French President Francois Hollande said on Friday he would carry out his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year, two years earlier than previously planned. He made the declaration to US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
The leaders, meeting for the first time, also agreed that managing the eurozone debt crisis is critical to global financial health.
Obama said this weekend’s gathering of G8 economic powers at Camp David would promote a “strong growth agenda.”
Hollande, elected on May 6, is insisting on rethinking a European austerity treaty, but he is also -trying to convince Obama and other leaders at the G8 economic summit that his position will not worsen the debt crisis.
The US supports an expansion of growth or stimulus programs in combination with belt--tightening measures. However, Hollande is on record as wanting to go much further.
On Afghanistan, a compromise appeared likely that would see 3,300 French troops shift from combat roles earlier than once planned, but leave a French presence in Afghanistan in a different role.
Speaking after the White House meeting, Hollande said he stood by a campaign pledge to withdraw troops, but said France would keep supporting that country in a “different way.”
Hollande’s visit marked the start of four days of international summitry that amount to a national security debut for a leader with little international experience.
Obama was taking the measure of the new French leader whose campaign promises run counter to US policy on both economic issues and Afghanistan. The White House has stressed the areas of agreement and predicted Hollande would continue Sarkozy’s strong alliance with the US on Iran.
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 his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
“The stances that President Hollande took during the course of his campaign obviously he intends to keep as president, but I at this point frankly see a good relationship building,” national security adviser Tom Donilon said on Thursday.
Hollande’s campaign platform, released months ago, said he was committed to an “immediate withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan: There will be no French troops in this country at the end of 2012.”
However, two weeks ago, at a news conference, he tempered that stance by saying French “combat units” would be out by the end of the year.
French troops have dug in, so getting out before the rest of NATO does would not be easy. France has about 900 vehicles, 1,400 industrial containers, plus Mirage fighters and helicopters in Afghanistan, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said.
Hollande’s foreign policy advisers suggest that could mean French advisers, or trainers for Afghan forces, remain after combat forces depart.
A senior US 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 were supplanting front-line combat forces. Such an agreement is likely to emerge from NATO discussions this weekend, the US official said.