US holds out hope that France will reconsider Afghanistan pullout

French President-elect Francois Hollande and his government might reconsider their decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan this year at next week's NATO summit, according to a top Defense Department official. 

“I think they face the situation that any politicians face after an election: They're now going to be faced with governance, with a summit where a lot of work has been done by the allies to make sure the way ahead is something we're all unified on,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy James Townsend, Jr. told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on NATO's future. 

“They're going to be stepping into an already flowing stream, and so we look forward to talking to them and explaining this to them as they get ready to take that big step. Personally I would expect and I would hope that they would understand when they take the reins of power in France [on Tuesday] that … they'll be taking on a very big responsibility to join with us.”

The State Department's top diplomat for European affairs during the same hearing announced that he's headed to Paris on Thursday afternoon to raise the issue with the French presidential transition team.

“Keep in mind President-elect Hollande hasn't even been inaugurated yet,” said Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon. “We need to give him a little bit of time to appoint his ministers, take office. Everyone is very — understandably — interested in what he's going to do.

“Let him study the issues, put his Cabinet together. We'll have a chance tomorrow in Paris to have talks about some of these [issues]. We're confident that France is committed to NATO and France is committed to Afghanistan. And I'm sure we'll be able to find a basis to do that.”

Hollande is expected to confirm France's decision to pull out two years ahead of schedule at the NATO summit in Chicago. President Obama called Hollande on Sunday to congratulate him for winning the election and offered to meet with him ahead of the May 20-21 summit.

NATO has been insistent that France should stick to its commitment.

“France as we all know is a staunch ally,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in her opening remarks during Monday's press briefing. “NATO counts on France, and France can count on NATO.”

Ahead of the summit, Lungescu said, there's “agreement that we're sticking to the timetable for transition in Afghanistan. We're sticking to the principle of 'in together, out together.' And we're sticking to our pledge of an enduring commitment to Afghanistan after transition is completed by the end of 2014.”