The first 200 French soldiers were due to leave 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.
A further 200 French soldiers are due to return home before Christmas, with another 600 leaving in 2012, ahead of a full drawdown of NATO’s combat mission scheduled in 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 transition process that began in seven areas in July, meant to hand responsibility for security across the country to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
The French contingent are working to integrate Surobi, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul, into a second phase of the transition process.
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.
A total of 194 soldiers, including 172 legionnaires from the 2nd Company of the 2nd Foreign Airborne Regiment, based in Calvi on the island of Corsica southeast of France, were due to take off in the afternoon from Kabul.
The legionnaires were deployed at Torah base in Surobi.
The departure of the men “will not have an impact on operations at the (Torah) base and the pace of operations,” Colonel Lionel Jeand’heurs, who commands the French contingent deployed in Surobi, told AFP recently.
“We won’t leave overnight. We can leave without regret after the work we’ve done,” he said.
A further 11 troops responsible for training the Afghan army will also leave on Wednesday.
The magnitude of the withdrawal announced in July surprised some military officials, who hoped to take advantage of the transfer of responsibility in relatively peaceful Surobi to move its workforce to the more troubled Kapisa.
The departing legionnaires began their current mission on July 6.
Two of them were killed during a battle with insurgents on August 7 in Kapisa — one by “friendly fire” — and another three were injured.
Summer 2011 was particularly deadly for French troops in Afghanistan: 17 French soldiers were killed between June 1 and September 7, bringing to 75 the number killed since 2001 as part of military operations in Afghanistan.