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French president sticking to early Afghan pullout

WASHINGTON - In his first visit to the Oval Office, President Francois Hollande of France declared he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, making clear to President Obama the timeline for ending the US-led war will not trump a campaign pledge that helped Hollande gain his new job.

Obama nodded along on Friday, knowing what was coming, but did not otherwise directly respond. Heading into a NATO summit on the course of the war and beyond, the White House has sought to emphasize the war coalition will remain firm even as nations pull back. And Hollande assured Obama that France was not out to cut and run. “We will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way. Our support will take a different format,’’ Hollande said. “I’m pretty sure I will find the right means so that our allies can continue with their mission and at the same time I can comply to the promise I made to the French people.’’

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France’s declaration has significance beyond its borders. Hollande’s move means France, one of the top contributors of troops to the war, will be removing the combat forces a full two years before the timeline agreed to by allies in the coalition. That could shift more of the burden to those allies and give them reason to hasten their exit.

Hollande later told reporters that some residual number of France’s 3,300 troops in Afghanistan will remain there after this year to provide training and to bring home equipment. But he alluded to the reaction that France’s fast-track withdrawal may get from its NATO allies when they gather in Chicago Sunday and Monday. “Our decision will be taken,’’ he said. “I can’t tell you that it will be applauded, but it will be taken.’’

The United States and its allies plan to end the combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Afghanistan is expected to move into the combat lead in 2013.

The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, far more than any partner nation.

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