On Afghan peak, French show Old Europe’s mettle

source:  Reuters

OVERLOOKING THE ALAH SAY VALLEY, Afghanistan, April 26 (Reuters) – The American gunner gives a hand signal and French commandos from the 27th Alpine Battalion leap out of the back of the Chinook onto a moonlit Afghan mountaintop.

U.S. Apache gunships provide cover as the French troops spread out, taking up positions in the eerie dawn light.

The dizzyingly high sheer rock outcrop, nicknamed “the castle” by NATO, was in Taliban hands days ago, giving the militants a stronghold that overlooked the massive U.S. Bagram airbase, which now lights up a distant plain in the darkness.

The Alah Say valley below was a stubborn Taliban bastion. Now it is in NATO’s hands. Credit “Old Europe”.

Forget the days a few years back when France opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed his NATO allies as part of “Old Europe” and American restaurants back in the states started serving “freedom fries”.

Today a small but highly effective French task force is fighting seamlessly under U.S. command in Afghanistan.

Unlike some other NATO allies, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, the French have lifted so-called “caveats” that kept their contingent in Afghanistan from being deployed in combat areas.

For years the French contingent was mainly deployed in the relatively safe environs of Kabul. But since mid-2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy has made his troops available to fight the Taliban in strongholds beyond the capital.

American commanders say they are thrilled to have them.

“They have brought significant capabilities to our campaign plan,” said Colonel Scott Spellman, the U.S. NATO commander in the mountains north of Kabul, studying a map with Colonel Nicolas Le Nen, the Frenchman he calls “Nick”.

“Five weeks ago, the provincial reconstruction team could not even go into the Alah Say valley,” he said, referring to the valley in Kapisa province where Le Nen’s commandos are deployed.

“As a result of Colonel Le Nen’s operations, he has now set the foundation where the governor has been able to travel to Alah Say for the first time for over a year and a half.”

BONJOUR AND ‘OW YA DOING

One French soldier and four Afghan army soldiers were killed last month in six days of fighting for the valley. The French have since deployed overwhelming force there to discourage the Taliban from resisting.

French troops have set up combat outposts in the valley for Afghan soldiers and U.S. mentors, using the counter-insurgency tactics U.S. forces brought to Afghanistan from Iraq, which call for quickly deploying local troops and mentors to cleared areas.

“Because this valley was the centre of gravity of the enemy in Kapisa, so it was very important to take control of the valley. Now I can say we got control,” said Le Nen.

“When you can conduct your operation without shooting a bullet, it’s a good indication of success,” he added. “Our main goal is to persuade the population that we are here to protect the people. We are not here to kill bad guys.”

In a separate operation, another 800-strong French force with U.S. air support this month recaptured the Uzbin Valley, a pro-Taliban stronghold where 10 French soldiers were killed last year in the war’s single biggest combat loss for foreign troops.

Franco-American relations in the field are easygoing. French forward air controllers call in American support on their radios in English. At their shared base you can hear an American-accented “bonjour” or French accented “‘ow ya doing.”

While Reuters was out in Alah Say, one French commando broke his leg. An American chopper swooped in, a U.S. medic was lowered down by cable and hoisted the Frenchman up.

Le Nen says he sometimes has to concentrate extra hard to decipher one American counterpart’s New Jersey accent. But he has nothing but praise for “our U.S. brothers in arms”.

“We have the same view of operations and the same view of tactical manoeuvres, so it is very easy working under American command,” he said. “We always feel as a full member of NATO.”

(Reporting by Laurent Hamida; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alex Richardson)

27th Battalion webpage (in French):  http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/layout/set/popup/content/view/full/37649

Photos:

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