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New French President In Afghanistan On Surprise Visit

French President Francois Hollande arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit on Friday, marking his first trip to the war-torn South Asian nation after taking office earlier this month.

According to the French President's office, Hollande's Afghan trip was not announced in advance due to security reasons. He will hold talks with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai and meet French troops stationed in Afghanistan during his one-day visit. Hollande is accompanied by his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Hollande had said earlier that he wanted to "explain himself" to French soldiers about his decision to withdraw them from Afghanistan by the end of this year, two years ahead of the NATO alliance's timetable of a unified pullout.

Hollande said the planned early pullout of French troops from Afghanistan was a a "sovereign decision," and insisted that it would be "conducted in good understanding with our allies, especially President Obama - who understands the reasons - and in close consultation with Afghan authorities."

Speaking on the sidelines of the recent NATO summit in Chicago, Hollande said: "French combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year. In 2013, only trainers for police and officers of the Afghan Army will remain and this will be done within the framework of ISAF." The French President was apparently referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan by its acronym.

But differences among NATO members on the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan came into the open during the Chicago summit, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressing that her country stood "very firmly" behind the principle of "in together, out together."

France currently has about 3,400 of its soldiers serving in Afghanistan, making it the fifth largest contributor to NATO-led international coalition forces stationed in the country. It is estimated that 83 French soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The French troops are mainly based in the Kapisa and Sorobi districts.

At present, there are over 130,000 foreign troops from more than 42 countries under the joint command of the NATO and the United States in Afghanistan to contain a resurgent Taliban in the war-ravaged country.

The U.S. and other allied nations involved in the Afghan mission are currently making serious efforts to get the Afghan security forces ready and capable of handling the country's security before the international coalition troops' pullout by the end of 2014.

by RTTNews Staff Writer

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