French leader sticks to early Afghan pullout timetable

President Barack Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Friday, May 18, 2012.
Pool,AP Photo/Eric Feferberg

(AP) WASHINGTON - French President Francois Hollande said Friday he would carry out his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by year's end, two years earlier than the U.S. ally once planned. He made the declaration to 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 Group of Eight economic powers at Camp David will promote a "strong growth agenda."

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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 G-8 economic summit that his position will not send worsen the debt crisis.

The United States supports an expansion of growth or stimulus programs in combination with belt-tightening measures. Hollande, however, is on record 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 some French presence in Afghanistan in a different role.

Speaking after the White House meeting, Hollande said he stands by a campaign pledge to withdraw troops, but said France will 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 U.S. policy on both economic issues and Afghanistan. The White House has stressed the areas of agreement and predicted Hollande will continue Sarkozy's strong alliance with the U.S. 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 recently ousted president, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy proudly bore the moniker "Sarko the American" for his U.S.-friendly attitude. He bulked up France's presence in Afghanistan and NATO and took a major role in the alliance-led air campaign that helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. He also staked out what some analysts called an even harder line against Iran's nuclear program than Washington's.

"We'll have to work through other issues," White House national security adviser Tom Donilon said Thursday. "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."

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." But two weeks ago, at a news conference, he tempered that stance by saying French "combat units" would be out by year's end.

French troops have dug in, so getting out before the rest of NATO does won't be easy. France has some 900 vehicles, 1,400 industrial containers, plus Mirage fighters and helicopters in Afghanistan, according to French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard.

Hollande's foreign policy advisers suggest that could mean French advisers, or trainers for Afghan forces, remain after combat forces depart.

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 U.S official said.

Polls show most French, and many other Europeans, want their countries out of Afghanistan, as do 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.