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Allies eager for their own Afghan withdrawals

/ Source: news services

The United States' allies in Afghanistan on Thursday welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw 33,000 troops, with France announcing it would start bringing its own forces home.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said troops sent for reinforcement would start returning in a time frame similar to the U.S. force withdrawal.

"Given the progress we have seen (in Afghanistan), France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements," a statement issued by Sarkozy's office said following a telephone call with Obama.

France, which has about 4,000 troops in Afghanistan and has seen 62 soldiers killed, has said it would begin redeploying and handing over areas it controls to the Afghan military in 2011.

Sarkozy's decision could be another boost to his 2012 presidential election campaign. He has been edging slowly back up in the polls although he remains one of the least popular French presidents in recent history.

He did not say how many troops would be withdrawn initially.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday that the U.S. withdrawal was the "natural result" of progress the alliance has made.

'Tide is turning'
Fogh Rasmussen said that "the tide is turning" in Afghanistan, with the Taliban under increasing pressure and government security forces getting stronger.

He said the change to having the Afghan security take over was still on track to be completed in 2014.

He stressed Obama's decision was taken in close consultation with the allies.

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, also welcomed the U.S. decision and underlined Berlin's hopes of reducing its own contingent later this year.

Westerwelle said Thursday that "the prospect of withdrawal is now becoming concrete."

He said Obama's speech was a "clear commitment" by the U.S. to the internationally agreed strategy of gradually handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces.

Westerwelle stressed that "it is also our aim to be able to reduce our own German troop contingent for the first time at the end of this year."

Germany has some 4,900 troops in northern Afghanistan and hasn't yet settled on details of its pullback.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Obama before his televised address to give his support to the plans and to confirm that British forces would no longer be involved in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015, Cameron's spokesman said.

Britain, which has committed about 9,500 troops to the Afghan campaign, has long argued that only a political settlement could end almost a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.

Negotiating a peaceBritish Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday that officials were in contact with Taliban insurgents to help pave the way to peace in Afghanistan.

"Contacts do take place with the Taliban. I think it is fair for us to say officially that contacts do take place," Hague told BBC radio. "Britain, let me put it this way, is connected to that and supportive of that, clearly we have been at the forefront of arguing for reconciliation in Afghanistan."

He said he could not give further details about the contacts.

A global poll for the BBC World Service released on Thursday found that negotiating with the Taliban was the public's preferred strategy for ending the conflict, rather than defeating the insurgents or withdrawing troops immediately.

The survey of 24,000 people in 18 countries, including Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Russia, Pakistan and Egypt, found 40 percent supported negotiations and including the Taliban in the government.