Leaders of France, Australia and Italy traveled to Afghanistan over the weekend to meet with President Hamid Karzai and visit troops stationed in the conflict-ridden country.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French president to visit Afghanistan, signaled that French troops would not pull out of the country anytime soon. He told Karzai that France has a long-term political and military interest in Afghanistan, Karzai's office said in a statement.
"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.
French television 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 some 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, a war against terrorism, against fanaticism, is being played out here, that we cannot, that we must not lose."
U.S. 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 American.
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.
During his six-hour visit Saturday, Sarkozy also met with some of the 1,300 French troops who are mostly stationed in the Kabul region as part of NATO's military force here.
Hours after his meeting with Sarkozy, Karzai met with Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was visiting some of the 900 Australian troops stationed in Uruzgan province, site of fierce battles this year.
Rudd, whose party won parliamentary elections last month, said he wanted to make an early visit to the troops and confirm Australia's commitment to Afghanistan.
The trip follows a surprise visit to Iraq, where he 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," he 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.
Asked why military forces haven't tried to retake Gizab, a region near Uruzgan province 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.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi arrived in Kabul on Sunday to meet with Karzai and to visit Italian troops based in western Afghanistan, an official at the presidential palace said. Italy has about 2,400 troops in NATO's International Security Assistance Force, mostly in the western province of Herat.
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 on Saturday, said Ghafor Khan, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.
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. ( AP )