Naghlu: By day, French soldiers fight side by side with Afghans during Taliban attacks. By night, their officers share meals, the French trying to muster haute cuisine from military rations, the Afghans offering steaming piles of mutton stew and rice.
As President Barack Obama prepares to pour up to 35,000 more US troops into Afghanistan, a much smaller contingent of NATO trainers — many of them European — form a crucial part of the strategy to win the war and get foreign troops home.
The 1,500 trainers from 20 countries live with Afghan forces on the front lines. Their goal: to improve the skills of soldiers in the field, part of the effort to build up the army and police so they can control the country on their own.
Afghan and international troops have now become "true partners, working, planning, fighting and living together," General Stanley McChrystal, the top US military official in Afghanistan, said last Saturday at a ceremony launching a beefed-up NATO training mission. Their work "is the foundation" of US-led efforts in Afghanistan, McChrystal said.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged US allies this week to commit additional forces, particularly for training, in anticipation of Obama`s expected decision to send more troops. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that several allied nations will offer a total of 5,000 more troops. The US President plans to announce a revised battle plan for Afghanistan in a major speech on Tuesday.
Thousands of Afghan recruits are being coached at a base near Kabul to try to bring the army up to 134,000 men by October 2010 from 94,000 today. The NATO trainers, divided into 62 teams, carry on that work in the field.
The Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, as they are known, also make sure the Afghans are properly briefed before they join operations mounted by NATO forces.
"The idea is that you can`t just churn out new soldiers, you`ve got to shoulder them as they engage with the enemy," said Lt Col Patrice de Camaret, the officer commanding the French team with the Afghan "Kandak 3-4" battalion in Kapisa province, a volatile area about 40 miles (60 kilometres) east of Kabul.
Camaret and eight other French officers live at the battalion`s small headquarters at Naghlu.
Their days are punctuated by Islam`s five calls to prayer over the camp loudspeaker. Their nights, by nervous requests for illuminating flares to be fired over the tiny outposts where the 29 other members of the French unit live with Afghan soldiers. The flares, they hope, will signal to the insurgents that their movements are spotted and discourage any nighttime attack.
The Afghan battalion has about 250 men — only half its official strength — to hold a string of outposts on the front lines of the tense Tagab valley, where 300 insurgents are thought to operate. Though air support can be rapidly called in, ground reinforcements would take nearly an hour to arrive from the nearest NATO garrison.