France ended its last combat mission in Afghanistan on Tuesday, withdrawing troops from a strategic province northeast of Kabul as part of an accelerated departure from the war-torn country.
Paris has said all French combat soldiers will leave next month, two years before allied nations contributing to the 100,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by the United States are due to depart.
Around 1,500 French soldiers will stay into 2013 to take responsibility for repatriating equipment and training the Afghan army to take over when all NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
France joined the NATO coalition in late 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States to topple the Taliban which had given refuge to Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.
But despite 11 years of fighting, a resilient Taliban insurgency has led to warnings of a return to civil war or the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan after 2014.
An AFP correspondent saw the last 400 soldiers deployed in Kapisa province start to leave Nijrab, the last French base outside Kabul, at 10:00 am (0530 GMT) after a departure ceremony.
France has lost 88 soldiers in Afghanistan and has been the fifth largest contributor to ISAF, behind the United States, Britain, Germany and Italy.
Kapisa, which straddles key transit routes from Pakistan to the Afghan capital, has been the deadliest French mission in Afghanistan, accounting for 60 of total French fatalities.
Troops moved into the province in 2008 and clashes with the Taliban and militia quickly increased.
French and Afghan Commanders say Kapisa has stabilized, but have been unable to provide supporting statistics and attacks have continued.
“I have not seen terrain recaptured by the insurgency in this zone,” said General Olivier de Bavinchove, the French Commander in Afghanistan (photo).
Two out of six Kapisa districts are thought to be at least partly controlled by insurgents.
Kapisa security will now be the responsibility of 4,700 Afghan police and soldiers, supported by 250 American soldiers, according to General Eric Hautecloque-Raysz, the French Commander in Kapisa and nearby district Surobi.
He says he is optimistic about the capacity of Afghan troops. “The insurgency is 10 times less than the (Afghan) Security Forces. Therefore, they cannot be beaten,” he said.
Paris decided to accelerate its withdrawal after a string of deadly attacks in 2011 and 2012.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy first announced that the combat mission would end in 2013, but successor, Français Hollande, brought that forward to the end of 2012.
Of the 2,200 French soldiers left in Afghanistan, a military official said that about 700 would return to France by the end of the year.
Around 50 trainers will remain in Wardak province, west of Kabul, and 1,500 in the Afghan capital, where most will be tasked with organizing the final departure of French troops by the summer of 2013.
After that date, only several hundred French soldiers involved in cooperation or training missions will remain in the country, the military official said.