Joint patrols between members of 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (1 RGR) and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops have seen the pernicious influence of insurgents in the village of Piand Kalay diminish and a new level of normality return for the local people.
A month ago, following a vicious insurgent campaign of intimidation which included abduction, beatings and murder, many of the villagers in Piand Kalay had fled. Improvised explosive devices restricted movement and insurgents held compounds and regularly engaged ISAF patrols.
Situated in southern Nahr-e Saraj in Helmand province, Piand Kalay is on the route that links the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah to the economic hub of Gereshk and represents a key prize in the struggle for influence in the operational area of C Company, 1 RGR.
In just a few weeks, regular joint patrolling and the setting up of checkpoints in and around the village by the Gurkhas and members of the ANA have resulted in a remarkable change as local people become more confident and have returned to the village.
Second Lieutenant Charlie Russell, 8 Platoon Commander, who has been patrolling the area regularly since April 2010, described the situation:
Four weeks ago when I used to patrol through the village on a daily basis I’d be lucky if I spoke to three or four people.
It was an empty village, the locals were intimidated, they were scared to come to talk to us because they’d be seen interacting with ISAF and ANA.
Now, when we walk through the village from checkpoint to checkpoint and push out into the Green Zone, they welcome us - they want to speak to us.
He noted that:
They are a little intimidated but the overall impression is that they are happy with us in the village and they want to see more progress.
1 RGR took over from the Coldstream Guards in April 2010. The Guards had overseen the construction of Route Trident, a brand new road driven through the village as part of Operation MOSHTARAK earlier in the year and known to the locals as the ‘New’ or ‘Big’ Road.
The road offers freedom of movement to both ISAF forces and the local population but following the harvesting of poppy there was a sharp increase in insurgent activity and intimidation.
The past few weeks have seen the Gurkhas and their ANA partners pushing away from their patrol base in the heart of the village and into the Green Zone in order to provide security and ensure freedom of movement for the local population.
Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Strickland, Commanding Officer of 1 RGR, explained:
We conducted operations to keep the insurgents away and to stop their attacks, and we’ve built checkpoint locations around the villages to stop them continuing their intimidation.
We do still have an insurgency going on and they are pushed into pockets where they still mount attacks on us from time to time but their ability to move around the area is much reduced.
A recent patrol was indicative of what is now a typical experience when out in the village and surrounding fields. Early in the patrol a group of men were seen sitting by a stream.
One of them eagerly described to Second Lieutenant Russell how he was now confident enough to open a new shop he was building and another said how scared they were of IEDs and that he would willingly pass on information should he see or hear of any being planted.
During the patrol other people encountered spoke openly to Second Lieutenant Russell about the checkpoints, the insurgents and outstanding compensation claims. One sought help for an injury from the Gurkha medic. This would not have happened just a few weeks ago.
Joint patrolling with the ANA has helped the Gurkhas better understand the local people and the atmosphere in the area.
The number of checkpoints has increased to four in the immediate vicinity of the village and are manned by both Gurkhas and ANA soldiers. Another three outside the village are occupied by the Afghan National Police.
Lieutenant Colonel Strickland described the mood:
We know the Taliban are not supported in the area and we know that people don’t want them and that they are not welcome because of the intimidation and fighting they bring with them.
He admits that the local people “are cowed and they are definitely still waiting to see what will happen … they see the progress but it’s not enough yet but we know it’s going in the right direction.”
Lieutenant Colonel Strickland stated that at the end of his battle group’s tour he expected to leave behind “an area that is safer, an area in which the population are gaining confidence to come out openly on the side of the Afghan Government and reject the insurgency. That is what we’re striving for, we won’t get that across the whole of our area over the course of six months, of course we won’t, it’s a slow business, but we will definitely be able to hand over an area that is much more supportive of the Government than when we arrived.”