FORWARD BASE NIJRAB, Afghanistan (AFP) — A logistics convoy has just pulled into Forward Base Nijrab, the latest of about 700 since June to make the perilous three-hour journey from the Afghan capital.
The road that snakes through the mountains from Kabul is a rude test of both truck axles and the soldiers' mettle.
"This is nothing like Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon or Chad. In Afghanistan, the danger is constant," says the French sergeant major who led the mission and is only permitted by the military to give his first name, Pascal.
About 60 kilometres (37 miles) of treacherous road separates NATO's Camp Warehouse in Kabul from this fortified base in Kapisa to the northeast. Not far from here, 10 French soldiers were killed in an insurgent ambush in August.
Convoys supplying the more than 60,000 international troops in Afghanistan, helping in the fight against the Taliban, are regularly attacked, looted and torched.
"The main danger for a logistics convoy is the IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Pascal says.
Most of the roughly 230 international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year have died in bombings.
Nineteen vehicles in a convoy for US troops were torched in southern Zabul province at the weekend by men who claimed to be from the Taliban, police said. The guards escaped and there were reports they had assisted in the attack.
"In Bosnia, we would leave with 35 or 40 lorries with four or five armoured vehicles. Here it is the opposite -- we have four lorries for 16 armoured vehicles," says the sergeant major.
At the end of August, a logistics convoy was hit between Nijrab and Tagab, another French forward base in Kapisa province.
It caused more alarm than harm: a rocket hit a vehicle's armoured shell but did not explode -- a small miracle.
The 20 vehicles in Pascal's latest convoy include a container of ammunition, a field laundry and other goods.
But since the end of June, the 500 men in the logistics unit for the 2,700 French soldiers deployed on Afghan soil have moved far more. Clocking up 135,000 kilometres, they have transported more than 8,500 tonnes of freight.
The trucks pulling shipping containers attract the most attention because their cabins are not bullet-proofed -- "soft", in military jargon.
As they await the arrival of the heavy armoured versions, promised in the coming weeks, the soldiers make do with "system D" -- a French expression for "do-it-yourself".
Two flak jackets against each of the doors offer some protection. A man armed with an assault rifle is perched through the roof window, a position that is particularly uncomfortable with the ever-present dust swirling.
"The staff are used to it but they are looking forward to the arrival of the new vehicles," says the sergeant major.
There are other more discreet security measures.
Each vehicle is equipped with a jammer to stop bombs from being remotely detonated, by radio or mobile phone.
In the sky, fighter jets, drones and helicopters circle, monitoring for any suspicious movement down below, and are at the ready in case the vehicles are "engaged" by attackers.
Another security measure is the power of preparedness. Soldiers listen to endless repetitions of instructions about what to do in case of an explosion or an ambush.
"We have to avoid complacency at all costs," Pascal says.
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