French make slow gains in contested Afghan valley

AP News
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Posted: Nov 09, 2009 1:12 PM

Shortly before nightfall, an Afghan farmer slipped into this NATO outpost with a bag of ammunition and gear he'd collected from nearby Taliban positions. It turned out not to be much: pieces of 82-millimeter mortar guns and some combat food rations.

Still, the French officers commanding the base were thrilled. The informant's help encouraged the French, who believe they're slowly winning over the population in the Uzbeen Valley northeast of Kabul.

To that end, French NATO forces, steeped in counterinsurgency, say they are treating sick children rather than bombing Taliban positions and focusing on intelligence-gathering rather than major ground offensives.

The French methods aren't that different from the counterinsurgency tactics that U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal outlined this summer for the roughly 100,000 international forces in Afghanistan. Currently discussing a troop surge with the Obama administration, McChrystal says he needs the manpower to spread deeply across Afghanistan and focus on winning the population rather than simply killing Taliban.

The French example could serve as a test case for that strategy.

"Let's not gloat about a so-called 'French touch,'" said Col. Benoit Durieux, the commander of the elite Foreign Legion battalion overseeing the Surobi area east of Kabul, where nearly a third of the 3,000 French troops in Afghanistan are stationed. "I think all NATO forces are trying this, and maybe Surobi is more favorable terrain."

Success can be fleeting in counterinsurgency warfare, and if the French leave, the Taliban could return.

Still, there are signs of progress. A year ago, the Uzbeen Valley, about 30 miles northeast of Kabul, was entirely in Taliban hands. Overlooking the main road between the Afghan capital and Pakistan, as well as a dam that provides much of Kabul's electricity, the valley was teeming with insurgents. In one of the single bloodiest ambushes against coalition forces, 10 French soldiers were slain when they first tried to move into Uzbeen in August 2008.

Now the Foreign Legion holds two-thirds of the valley, overseeing about half of Uzbeen's population of 25,000. Rocco, the outpost they established last August, has been directly attacked only once.

The front line, known as "parallel 44" after its position on the military grid, starts barely a mile uphill. The estimated 40 remaining insurgents mount fierce counterattacks every time NATO forces tentatively cross that line, but they are in a cul-de-sac, with their backs to mountains that rise over 13,120 feet, and increasingly cut off from resupply lines.

The French estimate they've killed or wounded at least a dozen insurgents during the small-scale clashes they've had in recent weeks. But killing the Taliban isn't as important as sidelining them, Durieux says. His goal in the months ahead is to peel off local, part-time fighters from the hard-line Taliban.

"It's all a question of social pressure, we're there until villagers get the insurgents to quit or leave," said Durieux, adding his troops are willing to offer amnesty and protection to small-timers who renounce violence.

"We're nibbling north up the valley, step by step, and I think insurgents will tire before we do."

Capt. Vincent, the second-in-command at the Rocco combat outpost, named after an American liaison officer who died in a car crash here earlier this year, thanked the informant for carrying in the mortar pieces. Vincent, who like other soldiers gave only his first name because of French army regulations, served him tea as they debriefed.

"I went all the way up the cliff to fetch these, in my sneakers," said the farmer, who asked to go by his nickname, Kirarmat, because he feared Taliban retaliation for cooperating with NATO. He said he thought about snatching a large white Taliban banner that floats over Uzbeen's high ground, but decided against it for fear of being caught and possibly beheaded.

Snow had begun falling at above 6,562 feet in the valley, and a sharp, cold rain was drenching the French outpost lower down. Kirarmat confirmed the insurgents were getting miserably cold in their barren positions high in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains.

Two Taliban had just returned their Kalashnikovs to Mullah Azrat, their local commander, because they didn't want to fight anymore, he said. A dozen fighters from Pakistan were also preparing to go home before the weather got unbearable, Kirarmat added.

Information gathered from villagers like Kirarmat can provide precious intelligence _ once crosschecked with drone observations and other methods. "But I view the mere fact he wants to work with us as a sign of success," said Capt. Guillaume, the commander of the French Foreign Legion company stationed in Uzbeen.

Kirarmat gets no pay for the help he gives at considerable personal risk. He reached out to NATO forces after receiving a letter the French distributed seeking assistance from civilians in Taliban-held areas. A relative working for the government had recently been killed by insurgents at a polling station during the Afghan presidential election in August.

"I absolutely hate the Taliban. I want them crushed," he said through a translator during an interview with The Associated Press. In presence of French officers, he said NATO's work in the valley _ building roads, handing out farming gear and medication _ had convinced him the U.S.-led coalition and government forces would eventually win.

Though he wouldn't elaborate on whether he'd once sided with the insurgency, the informant acknowledged a large section of his Pashtun clan lives in the Taliban-held villages farther up the valley. Kirarmat said his relatives readily provide him with detailed information on insurgents that he then passes on to the coalition.

Out of earshot, he also hoped the French would help him retaliate against the Taliban for his dead relative. "Our pride is what we live for," he said. "I want revenge."