KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Two hundred French troops said goodbye to the war in Afghanistan on Wednesday as part of France's accelerated pullout from the country.
In January, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a faster-track exit for France, breaking from previous plans to go along with to the U.S.-led coalition's plan to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014.
Sarkozy said France would speed up its withdrawal timetable, pulling out 1,000 — 400 more than its previous target — of its current 3,600 soldiers by year-end and withdraw all combat forces by the end of 2013. His announcement came a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier in Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan.
The French troops waiting to board their flight out of Afghanistan were not stationed in Kapisa, but in Surobi district, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) east of Kabul.
They said they were elated to leave and thought the Afghan forces they left behind were ready to go solo.
Capt. Nicolas from Battle Group Picardie said his daughter was born in June and he was in Afghanistan in September.
"I think she might be able to say a couple of words now," said Nicolas, who was not permitted to release his last name. "I'm really happy to go home to hear her."
A 32-year-old lieutenant named Jeremie, who also did not disclose his last name, said the security situation in Surobi had improved.
"We were under fire only once in the last four months," he said. "It wasn't a big attack. We came under fire from one direction."
He said the Afghan security forces were adept at finding weapons caches and defusing bombs.
"I think I can say that they do their jobs — maybe not quite good, but good," he said.
The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan has been steadily handing over responsibility for security to the government's army and police ever since the alliance's last summit in Lisbon in 2010. There, NATO leaders decided to move the Afghans into the lead role in fighting the Taliban by 2014 and end the coalition's combat role.
However, Sarkozy, who is engaged in a tough re-election campaign ahead of the April vote, has been under political pressure to withdraw French troops even earlier. Polls show most French want an early pullout and his main challenger, Francois Hollande, has said that his hope would be to bring home all French forces this year.
Capt. Francois, deputy commander of one of the units in Surobi, said the French troops played a support role in missions led by the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
"From what I've seen, they have the capacity and the ability and it seems to me that they are a professional army," he said.
In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said that after more French troops leave in the next few days, about 3,400 French troops will still be in Afghanistan. There are no specific plans yet for the withdrawals scheduled for 2013, he said.
France, one of the top five troop-contributing nations in the international force, has lost 92 troops since 2001.
Maj. Philippe Baille, a spokesman for the French contingent in Afghanistan, said that after 2014, French soldiers will continue training Afghan security forces and providing logistical support for the Afghan army.
In addition to pulling out troops, about 1,300 vehicles and the equivalent of 1,700 containers of materials will be repatriated by 2014, he said. For now, the equipment is being flown to Abu Dhabi and then transferred onto boats headed for France, he said.
The troops that left on Wednesday were from the 1st Infantry Regiment from Sarrebourg, the 3rd Engineer Regiment from Charleville-Mezieres and the 1st Artillery Marine Regiment from Couvron.
It was feared that France's announcement could step up pressure on other European governments like Britain, Italy and Germany to pull out their troops faster. So far, that hasn't happened.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, who visited Helmand province in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, said Britain has made a long-term commitment to the Afghan people.
"We will help to finance the Afghan national security forces for many years after 2014. We have taken responsibility for running the Afghan National Army officer academy which we will build outside Kabul," Hammond said. "We have not yet taken the decision about what if any military footprint we will retain after 2014."
Britain has announced that it will withdraw 500 troops by the end of this year, reducing the size of its contingent in Afghanistan to 9,000.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.