It’s been a long day, but, despite the 3.30am start, it is a pleasant evening at Forward Operating Base Shawqat, sitting at a deal table sipping coffee under a scrim sunshade in the inky dark.
Something very large buzzes round the light bulb; it’s probably best not to look too closely at what it might be. Apart from that, everything is reassuringly peaceful.
It’s a peace that has been hard fought for, but a lot has been achieved here in a relatively short period of time, which is why Nad ‘Ali attracts so many high profile visitors. In terms of transition it is seen as a model of success.
A lot has changed in the last three or four years. Once seen as a no-go area, now no ISAF patrols take place within 5km of the base because security is provided by Afghan forces who are beginning to extend their influence into the north.
Once the tide turned against the Taliban, progress was rapid. Two-thirds of the way through this summer’s tour, 22 of the 32 ISAF bases had been closed and the number of ISAF troops in the area halved.
Transition has meant a change of approach not only for the military, but also for the stabilisation process too:
I used to be the Stabilisation Adviser, I’m the Transition Adviser now,” said Andy Venus.
It’s more than just a name change:
I used to lead on stabilisation, and I had a budget, and I would tell the district governor where he was going to spend my money.
Now I advise and mentor him on the political decisions he has to make and on what he’s going to do with his money.
Andy draws a comparison to how the military have developed their role:
At first ISAF would create security and take the lead, then they trained the Afghan National Army, now they advise and mentor.
Well that’s exactly how the stabilisation team’s relationship with the government has developed.
At first we were recruiting officials, telling them what their jobs were and how to do them. We came along to them and said ‘right, here’s your budget, and you are going to have schools here, here and here’.
We would place the contracts, we’d do it all. Now we don’t, they do all of that.
And just as the military had to reach a point of understanding, that the Afghans must be allowed to solve problems in their own way, so it is on the civilian side:
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Afghans have definite ideas of what they want to do and how - you can see it on the military side and on the governance side too.
The thing you have to learn is that if they really want to do something, they may not write things in a plan like we would, but it will happen quickly, and in a way that wouldn’t occur to you.
The Afghans’ pragmatic and idiosyncratic approach to life, while initially baffling to Western minds, often demonstrates the importance of local context. Take the rebuild of the school at Zhargun Kalay as an example:
It was destroyed by the Taliban years ago,” said Major Nick George Royal Marines, Officer Commanding of the Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST) charged with the task of overseeing the project on behalf of the Americans.
Until a couple of years ago the kids were still being taught under a damaged sloping concrete roof. It was in the district development plan to demolish it and build a new one.
Andy Venus gleefully takes up the tale:
Contracts were placed with a local contractor, so we thought, fine, no problems, and the guy goes off to start the demolition and clear away the debris.
Three days later Andy got a visit from the battle group commander who had just driven through the area only to discover what he considered to be chaos:
He said to me ‘it’s an absolute mess down there Andy. The guy is just piling up tons of rubble in the road - it’s stretching a good three kilometres, you’d better get your guys to go and find out what’s going on and remind him it’s in his contract to get rid of the spoil, he can’t just dump it’.
The MSST investigated and found things every bit as bad as the Colonel had described:
But the guy told us ‘don’t worry, two days, it will all be gone’. And he was dead right,” said Major George.
The contractor knew that rubble like this is a highly desirable commodity:
The locals swept it up saying ‘thank you very much’. They stock it up for the winters to repair walls that the rains wash away.
As transition takes hold in the area of operations and stabilisation moves more into the development phase, the MSST are spending less of their time dealing with compensation claims for things like compounds and crops damaged by ISAF patrols.
Fewer too are the projects that they are leading as the momentum is in getting Afghans to do things for themselves:
We’re working pretty hard to do ourselves out of a job. Our approach is let’s try and do nothing because that’s how it’s going to be in two or three years’ time,” said Major George.
Staff Sergeant Marc Elliott is the MSST’s engineer; he goes out to inspect projects such as police station and bridge builds to make sure everything is sound before contractors get their stage payments.
But the team’s main focus now is analysing damage to compounds prior to bases being closed down and the land handed back:
We make sure owners are properly compensated and ensure that the land is fit for farming again,” said Warrant Officer Mark Evans.
After three decades of upheaval one of the hardest tasks is identifying who actually owns what:
There are some places where people claim to own it,” said Warrant Officer Evans, “and they may well have done 30 years ago, but with different power shifts it may have been taken off them and given to someone else who doesn’t have any documentation, or the person farming the land may be a tenant and not the actual owner.
So making sure you are paying the right person is a big challenge.
When the land is handed back you might think that the reaction would be ‘about time too’, but that isn’t necessarily the case:
We ask them how they want things, if we’ve put up buildings, do they want us to leave them or return the land to fields - if we leave anything it’s taken into account in the scale of payment he gets,” said Warrant Officer Evans
But usually they are just interested in getting farmable land back. They all have somewhere to live and land means income. I haven’t heard any comments, but with the handovers sometimes you feel they would prefer to keep renting to us. Let’s just say they weren’t sold short.
On top of this, the MSST sometimes helps Andy Venus get around and lend a hand cajoling the district governor and his ministers into visiting the more outlying settlements to the north.
Along the way they gently suggest that, when it comes time to allocating money, some of it should be pushed out to benefit these communities:
I mean places like Kopak are always going to be viewed as the Cornwall and Devon of the area of operations, simply because of how far away they are, but we have made a bit of difference up there with just a bit of friendly persuasion, and proving that it is safe to travel around,” said Major George.
Given the chance, people just want to get on with their lives, and as the benefits of transition seep into the locals’ mindset, so the influence of the Taliban evaporates:
Confidence is infectious,” said Andy Venus, “and, as people start doing things for themselves, the momentum builds and you hear them starting to say ‘we are not worried about the Taliban anymore’.
So, perhaps these really are the first signs that Major George and his men will get their wish of doing themselves out of a job.
This article is taken from the November 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.