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Kabul Notes

A journey into Afghanistan.

Return to Afghanistan with a group of journalists, escorted by the French defense minister, Hervé Morin. A limited view: We only see valleys in Surobi and Kapisa. But an invaluable glimpse, nevertheless, because it counters what is heard almost everywhere.

First chapter, Tora, a small fort sitting on stones, some distance from Kabul. Welcome by Colonel Benoît Durieux, leader of the regiment and an intellectual, author of the excellent Rereading Clausewitz's On War. Movement toward Surobi, where an assembly of malik, the sages of the region, waits for us to join a ceremony opening a small school for boys. The number of armored vehicles mobilized for the trip, the extreme nervousness of the men, as well as the low-flying Caracal helicopter that brought us here early this morning, at times hovering only ten meters above the ground--all this leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the threat. But there is also no doubt about the fact that the military's strategy relies on a simple idea that has little to do with the caricature drawn by my country's media: to show that we are, of course, there to wage war, but also that the stakes of this war are the security, peace, and access to care and education of a population for whom the coalition is an ally.

Rocco, a base in the heart of the Uzbin Valley, ten kilometers upstream from the place where ten French Special Forces soldiers were killed in August 2008. It is another western encampment, even more isolated and surrounded by mountains. Camping there in tents reinforced with plywood, in preparation for winter, are 159 men. They had just barely set up camp, Captain Vacina tells me, when the elections arrived, as did the Taliban's bombardment of polling places, the response of the Afghan regular forces supported by these troops, and the incredible spectacle of people from the countryside coming to vote in the midst of bombs and machine gun fire. An occupation force, really? Neo-colonialism, like the useful idiots of Islamo-progressivism say? Armies, like people, have an unconscious, and I do not deny that temptation can exist. But what I see there, for the moment, is this: a military force that has come, literally, to allow people to vote.

Tagab, in the heart of Kapisa province, further north still, is where I come across Colonel Chanson, who, as a young Blue Beret in Sarajevo, remembers having denied me access to Mount Igman 15 years ago. The same mountainous landscape, though at the foot of these mountains there is a green valley infested with armed groups. The base of operation was bombarded yesterday. Two days earlier, a more intense attack provoked a sortie. And the colonel recounted the climb toward the opposite position, the occupation of the ridge, the skirmish with a jihadist combat unit on the way back, the very difficult combat, and, finally, the routing of the attackers. Nejrab, 18 kilometers to the north, also in the Kapisa valley. It is this fourth base that houses the Third Battalion of the Afghan national army, under the command of Colonel Khalili. I recall my recommendation in my 2002 Afghanistan report commissioned by then–French President Jacques Chirac: Aid the building of a national Afghan army and allow it, as soon as possible, to assume responsibility for isolating, and then defeating, the neo-fascist Taliban.

And now, that is exactly what is happening, if I believe Khalili's explanations. He's the one ultimately responsible for the sorties. He is the one who decides to request--or not--reinforcements from the French battalion. And also under his command are the notorious American "advisers." Once again, the opposite of the cliché. Once again, the inverse of the accepted image of a Franco-American war in which Afghans are only bit players. Bagram, finally. The U.S. base in Bagram. The terrible secret prison, impossible to approach, 200 meters from where I am. And the 42 men of the French Harfang detachment who are in charge of two drones, piloted on the ground by navigators trained on Mirage jets and furnishing the troops with all the information likely to reduce the risks of their operations. The "low-intensity" conflict whose result, as everyone well knows, is never only military. I didn't see everything, of course. But what I did see is this: An ugly war, like every war; but a just war, less poorly led than is said, and a war that can, with the right choices, be won.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author of Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Translated from French by Sara Phenix.