WASHINGTON – In his first visit to the Oval Office, French President Francois Hollande declared he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year's end, making clear to President Barack Obama the timeline for ending the U.S.-led war will not trump a campaign pledge that helped Hollande gain his new job.
Obama nodded along on Friday, knowing what was coming, but did not otherwise directly respond. Heading into a NATO summit on the course of the war and beyond, the White House has sought to emphasize the war coalition will remain firm even as nations pull back. And Hollande assured Obama that France was not out to cut and run.
"We will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way. Our support will take a different format," Hollande said. "I'm pretty sure I will find the right means so that our allies can continue with their mission and at the same time I can comply to the promise I made to the French people."
France's declaration has significance far beyond its borders. Hollande's move means France, one of the top contributors of troops to the war, will be removing the combat forces a full two years before the timeline agreed to by allies in the coalition. That could shift more of the burden to those allies and give them reason to hasten their own exit.
Hollande later told reporters that some "residual" number of France's current 3,300 troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year to provide training and to bring home equipment. But he alluded to the reaction that France's fast-track withdrawal may get from its NATO allies when they gather in Chicago Sunday and Monday.
"Our decision will be taken," he said. "I can't tell you that it will be applauded, but it will be taken."
The United States and its allies plan to end the combat mission in Afghanistan at the end 2014. Afghanistan will move into the combat lead in 2013. The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, far more than any partner nation, and is on pace to shrink that number to 68,000 by the end of September.
Obama and Hollande had never met, and their first interactions were closely watched given both the historic importance of the U.S-France relationship and the crises of war and economic strife confronting both leaders.
The mild-mannered Hollande, who has little international experience, ousted the more brash Nicolas Sarkozy and was sworn into office just days ago.
Now, in a hurry, Obama and Hollande will begin shaping a relationship that could prove one of the U.S. president's most important ones should he win a second term. Beyond their White House talks, Obama and Hollande are meeting at the G-8 summit Friday and Saturday in Maryland before shifting to the NATO conference in Obama's home town.
On the economy, Hollande and Obama both underscored that they want Europe to embrace a new approach to its debt crisis: more growth, less budget cutting. Obama's administration sees such a balanced approach as essential to stabilizing the eurozone and preventing its economic chaos, particularly in Greece, from spilling more broadly.
"President Hollande and I agree that this is an issue of extraordinary importance, not only to the people of Europe but also to the world economy," Obama said. He said managing the fiscal crisis in Europe must be coupled with a "strong growth agenda."
Hollande, elected May 6, is insisting on rethinking a European austerity treaty. But he also is trying to convince Obama and other leaders at the Group of Eight economic summit that his position will not worsen the debt crisis.
The French president also spoke for himself and Obama in sending a message to Greece, where fears remain that the debt-riddled country may have to abandon the 17-member currency union, which could jolt the global economy. Greece is set to hold elections on June 17 to end a political deadlock.
"We share the same views — Greece must stay in the eurozone," Hollande said. Ahead of the election, he said, both he and Obama "wanted to send a message to that effect to the Greek people."
Hollande is trying to defend France's interests while building a relationship with Obama, widely popular in France but seen by some in Hollande's camp as too friendly with the recently ousted president, the conservative Sarkozy.
Obama and Hollande traded some light-hearted thoughts about presidential life and American fast food. Both offered expected assurances of their alliance.
"France is an independent country and cares about its independence," Hollande said, "but in old friendship with the United States of America."
Hollande also met later with British Prime Minister David Cameron for the first time before addressing French expatriates at the French Embassy — where he suggested that Obama's looming election race made the American leader more accessible on Hollande's push for more growth-friendly policies.
He also hinted of his support for Obama in the election this fall.
"I think that we will begin a cooperation and partnership with President Obama that — I hope for him, and for us — will last a long time," Hollande said.
On the war, a senior U.S. official said the early combat exits of Dutch and Australian troops are the model for a probable agreement with France. In those cases trainers or other support forces are supplanting front-line combat forces. Such an agreement is likely to emerge from NATO discussions this weekend, the official said.
Polls show most French, and many other Europeans, want their countries out of Afghanistan, as do most Americans. Sensing the political winds, Sarkozy had prepared to break with NATO's in-together, out-together mindset and announced during the campaign that he'd pull out combat troops by the end of 2013, a year early.
Hollande, vying for election, promised to withdraw them even one year before that.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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