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NATO may struggle to cope with France's exit from Afghanistan

Analysis

KABUL, Afghanistan--France's call for a speedier NATO exit from Afghanistan reflects the depth of war fatigue in the West and raises fears that other countries in the U.S.-led coalition will succumb to rising political pressure and pull their troops home early.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to fast-track his country's withdrawal — just days after an Afghan soldier gunned down four French troops — is the latest crack in a coalition already strained by economic troubles in Europe and the United States, the Afghan government's sluggish battle against corruption, on-again off-again cooperation from neighboring Pakistan and a dogged Taliban that is bloodied but not beaten.

The international coalition is already rushing against the clock to meet President Hamid Karzai's goal of having the Afghan police and army in charge of the nation's security by the end of 2014. France's break with that timetable, which was agreed to by NATO members, now raises the question: Can the coalition stay together until then?

Resetting the date to end the coalition's combat mission could strengthen arguments for President Barack Obama to accelerate U.S. troop withdrawals beyond the 33,000 he's sending home by the end of this year, and reopen a debate over whether setting a withdrawal deadline allows the Taliban to seize more territory once foreign forces are gone.

It's unclear whether Sarkozy's call for all foreign forces to hand security over to the Afghan forces in 2013 will have any traction when it is presented next week at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels. If other nations see France's move as a green light to speed up their withdrawals, it will complicate the current strategy for a coordinated pullout.

In a gentle rebuke to France, British Prime Minister David Cameron said in London on Saturday that withdrawals should be dependent on security conditions on the ground. Britain has said it's keeping to plans to withdraw its 9,500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

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