Saturday, February 28, 2009

How soft toys can win hearts and minds

NERVOUSLY, the pretty young girl approaches Sgt Elvit "Taff" Williams, unsure what to do with the fluffy toy in his outstretched hand.

She has probably never seen a panda – or even photographs of one – in her life and is unable to mask her uncertainty.

But like any child in the world, she does know a toy when she sees one and she shyly smiles her gratitude, her eyes lighting up with joy as she tucks the cherished present under her arm.
A soft toy is an unlikely weapon in the battle to restore law and order to Afghanistan, but it is one being used with massive success.

Sgt Williams, of Chivenor's Commando Logistics Regiment (CLR), is one of the men truly on the front line of the fight to win hearts and minds in this war-torn country.

The Information Operations man discards part of his body armour and heads into villages to build bridges with the local population.
Normally clean-shaven, he has even grown a shaggy beard in order to blend in better with locals.
"It's quite simple. I just go into the community and talk to the local Afghans," says the father-of-two.

"I grew my beard because they see a beard and they see someone in charge and they look up to you."

Determined to appear non-threatening, Sgt Williams, who lives in Barnstaple, North Devon, even removes his helmet.

"It shows I am ready to communicate on their level and that is very important.

"What we do is go into villages and give consent-winning items, likes toys to the children, wind-up radios, blankets and prayer mats.

"We even hand out copies of the Koran, but they are wrapped in green bags to show that we have not touched them. In general, it goes down really well. People are curious to see us."

The exercise isn't just about making friends – it is also a vital method of gathering intelligence on the villages which are creeping ever closer to Camp Bastion in the desert of Afghanistan's notorious Helmand province.

Many feel that the mud compounds, which house an entire extended family and often spring up overnight, are getting nearer to Bastion as locals seek the refuge from conflict it offers. There is no getting away from the suspicion, however, that some compounds might be used by the Taliban to hide their activities.

By using the simple weapon of polite conversation and inquiry, Sgt Williams attempts to find out who is a friend and where the foes are.

"We ask about enemy forces in the area and whether they have seen anything. Fairs-dos to them, they will tell us things," he says.

"They will try and tell us that things are happening elsewhere and that there is nothing to see around where they live."

The reception is not always so warm.

"There are times when you just sense something is wrong," says Sgt Williams.

"We have had a couple of moments when we have seen vehicles coming into the village we are in and we have thought: 'It's time to go.'"

On Saturday, Commanding Officer of CLR, Colonel Andy Maynard, was able to meet his Afghan neighbours face-to-face when he stepped outside the camp compound.

"It was great to go outside and see the locals in their own area," he said.

"You have to hand it to them. A lot of the locals moved out of the area at first, but have now come back.

"I handed wrapped-up copies of the Koran to the local mullah and he was just so happy to get them.

"It's lovely to get out and

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