|European forces have been accused of failing to send troops to dangerous parts of Afghanistan
Al Jazeera filmed with French troops patrolling the Sorubi district which lies south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Our correspondent Hamish Macdonald reports.
You always expect to be woken up early and rudely when travelling with one of the foreign military deployments in Afghanistan, but would a trip with the French 1st Infantry prove to be different?
Yes, it seems. They do things differently to the Americans. They get woken up to classical music.
It is 4am in Sorubi district south of Kabul, where we have come to spend some time on patrol with the French forces. As the classical notes play out in the pre-dawn darkness, Captain Bruno, one of the few French soldiers who speaks English, says: "We have, you know, the French touch. We are not like the Americans."
That is true enough, but it is also one of the reasons France and other European members of Nato have been accused of failing to pull their weight in Afghanistan.
Their deployments are much smaller and they tend to remain primarily in safer parts of the country, refusing to serve in the troubled southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
We join the patrol with the French battalion as day begins to break and their tanks and personnel carriers roll out beyond the razor-wire fence of their base into the splintering cold of the Afghan morning.
Inside the vehicles, the soldiers sit cramped and confined, with tiny and obscured views of the outside world – it is, for them, a rare glimpse of an unfamiliar and unforgiving land.
"The villagers seem intrigued by the French soldiers... it is hard to imagine what they think of the canned creme brulee"
On this patrol they forge new ground, arriving in villages where foreign soldiers are not regular visitors.
After driving for a few hours we finally get out of the vehicles to greet the daylight. Suddenly there is a warning call. Suspicious movement in the nearby village puts the patrol on alert. The men disperse, to observe and take-up defensive positions.
Ever since an attack in August last year which killed 10 French soldiers here, the prospect of ambush has remained a constant threat.
This tense moment proves to be nothing sinister, but it is a reminder of the constant possibility of attack, it is also a far cry from depictions of tiny French and German deployments, cowering inside their barracks in the safest corners of Afghanistan.
|Many Afghans hope the troops will keep their promise to rebuild infrastructure
European countries have been accused repeatedly of failing to send their soldiers into harm's way and Sorubi is by no means the most dangerous part of the country, but we are told it is a key transit point for fighters as they move between Pakistan and the Afghan capital, Kabul.
In the lead up to Afghanistan's presidential elections this year, that could become an even bigger issue than it already is.
We follow the French soldiers as they climb into the hills by foot. They are slowly and steadily winding their way towards their destination. The village of Wakah Khas is a tiny settlement, today surrounded by foreign forces.
I ask Captain Bruno if they feel comfortable here, in unfamiliar territory.
"Yes," he says, pointing to the nearby hilltops, "because we have a lot of fire support, here, here and on every hill surrounding us and above there is air support and drones. You might not see them, but they are there."
More than anything, the villagers here seem intrigued by the French soldiers.
One soldier pulls out bundles of extra ration packs and starts handing out the sweets to children who crowd around. It is hard to imagine what these villagers must think of the canned creme brulee contained in each of these French rations.
A schoolteacher from the village tells me he is pleased to see the French soldiers, but not just because of the free sweets. He wants them to follow through on their promise to build infrastructure here. Water pumps and other vital equipment are sorely needed.
This patrol is actually called a CIMIC Operation, which stands for Civil Military Co-operation.
Winning community support is crucial to this deployment and the French, with their own unique style, say they feel well equipped to win this support, because they are more sympathetic to cultural needs.
However, for many Afghans that makes little difference. These soldiers have Western faces and military uniforms. The flag is red, white and blue – they could just as well be Americans.