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 U.S. 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," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military official in Afghanistan, said last Saturday at a ceremony launching a beefed-up NATO training mission. Their work "is the foundation" of U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan, McChrystal said.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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.
"It's part of the mission. Lawrence of Arabia also took risks," Camaret said. The book by the legendary British officer on how he trained a Bedouin army to become a Western ally in the Middle East during World War I is recommended reading for the NATO trainers, he said.
At night, the French take turns guarding their tent camp and the rest of the Afghan base, because the Afghan troops stationed at the headquarters don't have night vision devices. A pack of dogs that run wild regularly wanders in and out.
"I don't mind them, they keep company during the watch," said Lt. Ronan, patting one of the large, furry mutts that roam the camp, sifting through trash bins. He was only allowed to give his first name under French military rules.
The French unit heads out with the Afghans on most of their patrols, struggling to understand even their interpreters, who can only translate to and from English. French soldiers who speak no English need to go through an officer who does to communicate with the Afghans.
Embedding NATO soldiers with Afghans put them in rare contact with the local routine.
Many American and other troops live in sprawling camps complete with fast-food canteens, gyms, air conditioning and a Christian chapel behind several layers of barbed wires and checkpoints, far removed from Afghan daily life. Smaller units who go on operations are at times wary of their Afghan counterparts.
But the Afghan battalion here belongs to the elite Third Brigade, in charge of securing the region around Kabul. "They've become a truly professional army, it bares no comparison even with a few years back," said Camaret, who did a previous tour in Afghanistan two years ago.
U.S. Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the new commander of the training units, said the mentor and liaison teams reflect a new mindset that challenges American and other foreign forces to be more agile, adaptable and culturally respectful.
Several officers with the battalion have become proficient in English while working with western troops during the eight-year-long war. Some started with U.S. Special Forces shortly after the American invasion in 2001.
Col. Gul Aga Gurbuz, the battalion chief in Naghlu, said working with the trainers is a way for both sides to improve.
"They're like a mentor — not a boss. We trade experience," he said, finishing his nightly briefing with his French counterpart on the Afghan side of the base, where carpets and cushions replace western military furniture.
For the French officers, it is an opportunity to hone counterinsurgency tactics. The Afghans also often pass along valuable intelligence from the local population.
"To clap hands, you need two hands," said Gurbuz, quoting an Afghan saying about unity. "The work we do together is more than twice better than what we'd do on our own."