Monday, April 5, 2010

Creating the conditions for stabilisation

The Estonian mission in Helmand

Patrol Base (PB) Wahid sits adjacent to the Neb canal, surrounded by fields made fertile by the regular rectilinear irrigation scheme which characterise the Nad-e Ali area. Against the perimeter walls of this ISAF base, poppies grow –not permitted under Afghan law, but tolerated nonetheless by the troops inside.

The base is protected on all sides by soil filled Hesco bastion, a gabion basket product that has become synonymous with the ISAF mission in Afghanistan due to the proclivity for its use. Inside, mud and straw compounds house international troops and their kit.

The former Luy Mandhar Bazaar, which sits only 200m from the walls of the Base, is abandoned. It’s inhabitants left after the Taleban littered the streets, shops and houses with IEDs. Now, the remnants of buildings, half collapsed to reveal their painted interiors, are watched from a distance through the optics of soldiers manning the sangers.

PB Wahid is home to approximately 200 soldiers, made up of a resident Estonian Company, an Afghan National Army unit and assorted British troops. They are joined, occasionally, by passing British and American units, tempted by the large – unusually large for a patrol base - secure compound in which to park their vehicles.

The disparate and transient nature of the troops, at any time in occupation, reinforces the ‘temporary’ atmosphere created by the field conditions.

The base is commanded by an Estonian officer, Major Sergei Guselnikov; a tall and athletic man with a neat moustache and close clipped hair, save for his fringe which is left long and combed across his forehead.

He leads the 120 strong Estonian Company, or EstCoy as it is known. Together with troops from the Afghan National Army, they patrol the surrounding countryside, delivering reassurance amongst a population wary of committing to one side, for fear it is the losing side.

Estonians troops have been in Afghanistan since 2005 and although their location has changed – the previous EstCoy was located at PB Pimmon, prior to that they were the Mobile Reserve Company - they are all volunteers from the same Estonian regular army Scouts Battalion.

This is Guselnikov’s first deployment to Afghanistan. He previously served in Iraq in 2005. “Afghanistan is hot in every sense”, he says. “The climate has its influence on capabilities of course. But It’s definitely a difficult task because we have the enemy, which is Taleban, and us. Both organisations claim to offer the same to the locals – stability, governance, investments, projects, money. Both organisations look to have the hearts and minds of local nationals.

“So this is the struggle, to have hearts and minds of local nationals and to do it in such a way that they prefer us to the Taleban. At the beginning of our tour, the FLET (Forward Limit of Enemy Threat) was just a couple of hundred metres from Wahid, so no security, projects or stabilisation. Nothing to offer to the locals”.

The Estonian company lost two soldiers wounded in action and one, Kristjan Jalakas, aged nineteen, killed in action, soon after arriving at Wahid. A small and neat memorial in the corner of a compound in the base serves as a reminder of those first few difficult weeks.

In a part of Helmand where the IED threat is particularly high, it is difficult to assign those losses directly to a perceived lack of delivery by, and therefore, distrust of, troops newly arrived into theatre. But a permissive local population is all that is needed to allow insurgents to operate with confidence.

Guselnikov recognises that gaining the support and trust of the local population is essential in fighting a successful counterinsurgency operation: “During Moshterak, our southern areas were significantly cleared and secured and now it’s stabilised. We have delivered what we promised to the local nationals.

“We have a permanent presence in the south of Wahid. We are repairing damage on the roads. We have built a bridge in the village of Luychek, by our own manpower and materials because it is time to do something that we promised to”.

Within the past week, three IEDs have been pointed out, by locals, to Estonian troops.

In a country as complex as Afghanistan, the truth is often delivered in layers. The identification of IEDs may be a sign of locals’ growing confidence in ISAF’s ability to deliver security. It may, equally, be that harvesting is due to commence and local farmers are trying to attract seasonal labourers to work their crops. With so many IEDs hidden in the ground, many simply refuse to travel to Helmand.

With progress in Helmand measured in metres, not miles, Guselnikov is happy to accept this as progress, whatever the motivations behind it may be. But his greatest challenge, he believes will be in maintaining the momentum established by Moshterak: “first, the locals wanted security. Now they want more. That is beyond our capabilities. We are infantry. We are holding what we have secured and waiting for projects through MSST (Military Stabilisation and Support Teams) and other organisations to come, because the area is ready for this”.

“They are asking us to repair their roads, bridges, water pumps, to repair what was damaged during the fighting period”.

“They want to come back home from the desert, and now it is time to return to their homes”.

Pictures: Captain Philip Atkinson, SCOTS

1 comment:

  1. I have very mixed feelings reading this - yes the ISAF have progressed but underneath it all - I can only see that the Afghan locals are still not fully trusting what the world is trying to do - are they only showing the troops the IEDs because of haverst time - we will never know - but I do know - troops are giving their lives (not to mention the wounded)to give these people things they have never really had or had in a very long time... I also feel the more they are getting - the more they want - Reading the total wounded/casualties of our Countries, I still wonder if it's all worth it! The big picture is suppose to be stopping terrorist/training camps funded by poppies growing - well they're still growing - and terrorist are still around....there is only so much the world can do. (And I never mentioned the amount of money that is being spent)AS ALWAYS, PROUD OF ALL OUR TROOPS.