RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The uncertainties surrounding the future of the NATO mission in Afghanistan are of particular concern to the people of Kapisa. It's a small province east of Kabul, astride the vital road to the Khyber Pass on the border with Pakistan.
French troops have controlled the area for the past decade, but last month, four of them were killed, apparently by a renegade Afghan soldier. And that led President Nicolas Sarkozy to order the withdrawal of all French troops from Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule. The people of Kapisa are not happy with the news from France, as NPR's Ahmad Shafi reports.
AHMAD SHAFI, BYLINE: On a plateau amid the towering Hindu Kush Mountains, Hukum Khan, a 31-year-old Afghan farmer, has brought his horse to a scenic bridge in Kapisa province. Unable to farm during the winter, he rents his horse out to visiting tourists who have come from Kabul, about 60 miles to the south.
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SHAFI: Khan says the presence of French troops hasn't made much difference in his life in the last 10 years.
HUKUM KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SHAFI: He says if the French really wanted to help now, they should go after the corrupt officials in his province. But local authorities in Kapisa say the 3,900 French troops deployed here have held an important line against the Taliban. With their superior weaponry and better tactics, they have prevented the Taliban from opening a northern front in their campaign to surround Kabul. That is according to Muhajir Agha, a local police officer.
MUHAJIR AGHA: (Foreign language spoken)
SHAFI: Agha concedes that Afghan security forces are not ready to fill the gap if the French leave any time soon. He thinks it will be at least two years before his comrades will be ready to defend Kapisa alone.
But France recently announced it will pull out all combat troops by the end of 2013, a year earlier than other coalition forces. The move came after four French troops were killed by a rogue Afghan solider on January 20th.
The French decision has come as a surprise, says Hussian Khan, the head of the provincial council in Kapisa, and it's left many of his constituents feeling betrayed and abandoned.
HUSSIAN KHAN: (Through translator) You can't fight a war if you think there will be no casualties. We were not expecting such a shameful reaction from a highly developed country like France. They should step up their fight, not just retreat so disgracefully
SHAFI: A member of the Afghan parliament from Kapisa, Dr. Mohammad Farouq, says the Taliban is strong in three districts in the southeast of the province, despite many joint Afghan and French military operations against the insurgents.
DR. MOHAMMAD FAROUQ: (Through translator) A premature withdrawal of French troops will lead to a crisis in this area. This is not the right time for them to leave. We do not have the forces to replace them right now to stop the enemy.
SHAFI: Farouq is afraid the French decision may prompt other NATO countries to follow suit, leaving the Americans to do most of the combat. Washington insists Afghan security forces are growing rapidly and will be able to assume security responsibilities once France pulls out.
But here in the province, there is doubt. A local council member, who did not want to be named, says when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan more than three decades ago, the French were quick to lend a helping hand because Europe's security was threatened.
Now that Kapisa, one of the smallest provinces in Afghanistan, is threatened by a resurgent Taliban, he says the French are leaving them out in the cold.
Ahmad Shafi, NPR News, Kabul.
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