European allies on Thursday applauded President Barack Obama's plan to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with France jumping at the chance to announce its own drawdown in a mission that has drained budgets and strained public opinion across the continent.
After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, Obama's withdrawal blueprint was welcomed by NATO allies facing dwindling support, if not outright opposition, because of the conflict.
Obama said Wednesday he will bring home 33,000 troops by next summer _ nearly as many as the number sent to Afghanistan for the 2009 "surge" aimed at saving a flailing war effort.
France, with some 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, will start "a progressive pullout of reinforcements sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional way and on a similar timetable to the pullout of the American reinforcements," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement just hours after Obama's speech.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, doing the math on the U.S. pullout, said on BFM TV that roughly a quarter of American troops would leave Afghanistan by summer 2012 and that France "will do the same." That means about 1,000 French troops will be out by next summer.
In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country aims to begin pulling out troops for the first time by year's end. Germany has some 4,900 troops in a part of northern Afghanistan that was long relatively calm but has seen increasing fighting in recent years.
In Brussels, a member of NATO's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, said a number of smaller member states are now "actively looking" at reducing their Afghanistan contingents over the next 12 months.
Countries with troops based in the safer northern and western regions of Afghanistan expect to be the first to hand over responsibilities to Afghan security forces, said the diplomat who could not be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media on the issue. A residual number of advisers and instructors could stay behind.
"The prospect of withdrawal is now becoming concrete," Westerwelle said in a statement. "The international community and we, too, have worked hard on this for over a year."
No other details have been made public on the looming European drawdowns. Like other allies, these countries have said the military situation and the stability of Afghanistan and its government would determine the pace.
"We will keep U.K. force levels in Afghanistan under constant review," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. He noted that Britain had already planned to pull all of its 10,000 troops out by 2015, "and, where conditions on the ground allow, it is right that we bring troops home sooner."
In part, plans to pull back reflect the war's long, costly commitment in lives and money as well as the slow but growing autonomy of Afghanistan security forces. The killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has added to the sense of progress, though fighting continues and the Taliban publicly say they won't stop fighting until foreign troops leave.
Longuet, the French defense minister, said the drawdown is "first of all the result of the death _ the elimination _ of Osama bin Laden."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance's International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in Afghanistan will gradually move from combat to support roles.
"We can see the tide is turning," Rasmussen said in a statement. "The Taliban are under pressure. The Afghan security forces are getting stronger every day."
Major national elections loom in countries such as France, Germany, Spain and the United States over the next 18 months, and the drawn-out effort in Afghanistan has fared poorly in opinion polls in many parts of Europe.
Countries such as France and Britain also have been in the cost-cutting mode amid sizable budget deficits that have meant reductions in popular national programs such as education and pensions.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Gregory Katz in London and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.