The Associated Press
PARIS (AP) -- President Francois Hollande on Friday declared "mission accomplished" for French combat troops in Afghanistan, hailing their 11-year military commitment even as the fight goes on for France's NATO allies.
After his election in May, Hollande announced a fast-track pullout of French combat troops from NATO's mission in Afghanistan by year-end -- a goal now achieved. Increasingly, France has turned its focus to helping rebuild civilian sector institutions and foster diplomatic initiatives, including hosting a secretive meeting of rival Afghan factions north of Paris as the president spoke.
The Socialist leader has argued that France has done its part in Afghanistan and achieved its goals, and reiterated that theme as he hosted at the presidential palace dozens of soldiers who recently returned home.
"I say to you all: 'mission accomplished.' I also say to you: 'exemplary action'. I say to you: 'congratulations,'" he told them.
U.S. President George W. Bush infamously used the term "mission accomplished" in 2003 after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, though some of the worst bloodshed in that war was yet to come and U.S. troops remained in Iraq for 8 1/2 more years.
While Hollande was speaking to French troops, NATO forces overall are still very much engaged in combat against the Taliban and other insurgents fighting Afghanistan's government.
France, which has lost 88 soldiers in Afghanistan, still has 1,500 troops there who are repatriating equipment or working in roles like providing medical care or helping operate Kabul's airport. Hollande said the numbers will decline to 500 by mid-2013. France had a peak deployment of some 4,000 troops in Afghanistan under former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"There are no more French combat troops in Afghanistan -- this is an important moment for you, for our country, and for Afghanistan," Hollande said. "We have now a part to play, but a different one." He said France's financial contribution will reach EUR300 million ($396 million), to help Afghanistan transition from war to peace in the coming years.
Meanwhile, in the town of Chantilly about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Paris, representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Islamic militant groups, as well as the political opposition, were meeting for a second straight day. They are discussing their country's long-term future -- well beyond 2014, when the majority of NATO forces, including those of the United States, are set to leave.
Hosted by a French think tank in the presence of some French officials, the 20-odd delegates have been discussing since Thursday three topics to better understand each other's positions: The political balance in Afghanistan into 2020, the nature of Afghan sovereignty and the necessary parameters for long-lasting peace, according to Mahmoud Saikal, a high-level member of opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah's party.
"I doubt there will be a definite resolution of any kind emerging from this gathering," Saikal said. "It will definitely help building up confidence between the armed opposition forces of this country and the political opposition groups."
"The sheer fact that we do have a couple representatives of the Taliban is an achievement," he said.
Among the most significant delegates was Shahabudin Delwar, who served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan under the Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. French hosts declined to specify the guest list, or provide access to the participants to journalists during the closed-door meeting. Police blocked off access to the luxury hotel where the Afghans were meeting.
Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.
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