nationals from the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger by Al-Qaeda\'s North African wing had been intended as a warning.

\"How could you take part in occupying our countries and support the Americans in killing our children and women, and then expect to live in peace and security?\" the voice demanded.

\"It is very simple: As you kill, you will be killed, as you take hostages, you will be taken hostage, and as you compromise our security, we will compromise your security,\" he said in the two-minute message.

Two French journalists have been held hostage by suspected insurgents in Afghanistan for more than 300 days, but Bin Laden did not refer to them.

Morin insisted that France\'s decision to begin looking towards the exit in Afghanistan from next year had \"absolutely no link\" to any threat.

\"Radical Islamist movements always invoke our presence in Afghanistan, it is a frequent demand,\" he said, recalling that French troops have been on the ground since 2001 and have lost 50 of their comrades fighting there.

France has around 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan attached to the US-led NATO force fighting Taliban insurgents and allied Islamist groups, mainly in the hilly districts just east of the capital Kabul.

Morin said that French and Afghan government forces had made great progress in one formerly violent area around the town of Sarobi, where \"stabilisation and pacification are really ensured.

\"We hope that in the course of 2011 we\'ll be able to transfer security to the Afghans,\" he explained.

NATO\'s strategy across Afghanistan is to push insurgent forces from restive districts while training a national government force to eventually take charge of security on their own.

Some experts question whether this can happen quickly enough to allow major NATO troop withdrawals by next year, but Morin said he was confident and that Afghan \"warriors\" have now become \"soldiers\" in \"a real army.\"

Mainland France remains at the second highest level, \"reinforced red\", of its national terror threat matrix, with troops deployed around tourist sites and transport hubs and security forces on high alert

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that, while Bin Laden\'s apparent threat had not been proved genuine, France faced a real threat of terror attacks and its \"vigilance must be total.\"

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