Thursday, June 11, 2009

Afghan war games shatter peace in deepest Norfolk countryside - The Times

For the usually peaceful Norfolk countryside it was a startling sight: a suicide bomber appeared to blow himself up, seriously wounding a passer-by and scaring several sheep.

Thankfully the attacker and his victim were acting. The site of the blast was a mock Afghan village on a military base near Thetford. The exercise is designed to prepare soldiers before deployment to Afghanistan, and commanders believe that it will save lives.

About 60 Afghans who live in Britain as well as more than 100 retired Ghurkas — who are allowed to handle weapons — play the part of villagers, Taleban insurgents and Afghan security forces.

Chickens scuttle across straw-strewn streets framed by high walls, which divide the settlement into small compounds where families live in simple, single-storey stone houses.

Hundred of soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh and 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards became the first to experience the £14 million facility this week.

It also includes a second, more urban Afghan village, four makeshift British bases set in surrounding fields and dirt tracks laden with roadside bombs — the biggest threat facing British troops in southern Afghanistan.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Lock, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, will be deployed to Afghanistan with his 550-strong battle group this autumn. He said that the week-long training experience was “absolutely vital”.

“The lessons they have learnt this week are real life-saving lessons,” he told The Times on the main street of the rural village, which cuts through a small market stocked with plastic fruit and fake meat. An explosion shatters the quiet market scene. A cry erupts as stallholders run for cover. A suicide bomber lies dead next to a bicycle.

Second Lieutenant Adam Libbey and his platoon, who were patrolling through the market at the time, jump into action. A wounded civilian is spotted, with part of one leg blown away.

One soldier evacuates him on his back and the area is secured. Lieutenant Libbey, 24, from Cardiff, said that the simulated blast was invaluable training. “You have got to be prepared for all situations,” said the officer, who is due to go to Afghanistan for the first time in October.

Stanford Training Area, where the Afghan village of Sindh Kalay is located, is the second largest military training facility in Britain, stretching across 43 square miles.

Some 80,000 troops use it every year but previously made do with converted European-style houses.

Commanders hope that the new villages will offer soldiers a better idea of what to expect, though they admit that it would have been preferable to have had it sooner given that British troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001. “It has taken a while but we are firmly on it now,” said Colonel Richard Wesley, the head trainer.

The Afghans are mainly former refugees who sought asylum in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

Speaking in Pashto and dressed in traditional Afghan robes, the men and a few women pretend to live in the single-room houses, cooking bread in a clay oven and sitting around a log fire as British troops conduct searches, question local leaders and go on patrol.

Fazel Beria, 36, originally from Kabul, co-ordinates the Afghan contractors. “The main aim is for the British soldier to understand the Afghan culture, the way of life and their religion so they won’t make any mistakes, so they will be safe and do their job properly,” he said.

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