French and some allied NATO armies could begin to withdraw some of their forces from the conflict in Afghanistan as early as 2011, Defense Minister Herve Morin said Thursday.
"There's a fixed date for NATO in the framework of its new strategy, that's the start of 2011, because in 2011 we're going to transfer a whole series of districts to the Afghans," he told RTL radio. "At that moment, there could be the first movements, or first withdrawals of Allied forces from Afghanistan. In any case, that's the calendar set by Barack Obama, that in 2011 the first American troops could quit Afghanistan.
"And that's what a certain number of European countries have started to say," he explained, insisting that this has nothing to do with a threat issued against France on Thursday by Islamist militant chief Osama bin Laden. The minister stopped short of saying whether the troops would simply be moved out of the Surobi region or pulled out of Afghanistan entirely.
"(Surobi)...is today a zone where stability and peace are assured and it's a zone in which we hope we can transfer responsibilities to the Afghans during 2011," Morin told French radio RTL.
The United States and other coalition members have said they aim to start reducing forces in Afghanistan next year.
Morin said Afghan forces had been transformed into an army capable of ensuring security. "Before the Afghans were warriors, now they've been made into soldiers," he said.
Morin said there was "absolutely no link" between a possible troop pull-out and bin Laden's withdrawl demand, aired Wednesday on Al Jazeera television.
"We are still checking on the authenticity of the message," he said.
France has a 3,500-strong contingent in Afghanistan and some 50 French soldiers have died there since the start of a U.S.-led mission to oust the Taliban from the country in 2001.
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