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French President in first visit to Afghanistan

French President Francois Hollande arrived in Kabul today for talks with his Afghan counterpart and to tell French troops why he will pull them out of the war-torn country by the end of 2012 -- two years ahead of Nato allies.

world Updated: May 25, 2012 11:11 IST

French President Francois Hollande arrived in Kabul on Friday for talks with his Afghan counterpart and to tell French troops why he will pull them out of the war-torn country by the end of 2012 -- two years ahead of Nato allies.

It is Hollande's first visit to Afghanistan since taking office earlier this month. He was accompanied by French defence and foreign ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Laurent Fabius, and chief of army staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud.

The French head of state flew into Kabul at around 8:30am (0400 GMT) for a previously unannounced visit expected to last a few hours.

He is due to hold talks with President Hamid Karzai and hold a joint news conference.

Aides said he would also "explain himself" to French soldiers why he had decided to hasten their exit from the nearly 11-year war.

Hollande told US President Barack Obama at the G8 summit in Camp David and made it clear at the Nato summit in Chicago that he would not renege on a campaign pledge to repatriate French combat troops a year earlier than Paris planned.

There are 3,550 French soldiers in Afghanistan. Eighty-three have died since late 2001, when US-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

France provides the fifth largest contingent to the 130,000-strong US-led Nato force battling Taliban insurgents, but Kabul has downplayed the effect of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.

The calendar for the French withdrawal is now expected to be drawn up within days.

Other Nato allies agreed in Chicago to an unconditional withdrawal by the end of 2014, leaving Afghans responsible for national security.

France has agreed that some soldiers would stay on to train Afghan police and soldiers, and to help repatriate equipment.

But Paris has so far reserved judgement on contributing to the cost of the Afghan security force budget, estimated at $4.1 billion a year from 2015.

There has been little public Nato criticism of the French position and with war fatigue building in Western capitals, few want to keep combat troops in Afghanistan any longer than deemed necessary.

But analysts have expressed growing concern about the fixed withdrawal, pointing out that Afghan security forces have a mixed record at best and questioning whether a security vacuum would only heighten violence if not hasten a return to civil war.

"Clearly there is a rush for the exits by Western leaders, but there is no Plan B to address worsening battlefield conditions and political crises if they occur," wrote veteran Afghan watcher, Ahmed Rashid, in The New York Review of Books.

More Afghan civilians died in 2011 than the total number of Nato troops, 3,009, killed since 2001 and last year's 3,021 civilian deaths marked the fifth straight year that the toll has risen, according to UN figures.

The number of internal refugees last year hit nearly half a million, the highest for about a decade, part of what Amnesty International has called "a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis".

And more than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum abroad last year -- another 10-year high. Thousands of others make their way abroad illegally.