France took a major step toward winding down its activities in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan on Dec. 8 with a ceremony for 153 returning combat soldiers — part of President François Hollande’s pledge to bring the nation’s fighting troops home by the end of 2012. Though the arrival of a final contingent of combat soldiers in France in the next few days will fully close that chapter, Saturday’s moving commemoration by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian thanking the nation’s military for the Afghan effort was designed to emphasize that France’s combat role has already drawn to an end.
“It’s with the sentiment of a duty fulfilled that you’re returning to France … [and] being reunited with those you love and have missed so much,” said Le Drian on a tarmac in Cyprus beside a government Airbus waiting to take the soldiers back to Paris. “This was the promise that the President of the Republic made to the French people. It’s a promise fulfilled.”
The significance of that pledge and the official gesture of accompanying them home were not lost on the returning soldiers.
“This ceremony makes it clear an important page has been turned, and that France’s political leaders and public have decided to end this operation the same way they began it — with their support and appreciation,” said Captain Kamel Essid, 33, eager to return to his wife and three children after seven months of combat duty that left five members of his unit dead. “Without echoing any party line, I can honestly say we did what was needed to help provide Afghanistan the breathing room, elected government and trained forces it needs to decide its future on its own. Now it’s time to let Afghanistan do that.”
Hollande’s move toward withdrawal required careful diplomatic and security balancing act. It defied claims by Hollande’s conservative foes who mocked his campaign vow with warnings that such a quick return was logistically impossible, would provoke anger from France’s remaining NATO allies and leave exiting forces vulnerable to Taliban assaults. Those things didn’t happen, and after a series of bruising domestic policy and p.r. setbacks that have sent Hollande’s approval rating sliding, his success in fulfilling his popular Afghan pledge should do his public support some good.
“We’ve finished the combat operation before year’s over, all our allies understood our position from the start, and though there were attacks during what was a long and slow withdrawal, there were no injuries,” Le Drian told TIME in Cyprus, needling the foresight of the opposition’s Cassandras. “The mission is accomplished.”
Most of it, anyway. If Hollande is making good on his pledge to bring French fighting forces home, he’s also made it clear to allies since announcing the combat contingent withdrawal — just two weeks after his May 6 election win — that France won’t be leaving NATO high and dry in Afghanistan.
Departed French troops leave behind 1,500 military personnel regrouped in Kabul. Roughly 1,000 of those will carry out logistical work — much of it linked to transporting vehicles and material back to France — through mid-2013. The other 500 will continue medical duties, managing the Kabul airport and training Afghan soldiers and officers until the current NATO mission mandate expires at the end of 2014. At that time, any continued presence will have to be renegotiated with the Afghan government and must be redefined in what leaders at the NATO summit in Chicago last May stressed would be noncombat in nature.
What extended role NATO countries might take once the U.S. finishes its withdrawal in 2014 is anyone’s guess. In fact, with public patience over the Afghan slog waning in many participating nations, French officials suspect their stepped-up combat departure may be soon be replicated by some allies. That thinking already seems to be prevalent among ground forces.
“We had very good relations and regular contacts with our American peers, and they fully understood the decision of [French] leaders — and related to our joy in going home now that the job is done,” said Essid. “I think everyone privately agrees it’s time to wind things down.”
A returning French lieutenant went even further. Under the agreement his name not be used, the soldier said there’s general consensus among NATO forces in Afghanistan that continued presence in the country may soon become counterproductive.
“Afghanistan now has the basic governmental and military structures it needs to determine its own future, and what we risk by staying now that’s in place is inflaming the eternal, notorious Afghan determination to chase the foreign invader out,” he said. “Most Afghans appreciate what we’ve done — especially in bringing medical care and aid that saved fathers, mothers, children who would have died otherwise. But Afghan resentment of the occupier runs strong and deep, and we’re in danger of awakening it by staying too long.”
For some, even sped-up departure may be too tardy. France’s participation in the 11-year NATO mission deployed an average 3,600 soldiers to Afghanistan at any time — and 4,000 at its peak in 2010. The rotation of forces over that period involved a total of 60,000 soldiers — 1 for every 1,000 French citizens. That duration and scope made the Afghan operation France’s largest military commitment since the Algerian war for independence. It also cost the country 88 of its troops and injured another 725.
That toll may seem minimal to countries like the U.S. and U.K., which have lost 2,145 and 438 service members respectively. But those fatalities will be the most vivid memories some French combatants take home from Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of things I’ll remember about that vast, impressive and captivating country, but the thing that will stay most with me from Afghanistan is the smell of death,” said Essid, who lost four comrades in June to a suicide bomber and another in August in a firefight. “Cold death, hot death, death in battle and death that came out of nowhere.”
“Enough death,” he said, sipping a glass of juice and smiling somewhere over the Mediterranean as the government Airbus sped him back to his family. “It’s time for life — for everyone getting back to life.”