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France To Host Dialogue On Afghanistan Amidst Renewed Franco-American Relations

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Throughout the long presidential campaign, on the campaign trail and in the debates, President-elect Obama reiterated his commitment to a multilateral approach to foreign relations that entails diplomatic dialogue and building global alliances. He, also, voiced grave concerns that the war in Iraq has distracted the United States from the increasingly volatile situation in Afghanistan where terrorists attack international forces and then retreat across the border into Pakistan for safe haven. As the President-elect moves forward with his multilateral foreign relations efforts, he can rely on the renewed, historic Franco-American alliance, represented by his rapport with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Already, Sarkozy has pledged additional troops in Afghanistan, which NATO allies had been reluctant to do; and on December 14, France will host a gathering of foreign ministers for a dialogue on Afghanistan and its neighbors designed to address what is at stake in the region.

The idea for this reunion du travail or working meeting originated with Bernard Kouchner, the energetic French foreign minister, after the Paris conference on Afghanistan last June, and the European Union and Central Asia conference last September. Among those who have been invited to the December 14 meeting are the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Uzbekistan, Turkey and India although, given the tragic events in Mumbai last week, the Indian foreign minister has not confirmed. Representatives of the United States, United Kingdom and Russia are also scheduled to participate; the foreign minister of Iran was invited but has not confirmed.

The meeting will focus on three issues that are crucial to achieving even a semblance of stability in Afghanistan: A counter-narcotics effort to abolish the lucrative and destructive poppy trade; counter terrorism to fight terrorism in the region; and building and enforcing economic development in Afghanistan without which the country cannot be self-sufficient.

"France and the United States are side-by-side. We both want a stable Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Lenain, director of press and communications for the French Embassy in Washington. "We want to see a global strategy, not a purely military one, a strategy that keeps its eye on the endgame--to make it possible for the people of Afghanistan to be in charge of their country. No solution is possible, though, if we don't deal with Pakistan, India and Kashmir."

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai last week which, according to reports, were planned and executed by terrorists based in Pakistan are an example of the danger President-elect Obama warned about during the campaign. Pakistan has become a sanctuary for terrorists who pose a threat to the region and the world. Meeting the challenge in Afghanistan will require working with allies in the region as well as allies across the globe.

Last summer, during Obama's European trip, President Sarkozy was the only European leader to hold a joint press conference with him, a distinction normally reserved for fellow heads-of-state. While he was in Paris that day, according to Lenain, Obama and Sarkozy had a "good conversation." One month later, in August, after Sarkozy brokered a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia to end the conflict in Ossetia, Obama called the French President who, in a thirty-minute conversation, briefed Obama on the negotiations and the brokered agreement. Less than two days after the November 4 election, President Sarkozy called President-elect Obama and the two leaders had another long conversation where, as Lenain explained, they discussed "all issues."

There are parallels to the Obama and Sarkozy stories--both are relatively young men, both are the first- generation sons of immigrant fathers, and both men came to power after competing with female candidates who sought to become the first women presidents of their countries. There are contrasts, as well-- Obama is cool and calm while Sarkozy can be fiery and expressive, but both men are pragmatic, both are problem solvers, and both see themselves as major players on the world stage, which indeed they are. The two leaders might not agree on everything in the months and years ahead, but France is the Unites States' oldest ally, an ally who helped the Americans win independence, and our nations will need each other--and our other allies--to meet the 21-century challenges, like Afghanistan, confronting us today,