French, Australian leaders pledge Afghan support
Sarkozy, Rudd say troops, aid remain vital
KABUL, Afghanistan - The leaders of France and Australia yesterday pledged to President Hamid Karzai their countries' continued military and political commitment to Afghanistan.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French president to visit the country, signaled that French troops would not pull out anytime soon. He told Karzai that France has a long-term interest in Afghanistan, Sarkozy's office said.
"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.
During a separate visit to Afghanistan yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia reaffirmed his nation's military commitment. Rudd met with Karzai and US General Dan McNeill, who commands the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
A year ago, France announced its intention to withdraw 200 elite Special Forces, raising questions about whether the pullout would precede a larger withdrawal.
French television yesterday quoted the president as suggesting that more combat instructors could be sent to Afghanistan, creating a "qualitative" but not a "quantitative" increase. There are currently about 1,300 French troops in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan must not become a state that falls into the hands of terrorists," Sarkozy said during his six-hour visit, which was not previously announced. "A war against terrorism, against fanaticism, is being played out here that we cannot, that we must not, lose."
US military leaders have pleaded with NATO countries to contribute more forces to Afghanistan. About 26,000 of the 50,000 international troops in Afghanistan are from the United States.
Sarkozy said 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.
Sarkozy also planned to visit some of the French troops who are mostly stationed in the Kabul region as part of NATO's military force. The French president's office said the trip to the country would last a day.
Rudd, whose party won parliamentary elections last month, visited some of the 900 Australian troops stationed in Uruzgan province, site of fierce battles this year.
The trip follows a surprise visit to Iraq, where Rudd met with officials to discuss plans to pull his country's 550 combat troops out of the country by mid-2008. But he said Australia will hold firm in 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," Rudd said. He said he would be encouraging other countries to continue or expand their commitment to Afghanistan.
Rudd announced an aid package of $95 million for reconstruction, primarily in Uruzgan.
Britain has about 7,800 troops in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO force, and is expected to increase that number. Prime Minister Gordon Brown also has proposed a $900 million aid package to help train Afghanistan forces.
Asked why military forces haven't tried to retake Gizab, a region under Taliban control, Karzai said the government could establish control there "at any time" but that he didn't want casualties - civilian or Taliban.
"We don't even want the Taliban to get hurt or die. We want to attract them back to civilian life within the constitution of Afghanistan," Karzai said. "We would like to do that through means other than the military."
Karzai has increasingly been trying to persuade militant fighters and leaders to lay down their arms and pledge their allegiance to the government.
Sarkozy and Karzai 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.
A remotely controlled bomb killed three Afghan security forces as they were returning from an opium poppy eradication campaign in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province yesterday, said Ghafor Khan, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.
About 6,300 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence this year.