In a surprise visit to Afghanistan, French President Francois Hollande defended an “imminent” exit from the war and pledged to keep to a long-term cooperation treaty signed with Kabul earlier this year.
Speaking to French troops at Nijrab Base in the northeastern province of Kapisa, where the majority of France's 3,550 troops in the country are based, he defended his decision to withdraw them from combat operations two years before the rest of the 130,000 U.S.-led NATO contingent.
It is Hollande's first visit to Afghanistan since taking office earlier this month and he was also due to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The calendar for the French withdrawal is expected to be drawn up within days.
"It's a sovereign decision. Only France can decide what France does. It will be conducted in good understanding with our allies, especially President Obama, who understands the reasons, and in close consultation with Afghan authorities," Hollande said.
"Without having totally disappeared, the terrorist threat from Afghanistan to our and our allies' territory has been partially curbed," he added.
He said France would continue development projects in Afghanistan but said the time had come for Afghans to "take the path they choose freely" in deciding the future of their country.
France has been asked to contribute just under $200 million a year for long-term funding for Afghanistan, part of an annual bill estimated at $4.1 billion to maintain Afghan forces after 2014. Hollande has signaled that he will commit to nothing until it is clear how the money will be managed.
Hollande, who defeated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in a May 6 election run-off, was accompanied on his trip by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Since his swearing in last week he has made official trips to Berlin and Washington, and attended G8 and NATO summits in the United States and a European Union leaders summit in Brussels.
Eighty-three French soldiers have died since late 2001, when U.S.-led troops invaded to bring down the Taliban regime after the Sept.11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.
France provides the fifth largest contingent to the 130,000-strong U.S.-led NATO force battling Taliban insurgents, but Kabul has downplayed the effect of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.
Other NATO allies agreed in Chicago to an unconditional withdrawal by the end of 2014, leaving Afghans responsible for national security.
Paris has so far reserved judgment on contributing to the cost of the Afghan security force budget, estimated at $4.1 billion a year from 2015.
There has been little public NATO criticism of the French position and with war fatigue building in Western capitals, few want to keep combat troops in Afghanistan any longer than deemed necessary.
But analysts have expressed growing concern about the fixed withdrawal, pointing out that Afghan security forces have a mixed record at best and questioning whether a security vacuum will only heighten violence if not hasten a return to civil war.
"Clearly there is a rush for the exits by Western leaders, but there is no Plan B to address worsening battlefield conditions and political crises if they occur," wrote veteran Afghan watcher, Ahmed Rashid, in The New York Review of Books.
More Afghan civilians died in 2011 than the total number of NATO troops, 3,009, killed since 2001. And last year's 3,021 civilian deaths marked the fifth straight year that the toll has risen, according to UN figures.
The number of internal refugees last year hit nearly half a million, the highest for about a decade, part of what Amnesty International has called "a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis".
And more than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum abroad last year -- another 10-year high. Thousands of others make their way abroad illegally.