PARIS (AP) — France on Tuesday ended its combat operations in Afghanistan, pulling hundreds of troops from a base in a volatile region northeast of Kabul and fulfilling promises to end its combat role on a faster track than other NATO allies.
After a handover ceremony with Afghan troops, 500 French combat soldiers in trucks and armored vehicles left the Nijrab base in the Kapisa region — where anti-government insurgents have been active — and traveled southwest to Kabul, the capital, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.
"This is the end of combat operations," Burkhard told The Associated Press, adding that the withdrawal went smoothly. "It's the end of support operations for the Afghan National Army because we have no more troops who can deploy in such a role."
France was once one of the largest contributors to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, with a peak deployment of 4,000 troops — though far smaller than the tens of thousands of U.S. troops there. Since mid-2008, French forces were deployed in Kapisa, a crescent-shaped and strategic region along mountains between Kabul and the Pakistani border.
France already pulled out its forces from the neighboring Surobi district of Kabul province — a less violent area than Kapisa — earlier this year after then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said his country would pull combat troops out ahead of NATO's 2014 timetable for the U.S.-led combat operation to end.
French public opinion has gradually soured on the ongoing Afghanistan mission, and a string of insurgent attacks that raised the French death toll preceded a decision by both Sarkozy and his successor to speed up the French withdrawal. France has lost 88 troops in Afghanistan since late 2001.
Tuesday's move put President Francois Hollande, who beat Sarkozy in a springtime presidential election, on track to make good on his campaign-trail promise to withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Hundreds of French troops were expected to fly out of Kabul in the coming weeks.
France has been preparing such a handover for months, recently focusing on training Afghan forces instead of having French troops lead patrols in Kapisa. France had officially transferred the first command to the Afghan National Security Forces there in autumn last year, with French troops in a backup role.
"Today, the Afghan forces are capable of planning and conducting security operations in an autonomous way," the French military said in a statement Tuesday.
Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the international coalition, said it thanked France for its contribution and suggested the pullout would have no negative impact on allied operations.
"Because the French departure is part of the natural transition from coalition-led operations to ANSF assuming complete responsibility for the security of their country, we don't expect it to impact our operations," he said in Kabul.
France plans to maintain 1,500 troops in Afghanistan next year, mainly to repatriate equipment deployed during the 11-year French military role as part of the allied intervention in Afghanistan. About 500 will help train and support Afghan forces, and help run Kabul's airport.
Heidi Vogt contributed from Kabul.