The victory of socialist Francois Hollande in the French Presidential election has posed certain tough challenges to the NATO and US President Barack Obama. Besides challenging the NATO's Afghan strategy, Hollande could potentially turn around the debate on Eurozone debt crisis forming the new "Merkhollande" to replace the now-outdated "Merkozy" (coined from the names of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy).
During his election campaign against one of the most American-friendly French presidents, Hollande promised to end his country's role in Afghanistan as early as the end of this year while the US and NATO have endorsed only a partial military withdrawal in 2014.
"I believe that, without taking any risks for our troops, it is the right thing to withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2012," Hollande said last week, reported the AFP.
Responding to Hollande's pledge to withdraw French troops, Afghan forces have said that they are ready to take responsibility for the region's security in 2013.
"For us a NATO stance is more important than individual decisions by individual nations," an Afghan ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP Monday. "And Afghanistan is well prepared to take over all security responsibilities in 2013."
However, a senior Afghan defense official has said that an early military withdrawal will be impractical and that Hollande was targeting French voters when he made the pledge.
"From a military point of view I think it's not practical to withdraw troops within what's left of 2012," the official, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP. "I think it was rather an election campaign promise than a practical decision. They won't withdraw this year," he said.
Meanwhile, a NATO diplomat has admitted that Hollande's promise to pull out his troops earlier than expected "was not warmly welcomed" at the coalition headquarters. NATO military officials, however, say that the alliance has already made contingency plans to tackle Hollande's Afghanistan stance.
Hollande is expected to convey his message at the NATO summit scheduled to be held this month in Chicago, weeks after Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement which defines the coalition's future role in Afghanistan.
It remains to be seen how the new French leader, regarded as a diplomatic unknown outside his country, would impact the US-France relations, especially when Obama is campaigning for a reelection.
Obama has invited Hollande to the White House later this month, but before the NATO and G8 summit, expressing hope that both the administrations can work "closely."
Obama and Hollande "each reaffirmed the important and enduring alliance between the people of the United States and France," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
About 23,000 of the 88,000 US troops in Afghan bases are expected to withdraw by the summer while all the US and NATO combat troops would be out by the end of 2014.
However, the US-Afghan security pact fails to provide a confirmation on whether the US should continue its military presence in Afghanistan with a smaller set of troops, after the military withdrawal in 2014.
The US military officials say that the military presence should be downsized to about 25,000 troops commanded by a three-star general. Though NATO would be requested to contribute troops, American soldiers would form the major bulk of the remaining troops in Afghanistan bases.
NATO has deployed about 130,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the insurgent Taliban, ousted from power in a 2001 US-led invasion.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and the public had preferred Sarkozy to Hollande as the latter had criticized the "Merkozy" solution which called for austerity to cut debts and reassure markets. Hollande, on the other hand, endorses the government-sponsored stimulus to boost growth.
Hollande's spokesman Pierre Moscovici, addressing the Eurozone concerns, said: "We know that Angela Merkel would prefer to see Nicolas Sarkozy win," AFP reported quoting French media.
But if Hollande wins, "we want to show that nothing will shake the Franco-German friendship," he said.
Political pundits say Hollande is unlikely to surprise Berlin with unpredictable ideas and that his personality is more suited for Merkel, both emanating composed and "normal" personas, unlike Sarkozy who was considered rather fiery and flashy.
Merkel phoned Hollande to congratulate him and invite him to Berlin while British Premier David Cameron said he was looking forward to work with Hollande to strengthen the diplomatic relations between the two nations. Italian and Spanish Premiers Mario Monti and Mariano Rajoy expressed hopes of close cooperation with the newly elected French leader.
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