New French President Francois Hollande has made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to discuss his plan to withdraw all French combat troops by the end of the year.
Hollande, who took office earlier this month, began his visit on May 25 with a stop in the northeastern Kapisa Province, where most of France's 3,400 troops in Afghanistan are stationed.
He told the French troops that "without having totally disappeared, the terrorist threat to our territory, as with that to our allies from Afghanistan, has been partially curbed."
Hollande also said that his decision to withdraw French combat forces two years earlier than NATO's planned exit by the end of 2014 is a question for France alone to decide.
"It's a sovereign decision," he said. "Only France can decide what France does."
But he said the French combat withdrawal will be conducted "in good understanding with our allies, especially [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama," whom Hollande says understands the reasons for the French pullout, and in "close consultation with Afghan authorities."
NATO plans to hand over to Afghan forces command of combat missions against Taliban fighters by mid-2013, and to withdraw most of the 130,000 NATO-led forces now in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Hollande said France will continue to work on development projects in Afghanistan but that the time has come for Afghans to "take the path they choose freely" in deciding the future of the war-shattered country.
Hollande then flew to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai called France one of the country's oldest friends.
"As we all know here in Afghanistan, France is one of Afghanistan's oldest friends," Karzai a joint press conference after the talks. "It's a nation that has had relationships with Afghanistan and has helped us for at least 150 years. [France] provided assistance during and after Afghanistan's jihad [against the communists]; it has helped to create the best schools in Afghanistan; it has helped to build the best hospital for Afghan children over the past 10 years. And their soldiers have been helping Afghanistan."
In a joint press conference after the talks, Hollande reiterated that the withdrawal would not end France's involvement with Afghanistan.
"The [French] presence here is not merely symbolic," he said. "We want France to stay in Afghanistan, in a different way from the past, because we have accomplished the mission.
"A decision was taken in 2001 within the United Nations to come to throw out the Taliban, fight against terrorism, allow Afghanistan to regain its sovereignty. This mission is about to be accomplished. It is a proud moment."
Hollande was also due to meet with representatives of nongovernmental organizations and to attend a memorial service for the 83 French soldiers who have died in the deployment since 2001.
The new French president, who was inaugurated on May 15, was accompanied on his first trip to Afghanistan by Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The visit was not announced in advance, a standard procedure for diplomatic visits in Afghanistan because of security concerns.
Hollande campaigned for the presidency with a public pledge to his nation to withdraw French combat forces by the end of the year. The pledge surprised NATO -- of which France is a member -- but the alliance has not opposed the move.
Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan