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Military Stabilisation Support Group leaves lasting legacy for Afghanistan

As the Afghan government takes greater control in Helmand, the work of the UK Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) is nearing an end.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

British soldiers oversee the construction of Route Trident in the Nahr-e Saraj area of Helmand province, Afghanistan (library image) [Picture: Senior Aircraftman Neil Chapman, Crown copyright]
British soldiers oversee the construction of Route Trident in Nahr-e Saraj

From almost the first moment that International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) boots stepped onto the sand and soil of central Helmand province, the MSSG have been instrumental in winning the hearts and minds of its people.

Their role has been described by some as unique. It has certainly been complex, and fluid. Ultimately their central purpose has been to provide the link between the citizens of Helmand province and their government, a convention that simply did not exist in any meaningful way in the early days.

As civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) from government departments such as the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence began the arduous and dangerous task of bringing stability to the war-torn province, it was the MSSG who were their eyes and ears on the ground, giving them access to places and people that otherwise they could not reach.

At first, MSSG teams spent most of their time following in the wake of fire fights, paying immediate compensation for damage to crops, buildings and ditches. They would take over land and compounds needed by ISAF and report back to the PRTs, helping them to focus on local needs and on projects that would bring stabilisation and development where it was most needed.

As these projects took shape the MSSG would monitor progress, forging links with the locals and building up databases of trustworthy contractors. Since then the MSSG has been instrumental in every step of the journey which has led to the citizens of central Helmand being able to lead normal lives, enjoying safety provided by their own security forces, and making their own decisions about their future delivered by their own system of government.

Ian Carr speaks with Major Will Miller (left) and Captain Matt Eade
Ian Carr speaks with Major Will Miller (left) and Captain Matt Eade [Picture: Corporal Jamie Peters, Crown copyright]

Over the last 2 years, MSSG’s role has been about signposting. Major Will Miller, who was based at Lashkar Gah during Herrick 18, explains:

When we were training for our deployment we were told we would be doing no more build projects, and little in support of operations. We would be going out on the ground when necessary, but instead of doing the projects to support the locals we’d be signposting them to whichever Afghan government department should be delivering the work.

The MSSG would then report the situation to the PRTs, who could liaise with the relevant department to make sure they were fully aware of the situation.

The PRT would give us the overview of what the government departments should be doing, and what they were supposed to be providing to the projects, so we could then match that to what we were seeing on the ground.

Now, government money is flowing down from Kabul and into departments who are putting together proper plans for expenditure, which means that, at the provincial level, the Afghans can prioritise their own projects, allocate resources and place contracts with approved contractors who have had time to demonstrate their quality of work and relative trustworthiness.

Afghan workers using traditional construction techniques
Afghan workers using traditional construction techniques [Picture: Grahame Hunter]

With elected district community councils in place, holding those in power to account for spend and progress on projects, much of the stabilisation work of the MSSG and the PRTs is nearing an end. During Herrick 18, most of the team’s time was spent bringing to an end the last major build project, Orthodox Build Earthworks (OBE), and in closing or handing over patrol bases.

Major Miller said:

I’d say around 40% of the team have been working on the OBE project. OBEs are not part of the Helmand budget, the money is injected right at the source where it is needed.

OBEs are buildings made out of mud and constructed using traditional building techniques, so that they can be easily maintained by local builders. They can be anything from a small checkpoint for 4 or 5 men to compounds for as many as 100 army or police personnel.

There are virtually no operational maintenance costs for the buildings. They have thick walls so they are warm in winter and cool in summer, so they don’t need air conditioning.

Major Miller said:

We put mechanical wells in, hand-pumped, so there’s no need for electricity.

Closing bases and handing back land and compounds that ISAF have been using is not as simple as it may seem. It’s not just a case of handing over the keys and saying to the new owners ‘we hope you will be as happy here as we have been’. To start with, after decades of conflict and upheaval, how do you know to whom you should be handing the keys?

An Afghan worker uses traditional adobe blocks
An Afghan worker uses traditional adobe blocks during a construction project in Helmand province [Picture: Grahame Hunter]

Even when the base is being handed over to a government department, it can be far from straightforward. Take the Lashkar Gah main operating base. The Ministries of Education and of Finance and the district governor each believe it should go to them. Claims can even be made on buildings that didn’t exist before ISAF erected them.

To find out who owns what we engage with local communities, consult our ISAF registry, and PRT legal experts search through whatever documentation there might be,” said Major Miller. “Decisions about ownership of agricultural land are often made by the district governor, but disputes go through the courts to establish proper ownership.

With that tricky issue out of the way, the next thing to sort out is the payment for any damage that might have taken place.

If we have built a base on land that could mean we had to put in force protection measures, which might mean knocking down a compound on the edge of the base. We would then have to either pay compensation or arrange for that compound to be rebuilt,” said Major Miller.

We’d call the owner in, hopefully with records of what it was like before, and say ‘right, this is what it is now; this is what we are going to do’. The engineers will remediate the site but we [the MSSG] will be there to determine if there are any valid damage claims to be made.

An Afghan worker using traditional construction techniques
An Afghan worker using traditional construction techniques [Picture: Grahame Hunter]

As bases close and, with reconstruction work increasingly in the hands of the local population, so the numbers of the MSSG are reducing. At one time there were as many as 50 MSSG personnel working in teams of 6.

On the previous Herrick there were 27. I brought out 16 who were split between 4 locations. By the end of August that will drop to 7. And when the OBE project is complete there will be no further requirement,” said Major Miller. “In September we will be handing over to the next Herrick, who will have a team of just 4.

The PRT will move its headquarters away from Lashkar Gah and establish itself in Camp Bastion and the plan is that the MSSG will continue until probably March 2014, with a contingency to hold over for a month or 2 if necessary, supporting Task Force Helmand by providing stabilisation information.

As the drawdown rumbles on, ironically the MSSG have found themselves engaged in similar tasks to those they performed in the early days, organising the repair of infrastructure, and mending culverts and simple bridges broken as heavy ISAF vehicles return kit to Camp Bastion.

It’s the damage you would expect from bringing heavy loads along roads that were not designed to take them,” said Major Miller. “If we break something we have to fix it.

Afghan workers using traditional construction techniques
Afghan workers using traditional construction techniques [Picture: Grahame Hunter]

So, as combat troops move out, the MSSG’s footprint is being replaced by Afghan boots. But they will not be leaving unthanked.

Knowing that some of the MSSG staff that they had been working closely with would soon be leaving, a group of the main Afghan contractors asked if they could organise a farewell party for them.

We had them all sitting around this table,” said MSSG’s planner, Captain Matt Eade. “An Afghan colonel turned up too. They had all brought food and we had a little party. They exchanged gifts, plaques and certificates of appreciation. It was a bit like the Oscars. But there was genuine friendship.

The colonel made a speech thanking us for helping them to provide a future for the people of Helmand province, and then everyone thanked everyone else. It was nice.

Tough nuts though the troops of the MSSG are, they, just like the rest of us, like to hear their efforts have made a difference and have been appreciated:

The kinetics have now quietened down,” said Major Miller. “The government departments are functioning. I think the OBEs are our legacy, and they will provide the infrastructure for maintaining security for many years. I think we should be proud of that, and of our part in it.

This report by Ian Carr features in the November 2013 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in defence.

Published 27 November 2013