France mulls Afghan move as Karzai visits

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai reviews the honor guard during his arrival at the French National Assembly in Paris, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

PARIS (AP) — France's president was expected to announce Friday whether he will order an accelerated withdrawal of French soldiers from Afghanistan after meeting with President Hamid Karzai — a move that could be rich in implications for the NATO-led alliance.

Nicolas Sarkozy was hosting Karzai for a long-scheduled meeting a week after four French troops in the NATO-led mission were shot dead by an Afghan trainee at a joint base in eastern Afghanistan.

Sarkozy and Karzai were also expected to sign a "friendship and cooperation accord" before speaking to reporters, the French presidency said in a statement.

At a ceremony honoring the soldiers Wednesday, Sarkozy said the troops gunned down were victims of a Taliban rebel who had infiltrated a military base staffed by French and Afghan forces.

After the shootings, France halted its training programs for the Afghan military and threatened to withdraw its 3,600 troops ahead of schedule — a move that could pressure NATO.

Sarkozy's government has been under political pressure to withdraw French troops before the United States' pegged pullout in 2014. Polls show most French want an early withdrawal.

In recent days, some French officials have sought to dispel concerns abroad about a possible crack in the NATO-led alliance and a hasty exit by France. The prime minister said Tuesday that France will keep to its plans to withdraw 600 troops this year.

France, the fourth-largest national contingent in the NATO-led force, currently has about 3,600 troops in Afghanistan — most in a strategic zone east of Kabul. A pullout could require the United States, or some other ally, to step into the void at a time when many Europeans — and some Americans — want their governments to bring their forces home faster too.

Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, told The Associated Press this week that a quick exit would also pose logistical problems for French forces, who hope to bring home much of the heavy equipment deployed in Afghanistan.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist nominee for presidential elections this spring, repeated on French TV on Thursday his hope to bring French forces home this year.

Polls show Hollande leading the conservative Sarkozy, who has not formally announced whether he will run in the two-round election in April and May. Most political observers believe he will.