Fabled Foreign Legion finds a new war to fight

TORA, Afghanistan – As soon as the French Foreign Legion moved in this summer, some of the men climbed on the roof of the base headquarters and painted the force's Latin motto in big white letters.

"Legio Patria Nostra." The legion is our homeland.

Home has been in many far-flung places for legionnaires during their storied 178-year history — North Africa, the Far East, Mexico, and now the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan as part of NATO's U.S.-led International Security Force.

The legion's Afghan contingent consists of 750 men of more than 80 nationalities. Some have joined up for high-adrenaline life, some are dodging the law, some have come from poor countries simply to earn a decent wage.

If anything bothers them about the Afghan mission, it's NATO's rules of engagement, which stress the need not just to fight the Taliban but to befriend the local population.

"We're meant for fighting. There's too much chatting around here," said Chief Sgt. Alex, downing beers in the legionnaires' clubhouse at Tora base, an open-air shed whose large flat-screen TV was showing hard-core porn videos to the music of "Viagra," a Ukrainian techno band.

A 23-year veteran of 17 legion missions, mostly in the Balkans and in former French colonies in Africa, Alex said he was expecting his fifth citation for valor, for a nighttime combat mission with U.S. Special Forces.

Like his comrades, the British-born former pub manager went only by his first name, an alias. The legion gives all recruits a new name and strictly guards their anonymity.

"Legionnaires begin a new life when they join," explained Capt. Michel. "Each and every one of them is allowed to keep his past a secret."

It's part of the legion's mystique, along with a reputation for ferocity, in battle as well as in the training needed to mold men of many countries and languages into a single force.

Since settling into their base at Tora, in the Surobi district east of Kabul, the legionnaires, who make up almost a third of French troops in the NATO force, have not had many opportunities to fight.

They have pushed two-thirds of the way up the Uzbeen valley nearby, a former Taliban stronghold where their outposts still come under sporadic attack. But most of their mission has been to patrol relatively calm villages, meeting with the "Maleks," or community leaders, while U.S. and British forces bear the brunt of the fighting in the more volatile Afghan south.

Historically, the legionnaires have viewed themselves as one big family of 7,500 men. Even the officers spend Christmas not at home but on base with their men, and retirees and invalids can live on the legion's farm in southern France, where they grow and bottle rose wine.

At dinner recently, officers were served Cote du Rhone red wine, while alcohol had been banned at U.S. and British bases in the country.

To enlist in the all-male legion, a man simply has to sign up at a recruiting station on French soil. Officers say police often let illegal migrants go through if they are heading for the legion. One recruit recently bicycled from Mongolia to France, they said.

It's a tradition that dates to the founding of the legion in 1831, after France was bled by the Napoleonic wars and needed foreign men to help conquer and colonize Algeria.

Five years' service entitles a recruit to French citizenship. A handful are Afghans, but none are here. The rules bar legionnaires from fighting their native countrymen.

Raoul, the legionnaire from Virginia, says he didn't expect to end up in Afghanistan, and his family worries about him. "But my mom is proud of me now."