Anglian TA's win Afghan hearts and minds

JUST six months ago, Musa Qaleh's twice weekly livestock market attracted a couple of hundred traders at most. Nowadays, 3,000 traders regularly attend the twice weekly event which takes place just outside the town in a local wadi - or dry river bed.

JUST six months ago, Musa Qaleh's twice weekly livestock market attracted a couple of hundred traders at most. Nowadays, 3,000 traders regularly attend the twice weekly event which takes place just outside the town in a local wadi - or dry river bed.

Two years since British troops retook Musa Qaleh from the Taliban, stability provided by the troops and their Afghan comrades has meant that life is returning to normal in parts of the district - and Norfolk soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment have played a key role in that stabilisation.

“I've enjoyed working with the Afghan people and I believe that they appreciate us being here,” said Cpl Earnie Adams, 48, from Corpusty, near Holt.

“Both Afghan military and civilians have said that security has improved vastly and their quality of life has also improved,” said Cpl Adams, a section commander with A Company, 3 Royal Anglian, based in Norwich.

The Anglians role is three-fold.

“We send out reassurance patrols in the local area and visit patrol bases. We help train the Afghan National Police that are here, and go out on joint patrols with them. We also have an addition role of providing troops to support Operations,” said Cpl Adams.

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The men from 3 Royal Anglians are all Territorials. Although Territorial Army soldiers make up some 10 percent of the UK's manpower in Afghanistan, it is rare for a TA soldiers to be mobilised as a unit.

In addition to 3 Royal Anglian, their regular counterparts from 1 Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment are also serving in Musa Qal'eh province.

“The Royal Anglians have done a fantastic job,” said Major Simon Potter, 38, Combined Force Musa Qaleh's senior officer responsible for hearts and minds operations. “Every time there are any problems, especially in the district centre, they are tasked to deal with it.”

Potter, who is from the Royal Horse Artillery but also happens to be a Norfolk man from Wroxham, near Norwich, said the Anglians had won a reputation as “extremely professional, having maturity and a great attitude - their wider life experience is invaluable. I'm very proud of the Norfolk Company out here,” he said.

Cpl Adams is a case in point. Although nearly pushing 50, and a grandad to boot, he looks at least 10 years younger and combines experience of life with a physical ability to conduct hard infantry soldering in harsh conditions.

“The advantage with having Territorials is that the soldiers tend to be older and have more experience in life. They are able to take responsibility beyond the level of their rank,” he said.

“They have an unmitigated success,” Combined Force Musa Qaleh's Commanding Officer, Lt Col Harry Fullerton, said. “Their capability is no different to a regular platoon. Part of the secret of that is keeping them together as a distinct platoon as giving them distinct tasks - mentoring the ANP and patrolling of the district centre area.”

Life is tough in Afghanistan for the troops, but rewarding none the less. A Company have been involved in approximately a dozen 'contacts' - shooting incidents ranging from gun battles with formed insurgent units to 'shoot and scoot' incidents where insurgents fire a few rounds before running away.

However, most of what the unit do is reassuring the local population and working with their Afghan colleagues. Members of the unit are out on the ground in and around Musa Qaleh every day, chatting with locals and ensuring their security, along with Afghan colleagues.

“The fact that I can patrol without having to fire my weapon on a regular basis is good. It's a massive improvement compared to other areas of Helmand,” said Cpl Steve Walker, 24, a section commander of a 10-man section.

Cpl Walker, from Norwich, said his time in Afghanistan has been good, and he's been “really happy” with his men, especially one who warned him when he was about to tread on a mortar shell when patrolling in the bazaar.

“I nearly stepped on it but a colleague spotted it,” Cpl Walker said.

When they are not operating in the relatively built up district centre, the men are out in lonely outposts, preventing Taliban insurgents from re-infiltrating the area.

On one operation against insurgents, Cpl Walker was told he would be in a patrol base for 48 hours. He ended up staying there for 21 days. “That's the longest time I haven't spoken to the wife, and we were only married in March,” said Cpl Walker.

The security they provide has meant that normal life can resume again.

Local schools and a health centre have been refurbished, a new 70 metre-deep bore whole has been built that will provide 230,000 litres of water to the town's bazaar, whilst other small scale projects provide free seed for farmers and water for local communities.

The bazaar, which has had 1.5 kilometres of concrete paving added to help shops and stallholders, now sells everything from flour and fridges, fruits and vegetables, meat, motorbikes to clothes, shoes and watches.

“The word is beginning to spread about what is happening in Musa Qaleh,” said Mike McKie, the British stabilisation advisor working with UK forces and the Afghan authorities. “There is real desire for change, people are becoming increasingly less bothered by the insurgency,” said McKie.

Musa Qaleh has been a critical district for the British. After intense fire-fights in 2006 between a small contingent of British troops and scores of Taliban fighters, a deal was brokered by the town's elders whereby they would take control if ISAF forces and the Taliban both withdrew.

A week later the Taliban drove back into town, beheaded or executed many of the elders, and retook control. The drugs market flourish. “It was a dark period. Four prominent warlords exercised control. There was no education, punitive taxation, and unless you grew poppies, no economy,” said McKie.

It was won back from the Taliban in late 2007. Since then, but especially in the last few months, progress has been tangible, with security inside the district now largely provided by the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, both of which are increasingly respected by ISAF forces.

In addition to the main achievement, another 35 smaller scale projects have been undertaken, “ranging from putting up telegraph poles to refurbishing compounds to improving irrigating. Several schools have also been refurbished and the local education department has been busy recruiting teachers.

Afghan security officials say that major strides are being taken to defeat the insurgency.

“We're achieving good things; arresting Taliban and confiscating weapons,” said Col Rasoul, commander of the Afghan National Army Battalion, who works closely with UK forces in Musa Qaleh.

“We enjoy teaching the Afghans,” said Cpl Carl Catchpole, 35, a lorry driver when not serving in Afghanistan. “We've built up a rapport with them. They know who we all are and they'll listen to us on patrol.”

“I have really enjoyed seeing how they live out here. The culture is very, very different,” said Cpl Catchpole.