Despite shifts in public opinion, NATO troops confident they are making a difference
TAGAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — There’s a lull in the shooting, though no one knows how long it will last. It’s been this way for three hours.
A French marine named Cedric rummages through his pockets for a smoke. While his hands search, his eyes stay fixed on a nearby grove and, in the foreground, a large gap framed by the corners of two mud-brick buildings.
“This is normal,” he said, crouching behind the remains of a blown-out wall. “Every day we go from the [forward operating base], we fight the Taliban.”
An hour and many bullets later, Cedric no longer views this as a normal run-in.
“The firefight is stronger today,” he said. “Usually we fight for 30 minutes and go, but today it’s so long.”
It lasted from dawn to dusk.
The recent battle over a 10-mile stretch of road in Kapisa province is a glimpse of how the war in Afghanistan is going. With the Taliban and al-Qaida now deadlier than ever, the conflict may demand more bullets and blood in the future. The question is, how much can France and its allies tolerate?
“People in France don’t understand why we are here. They don’t see the link,” said a French officer serving in Afghanistan. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
“If you let radical Islam grow here, you will see people [elsewhere] get inspiration from it,” the officer said. “In my opinion, we don’t have a right to fail here because of what is at stake.”
A few hundred more French troops could be in the offing: A navy vessel is due to depart the region and in its place a few hundred troops might be added to ground forces, according to Etienne de Durand, director of the Security Studies Center at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.
But they wouldn’t arrive in time to give Cedric and his unit a break. They are due to leave Afghanistan in late November and early December.
“We are tired, but we have a good spirit,” Cedric said.
Back in France, support has been tepid. Opinion polls have consistently shown a majority in France either favors a troop reduction or a total withdrawal. Roughly 40 percent support the status quo, which is high for a NATO nation, while about 4 percent advocate a troop increase.
In Helmand province, Maj. Hal Steele, second in command of Black Watch, the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, acknowledged the emotional toll the war had taken.
“The only thing that will hold (the war effort) in place is political will,” Steele said. “I don’t think the military in the United States or Great Britain will fold. My concern is that, as elections come up (back home) and casualties are used as a political pawn, I could see the coalition breaking up. That would be a disaster.”
“The hardest thing to convince people of is that more people out here would actually mean less casualties on the ground. You can dominate the field,” he added. “I think we still have some ways to go before the public loses faith.”
A new poll conducted for The (London) Times showed mounting opposition to involvement in the war. Thirty-six percent of respondents want an immediate withdrawal, compared with less than 29 percent a month ago.
But many troops feel they are making a difference, even if the public doesn’t see it.
During the summer, the 3 Scots spent nearly a week in a region where farmers were so fearful of the Taliban, they’d moved away from their fields and were living in tents.
The people would walk down to tend their fields during the day and return to the tents in the evening, said Pvt. Stuart Turner, 29, of Aberdeen, Scotland.
“It was kind of a good feeling to see families coming back in,” Turner said. “Maybe they felt safer because we were there. I hope they are still there.”
But while such incidents point to progress, other events cast doubt on how much progress is really being made.
For example, British soldiers were glad they found and confiscated bomb-making materials in stalls at a bazaar in the village of Lakari. Problem is, U.S. soldiers had made a similar find, in the same bazaar, two months earlier.
Stars and Stripes’ Marcus Klöckner contributed to this report.