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MSSG: Building bridges in Afghanistan

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

Key to success in Afghanistan is improving security through stabilisation and reducing the influence of insurgents, and at the hard end of this strategy is the Military Stabilisation Support Group (MSSG) and its personnel on the ground. Report by Tristan Kelly.

The new ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has spoken of his determination to intensify a strategy focused on driving a wedge between the Taliban and the Afghan people.

This strategy has been backed by the UK Government, and the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, recently announced that UK spending on Afghanistan aid projects is set to rise by 40 per cent in order to hasten the withdrawal of troops from the country:

While the military bring much-needed security, peace will only be achieved by political progress backed by development,” Mr Mitchell said.

One of those working on the front line involved in that strategy is Warrant Officer Class 2 Chris Davis, a former Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers vehicle mechanic, who deployed to Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK 10 between March and October 2009 as part of a Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST).

Initially deployed to Garmsir, WO2 Davis was part of a MSST embedded with the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team, and explained that, first and foremost, getting out amongst the people is the first responsibility of the MSST:

You have to be talking to the people to be doing your job, there’s no point staying inside.

So I got out with them, did a lot of talking. I just got stuck in, started talking to the people and started finding out what the villagers wanted.

I then fed that back in so that the StabAd [stabilisation advisor], team leader and battle group commander could start working out what they wanted to do and how they wanted to influence them to change the area, and so they had an understanding of what was going on out on the ground and what the perceptions of the people were.

From there WO2 Davis was deployed in the vanguard of Operation PANTHER’S CLAW, the large ISAF operation of Summer 2009, tasked with gathering information on local communities, before being redeployed down to Chah-e Anjir - a village to the north east of Nad ‘Ali - with the Welsh Guards:

We were the only company in there. Chah-e Anjir has a population of about 5,000 and a market place of about 300 shop fronts, of which only three were open at the time. The insurgents were intimidating them big time.

They had a school there but the principal had been killed by the Taliban. It was one of their pride and joys and they had it guarded 24-hours-a-day, with a guy stood on it at eight-hour intervals.

WO2 Davis explained that there was pressure from the company to reopen the school and get a ‘quick, easy win’. However, WO2 Davis used his ability to find out what the local population really wanted and discovered that opening the school was actually not a popular idea:

The locals said no as they were worried about the security, so I advised the company commander to step back and we would chip away at that. We would deliver first and then we would open the school.

After a gruelling ten days of going out on patrol, three to four times a day, WO2 Davis began to win the trust of the local population and the first breakthrough came when the local wakil (town mayor appointed by the district governor) came in to see him:

The wakil did come and see us but said don’t acknowledge us in the street - on the face of it you could have said he was a Taliban or an insurgent; but he was a survivalist, he was looking after his village and didn’t want to put his village in jeopardy.

WO2 Davis tried to communicate that he and the company were there to help and after a village assessment he asked the religious elders to spread the word at prayers:

I then identified a few low key projects, such as cleaning up the bazaar. The gutters were dirty, there was debris all over the place,” WO2 Davis explained.

There were one or two locals who were really forthcoming and talking to us and so I said ‘what do you think about getting the bazaar cleaned up?’

After this he invited bids for the work - a key aspect of MSSG work as a whole is that the Afghans do the lion’s share of reconstruction work themselves:

They came back and said ‘right, it is going to take us five days working from this hour to this hour, four guys, what do you think?’

I said OK. I think the going rate at the time was $5 or $6 but as Chah-e Anjir was quite poor I chanced my arm and offered $3 and they said OK.

I couldn’t upset the local economics and start giving someone $6 when potentially the doctor is only earning $4.

From there, other community projects were completed - funded by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and carried out by the local villagers.

The test came on election day when the school was to be used as a polling booth and the villagers held their breath, hoping that their pride and joy would not be a target for insurgent attack:

There were no contacts [attacks] and no overspill,” WO2 Davis said. “The next thing I knew [the wakil] was knocking on the camp gates saying I think it’s time we opened the school.

WO2 Davis then started collecting information on the children and sent the information up to the PRT in Lashkar Gah:

The next week we had a visit from the PRT and the education ministry and they said the school needs repainting, a new ablutions block built, and a new well.

So I turned round to the people and said OK, this is what needs to happen, and asked for people to start putting tenders in for those jobs. We had it done in two weeks.

We opened it the day after Eid and they did all the work. All I did was tap the buttons for the resources. It was all their work and that is important as it is their ownership, it’s theirs.

On the face of it, opening a school might not be connected to security, but, as WO2 Davis explains, it had a knock-on effect:

The proof of the pudding came when, just before we left, the village elders from a village about 600 metres north of Chah-e Anjir came to us and said they had asked the Taliban to leave and they want what has happened in Chah-e Anjir.

Buoyed by his achievements and the progress he was able to contribute to, WO2 Davis has now extended his tour at the MSSG and is looking forward to his next deployment as part of the MSST.

WO2 Davis said:

The British military is massively changing its attitude to stabilisation. The company commander I was working with actually got the DSO [Distinguished Service Order] and in the citation it actually goes on about opening the school, engaging with the locals and things like that. He got it.

A lot of people say to you ‘you go to Afghanistan and you can’t make a difference’. But you can start to make a difference. It really is a fantastic job.

I’m staying here for longer than I thought. They just said to me ‘do you want to stay at the MSSG?’ Bloody right I do!