First 200 French soldiers leave Afghanistan
The first 200 French soldiers left Afghanistan on Wednesday, kickstarting troop withdrawals announced three months ago by Paris as part of NATO plans to wind down its combat mission by 2014.
In total, a quarter of France's current troop deployment is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan before the end of 2012, ahead of a full drawdown of NATO's combat mission scheduled for 2014.
France has some 4,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the district of Surobi and in the neighbouring province of Kapisa, part of the NATO-led force of 130,000 foreign troops, two-thirds of whom are Americans.
The departures are in line with a national transition process that began in seven areas of the country in July, meant to hand responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
The United States, Britain and Belgium have also announced partial withdrawals, with some US troops already heading home this summer as Western voters tire of more than a decade at war against a strong Taliban insurgency.
The contingent took off in a French military A340 jet from Kabul airport at around 5:00 pm (1230 GMT), an AFP reporter said.
The speed of the French withdrawal surprised some military officials, but comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy gears up for a presidential election next year and after a particularly deadly summer for the troops.
There are also general concerns within Afghanistan over the ability of Afghan security forces to protect the country, given complaints that they are over-reliant on NATO, fail to take initiative and suffer retention problems.
France lost 17 soldiers between June 1 and September 7, bringing to 75 the number killed as part of military operations in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion drove the Taliban from power.
On July 13, the day after Sarkozy visited Afghanistan to announce the troop withdrawals, five French soldiers died in a suicide strike, the deadiest attack for France in Afghanistan since an ambush killed 10 soldiers in 2008.
Another French soldier died the following day, leading Paris to announce a safety review. As a result, the number of operations on the ground has slowed, say soldiers in Afghanistan.
"The losses of the French army in July and August caused a slowdown of operations. We're less prominent, less aggressive, take less risks," said Lieutenant Christopher, who could not give his last name in line with policy.
"We just do what we're told. If they say you go out less, we go out less," he said, struggling to conceal a hint of bitterness.
"We've backed off," summed up an officer at Torah base in Surobi.
The French army said it has simply "changed its way of doing things" as part of the process to empower Afghan forces.
"We do a little less in that... the Afghan army takes charge of its missions," said Colonel Lionel Jeand'heurs, who commands the French contingent deployed in Surobi, explaining that the French troops, once on the front line, are now most often in support of Afghan forces.
The French are working to integrate Surobi, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul, into a second phase of the transition process.
A total of 194 soldiers, including 172 legionnaires from the 2nd Company of the 2nd Foreign Airborne Regiment, based on the island of Corsica southeast of France, flew out of Kabul airport late Wednesday afternoon.
The departure of the men "will not have an impact on operations at the (Torah) base and the pace of operations," Jeand'heurs told AFP recently.
A further 11 troops responsible for training the Afghan army were also part of the departing party.
All are heading to Cyprus for several days of "decompression" before returning to France, as with all French soldiers leaving the Afghan theatre.
The departing legionnaires began their current mission on July 6.
But some feared their efforts had been in vain.
"They want to reduce losses and limit operations. It is poorly controlled, poorly managed," said one on condition of anonymity.
"Today it is a mess," he said.
© 2011 AFP