France in Afghanistan
Following the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, on 11 September 2001, the international community turned its attention to Afghanistan, a country marked by a succession of violent wars. The United States located the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, in that country, where he was offered protection by the Taliban regime.
On 18 September, President Jacques Chirac assured the White House the support of the French armed forces, which were immediately engaged, first in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, then in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under the aegis of NATO. Their objectives were to drive the Taliban from Kabul, destroy Al Qaeda's training camps and help set up an Afghan defence force. On 15 November, the French army deployed a contingent of special forces to the massif of Tora Bora and its tribal area. At the end of December, a mixed-force battalion (21st Marine Infantry Regiment), originally stationed in the Mazar-i-Sharif region, was deployed to Kabul airport. The first phase of France's Operation Pamir began with a protracted surveillance mission in the area around the capital and its northern approaches (the Shomali Plain). In 2003, our special forces also operated in the area around the Pakistani border, at Spin Boldak (Operation Ares).
There were few combat operations in the initial years of the conflict (except for specific incursions into refuge areas), but in 2005 the situation escalated. Armed and funded through trafficking, the insurgents were getting stronger. The ISAF was forced to ”beef it up”, and France was not to be outdone. 2006 was a landmark year in this demanding mission. Responsibility for the Regional Command Capital, the ISAF military formation assigned to France, represented our reintegration into NATO's integrated command.
Completing the training delivered as part of Operation Épidote, teams of mentors were engaged alongside the Afghan units to provide combat training as well as to support them in their actions. From 2010 onwards, we would form seven of the 36 OMLTs (Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams), leading the battalions of the 3rd Brigade, 201st Corps.
In addition, the French contingent shifted its centre of gravity further east to the Surobi region. The NATO summit in Riga, in 2008, further consolidated this situation, and a French battalion was deployed to the very delicate Kapisa Valley (centred around Tagab). In the wake of these changes to the force, on 18 August 2008, like a bolt from the blue, came the Uzbin Valley ambush, in which ten French soldiers of the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (RIMa) and 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment were killed by firmly entrenched insurgents. Twenty-one others were wounded in the fighting. The first act in a real upscaling of combat actions, the fighting saw many acts of heroism from French service personnel.
From then on, more than 70 000 French soldiers would pass through the Afghan ”crucible”, some more than once. 2009-2011 saw the peak of the engagement of French land forces, both in terms of troop numbers (4 000 in 2010) and the state-of-the-art equipment deployed, across the whole spectrum of land armaments (ICVs, Tiger attack helicopters), not forgetting the combat support units which, legitimately at the heart of the mixed-force operations, won new acclaim in the Afghan valleys. Sappers and artillery troops rivalled one another in their sense of commitment, the former facing a growing threat from improvised explosives, the latter supporting the combat units with mortar or cannon fire, often at short range within the ”Green Zone”.
The fighting at Alasay (Operation Dinner Out, involving the 27th Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins (BCA)), in the southern Tagab Valley (the 21st RIMa and 126th Infantry Regiment (RI)), in the Jangali Pass (Operation Rumbling, involving the 2nd RIMa and 7th BCA), and during the disengagement from the positions in Surobi (92nd RI), were representative of the high level of commitment of our soldiers in Afghanistan.
From 2012 onwards, our forces were progressively withdrawn from Kapisa and Surobi to Kabul. The OMLTs continued to operate alongside the Afghan units, which were infiltrated by terrorists, who opened fire on the forces from within their facilities (such as on 20 January 2012, at the forward operating base in Gwan).
That engagement signalled a ”return to war”, the emergence of new equipment and capacities, and the safeguarding of fundamentals in operational planning. The French army lost 89 soldiers in Afghanistan, and over 700 were wounded in this pivotal engagement.
Major Rémi Scarpa - Joint Combat Schools Command, École d'État-Major
Group Captain Sébastien M.
(French air force, Afghanistan)
”As I landed for the first time at the former Russian base at Bagram, in 2009, the non-stop hubbub of aircraft of all kinds reflected what a huge need there was for air support for the thousands of coalition soldiers deployed in the north of the country. From that moment forth, I had the huge responsibility of commanding the French air force's detachment of Harfang drones, which France had decided to send to Afghanistan to reinforce the protection of the Allied troops, following the Uzbin Valley ambush of August 2008, which left ten French soldiers dead and 21 wounded.
Intelligence, surveillance and ground-troop support missions would henceforth set the rhythm of life, day and night, as we hunted down without let-up the Taliban groups across northeast Afghanistan. In late 2009, the search for two French journalists abducted in Kapisa signalled the start of a promising cooperation with the special forces. What I remember most from my five detachments in three years are the lives of the comrades saved thanks to us: that is the most important thing.”
Corporal Roland J.
(French army, Afghanistan)
”I was deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan, where I found a very different atmosphere from the other theatres of operations. The danger was palpable in this asymmetrical conflict against a moving, disembodied enemy, who kept us on the alert at all times. I was in charge of transporting and dispatching equipment, which meant I had to assimilate a wide range of information (safety regulations, working instructions, itineraries, etc.) in a very short time. I regularly offloaded Antonov cargo aircraft at the airport to deliver the equipment to the different units.
The rhythm of the missions was intense, quite apart from the permanent risk of coming under fire or hitting a mine. You knew that a simple mistake could cost you your life. The seven months I spent in Afghanistan left a profound mark on me. Many of my comrades were wounded, some were killed. Upon my return, it took me several weeks to lose the reflex action of reaching for my bulletproof vest, my trusty companion during those long months spent over there.”