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French, Australian leaders visit Afghanistan

Making the first-ever trip to Afghanistan by a French president, Nicolas Sarkozy arrived Saturday to discuss the political and military situation in the war-torn country.
Image: Nicolas Sarkozy in Afghanistan
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, meets French soldiers during his visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday. Eric Feferberg / Reuters via pool
/ Source: The Associated Press

Making the first-ever trip to Afghanistan by a French president, Nicolas Sarkozy met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday to discuss the political and military situation in the war-torn country.

Karzai later met with Australia's new prime minister.

Sarkozy also planned to meet some of the 1,300 French troops who are mostly stationed in the Kabul region as part of NATO's 41,000-strong International Security Assistance Force. The French president's office said the visit would last a day.

The French president told Karzai that France has a long-term political and military interest in Afghanistan, Karzai's office said in a statement, apparently signaling that French troops would not pull out of the country anytime soon.

"We did not want to give the signal of a withdrawal, which would have been a detestable signal at a time when we see the ravages that terrorism can do to the world," Sarkozy said on France-Info radio.

France announced its decision a year ago to withdraw 200 elite Special Forces, raising questions about whether the pullout would precede a larger withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Sarkozy said that the "first contribution" of French forces in Afghanistan was to help train the Afghan army and police, and assist in the building of the Afghan state, administration and justice system.

Drugs a growing concern
The presidents discussed what Karzai's office described as the two main challenges in Afghanistan: insecurity and narcotics. Afghanistan this year accounted for 93 percent of the world's production of opium, the main ingredient in heroin.

"They emphasized that there should be lots of work on different issues like energy, irrigation and also in road reconstruction, especially highways," Karzai's office said.

Hours after his meeting with Sarkozy, Karzai met with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was visiting some of the 900 Australian troops operating as part of the NATO force, mostly in the southern province of Uruzgan, site of fierce battles this year.

Rudd said he wanted to confirm Australia's commitment to Afghanistan.

"We will be, as I said before, in this country, Afghanistan, for the long haul, and it's important for us to be here in partnership with countries from NATO," he said. He said he would be encouraging other countries to continue or expand their commitment to Afghanistan.

Sarkozy meets with troops
The focus of Sarkozy's trip was to meet with the French troops stationed in Kabul, an official at the French Embassy said. He requested anonymity because he was not the official spokesman.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin has expressed concern over deteriorating security in some regions of Afghanistan; 2007 has been its most violent year since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. More than 6,300 people, mostly militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count.

Morin accompanied Sarkozy, along with Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Human Rights Minister Rama Yade. Karzai's office said Sarkozy is the first president of France to visit Afghanistan.