Thursday, June 11, 2009
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent
Afghan stall-holders beckon to the British soldiers who patrol the bazaar, offering them a salty yoghurt drink and calling out in Pashto as the troops pass by.
There is the distinctive smell of wood-smoke in the air, and in the distance, the call to prayer begins to sound.
Suddenly the calm is shattered by a blast.
A suicide bomber has struck, the force of the explosion sending the market traders diving for cover, and leaving a man lying in apparent agony with one leg blown off.
Immediately, the men of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh go into action, some evacuating the casualty to safety, while others warily crouch by hard cover to assess the situation.
Luckily, this is a training exercise, and the only ones who remain nonplussed by this turn of events are a few bewildered sheep who had been grazing peacefully near the new mock village in the Stanford training area, spread over 43 square miles in Norfolk.
A few minutes later the sheep lose interest and move on.
This is the first time the mock "Afghan village" has been put through its paces by forces training for their deployment in Afghanistan.
So far the consensus among the Royal Welsh and the Coldstream Guards using it this week is that the £14m pounds spent on the facilities has been well worth it. Such training now should help to save lives when it is put it into practice, they say.
The "village" of Sindh Kalay has been carefully modelled on the real thing in Helmand province, right down to the wood-smoke and the market stalls, though rarely have I seen such fresh-looking fruit for sale in Helmand.
On closer inspection, though, it turns out to be made of plastic.
The old training village was based on European-style houses and fields, useful for troops deploying to Bosnia or Kosovo but rather less so for the kind of wars British soldiers have been fighting in recent years.
"There has been some real investment in this village, and of my 20 years in the Army, it's the best training I've ever seen - the preparation is superb," says Lieutenant Colonel Toby Gray, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards.
They and the Royal Welsh are due to deploy to Afghanistan later in the year as part of 11 Light Brigade.
Lieutenant Colonel Nick Lock, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, agrees.
"The guys are enjoying the training, and can see real value in being able to practise in a replica situation," he said.
The new facilities also include a more urban Afghan sprawl, mimicking one of the bigger towns, as well as several smaller forward operating bases and dirt tracks where soldiers can train to counter the other main threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan today - roadside bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive devices).