Ten minutes have passed since we rumbled out of the gates of Forward Operating Base Shawqat in Nad ‘Ali (South). Just a few weeks ago, the Mastiff we are riding in would, by now, have come under attack.
Adrian Dubois, Head of the District Stabilisation Team for this area, has invited me to go with him to look at how the various development projects in the area are going. We are travelling with Major Bayard Barron and his men from B Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment. It’s comforting to know we’re in such good hands.
Our first stop is Chah-e Mirza. We are at a crossroads where along one road runs a fast-flowing irrigation ditch turning over a basic but working water wheel producing electricity. Captain Jaco Van Der Merwe, the Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST) representative responsible for keeping an eye on infrastructure, takes a closer look:
It seems OK. I’m not sure it’s wired up to anything though.
One of Adrian’s objectives is to build up a picture of the area’s various power supplies, where they are located, who owns them and who keeps them maintained.
From the new district stabilisation-funded solar-powered street lights fly Afghan flags. Someone has moved into one of the mud buildings and opened up what looks like a thriving shop, hectic with God-knows-what for sale:
That’s a good sign,” said Adrian,
I wonder if he has registered his shop?
There’s a good chance he won’t have. If he has he will have to pay tax. Adrian makes a note to check:
I will have to find out from the mayor what plans he has for shops round here.
We have stopped here because Major Barron wants Adrian to have a look at a newly-built, freshly-painted but empty building opposite the shop:
This is a training school for mechanics, it’s gone up in the last few days, but isn’t open - is someone supposed to be giving lessons or what?” he wants to know.
This is part of a scheme known as the Young Afghan People’s Organisation, set up to develop trade skills in young males and females in the area. Adrian is keen to get this project up and running; he makes a note and promises to let Major Barron know what’s happening.
Children start to gather round. My notepad, and what I am writing in it, is, it seems, fascinating. I find myself hoping that my editor feels the same when I get home. Inevitably requests for pens start.
A few hundred metres away, surrounded by scrub and dirty ditches, is a two-room mud building; the entrance is full of bird droppings. The feeling is that this inherited project might turn out to be a white elephant:
We think it was supposed to be a shura centre, but if it is then it’s in totally the wrong place out here. They hold their shuras in town,” said Major Barron.
Adrian will have to check to see if he can find out what the plan was for this building, and maybe rethink things.
Adjacent to it, but set back, is a much more encouraging project. A large mud compound surrounds an impressive area of land with a building at the far end.
It has been promised by its owner, one of the local elders, as a temporary school. It is ideal and easily big enough to accommodate 100 children. The need for a school of this size has been discussed and is in the District Community Council plan.
The owner is well-respected:
A key figure on both sides, by the good guys and the bad,” said Major Barron,
he has to be. He is looking for us to make repairs and lay down a drive.
I organised a meeting with him here recently, and I got all the kids in the area in so we could make a big deal of his generosity offering this up as a school. That will make it difficult for him to back down without losing face.
The deal is that after being spruced up, the owner has promised the compound for use as a school for three years, after which he will get it back.
Adrian is convinced, it solves a number of problems and delivers a subtle but strong political message, going through government channels works.
The next stop is Tor-Jan:
If we had stepped out of the vehicles here three weeks ago, we would have immediately been under sustained, heavy, accurate fire.
Look around. Everywhere is a firing point. It took three days of fighting, but we cleared it,” Major Barron said with satisfaction.
We are at a junction. Along the right-hand-side of the road runs an important irrigation channel; another road crosses over it where it runs through a large culvert.
Because of the passage of heavy combat vehicles the culvert is in danger of collapsing, as are some of the banks of the ditch. Adrian has no hesitation about the need for action:
This is a vital water supply. We smashed it so I’ll spend some conflict budget to get local people to repair it and put in a proper turning circle for vehicles.
I could legitimately call in the Royal Engineers to do it, but I want to stimulate the local economy and this is a perfect project for that.
Adrian estimates the work will cost him $200k. He will competitively tender for the work as he does all projects. The locals are used to it.
There is a premium to be paid for a security element to any work, but as the threat level in an area reduces he expects to see a price drop in the quotes he receives:
I’m also working with the governor to establish building standards, we’re starting from scratch, but it’s important.
Looking across the road he points out a small shop:
You have to admire these people, within an hour of the fighting ending that chap had opened that shop and rented out the other two rooms as workshops.
The next stop is Noorzai to look at a new police station and a proposed site for a temporary school. The police station seems small for its $20k cost, but it includes a premium for security during its construction.
It is well-placed to control the junction of two main roads and the major canal that describes the boundary of the operational area. Beyond it lies the desert, the badlands where the insurgents fled after the Royal Irish chased them out. Major Barron has a suggestion to make to Adrian:
How would you feel about funding a footbridge across the canal?
His reasoning mixes military thinking with developmental opportunities. Although the desert region is not in the government plan for development, the Major feels that access would kill two birds with one stone:
With the police station here you would control who comes and goes and that spreads your influence without having to go across with a fighting force, and it would give access to the town and allow children to come across to go to the school.
Adrian admires the boldness of the plan and says he will think about it. But first he has to think about another offer being extended by a local to lend a compound to be used as a temporary school.
He doesn’t trust the man who is claiming that he has been made promises by ISAF to rent his property for three months.
Adrian is not impressed. It is clear that the quickest way to get on his bad side is to talk about ISAF promises:
It’s not about ISAF anymore, that is not how we do things, it’s about what’s in the district plan,” he said for the umpteenth time that day.
Anyway, the building is too small and being used to slaughter poultry.
The close protection guard is getting twitchy:
Can we get a move on, we’ve been here too long and we are too far away from the vehicles,” he advised.
Adrian has seen enough:
This won’t do, I’ll set up a tented temporary school on the other side of the river instead.
On we push to Zaborabad, dropping in at Patrol Base Pimon for a five-minute lunch. The padre asks for a lift but doesn’t heed the two-minute notice to move.
The last we see of him is through the back window of the Mastiff as his ride disappears through the gate:
I’m sorry padre, I said two minutes, not even God will get you a ride in here now,” joked Major Barron.
Around 450 people live in Zaborabad. It is still seen as volatile. We are here to look at a proposed community centre and a building being offered as a school. Neither looks suitable. It seems they may be more legacy problems. Captain Van Der Merwe is sceptical:
You’ve got to ask yourself why a community centre? Did they have one before we came? No. Will they ever use it? No.
The stop is a short one. Adrian will discuss the way forward with the District Governor.
By now it’s getting late. Maybe we have time for one last stop, but we never make it. In the gathering gloom the young driver misjudges a three-point turn and reverses the Mastiff over a large grain storage jar.
The Major jumps out and goes into a well-practised routine to ease what could turn into a nasty situation:
How much was it?” he asks.
Suddenly on the spot the local says:
In moments he has this amount in his hand and is posing for a picture with the Major. It’s all good-humoured, but the picture will go into the record that reimbursement has been made.
Further on, the young driver’s day gets worse.
The sides of the track crumble under the weight of the Mastiff and we sink into an irrigation ditch. As the light fades we wait by the vehicle while the wrecker is sent to drag us out.
Locals turn up to make fun and joke with the soldiers. What is bad for the driver is good for me as it offers an opportunity to see the MSST in operation, dealing with the mirab (a local with responsibility for the irrigation channels).
A deal is struck and the work to repair the banks can get underway the next day.
What could have been a problem is now another chance to build relationships with the locals.
This article is taken from the February 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.