UKMSSG: Building bridges in Afghanistan

Key to suc­cess in Afghanistan is improv­ing secu­ri­ty through sta­bil­i­sa­tion and reduc­ing the influ­ence of insur­gents, and at the hard end of this strat­e­gy is the Mil­i­tary Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Sup­port Group (MSSG) and its per­son­nel on the ground. Report by Tris­tan Kel­ly.

A British Army patrol in Helmand province assisted by the Military Stabilisation Support Team
A British Army patrol in Hel­mand province assist­ed by the Mil­i­tary Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Sup­port Team
Source: WO2 Chris Davis 2009, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The new ISAF Com­man­der in Afghanistan, Gen­er­al David Petraeus, has spo­ken of his deter­mi­na­tion to inten­si­fy a strat­e­gy focused on dri­ving a wedge between the Tal­iban and the Afghan peo­ple.

This strat­e­gy has been backed by the UK Gov­ern­ment, and the Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment Sec­re­tary, Andrew Mitchell, recent­ly announced that UK spend­ing on Afghanistan aid projects is set to rise by 40 per cent in order to has­ten the with­draw­al of troops from the coun­try:

“While the mil­i­tary bring much-need­ed secu­ri­ty, peace will only be achieved by polit­i­cal progress backed by devel­op­ment,” Mr Mitchell said.

One of those work­ing on the front line involved in that strat­e­gy is War­rant Offi­cer Class 2 Chris Davis, a for­mer Roy­al Elec­tri­cal and Mechan­i­cal Engi­neers vehi­cle mechan­ic, who deployed to Afghanistan on Oper­a­tion HERRICK 10 between March and Octo­ber 2009 as part of a Mil­i­tary Sta­bil­i­sa­tion Sup­port Team (MSST).

Ini­tial­ly deployed to Garm­sir, WO2 Davis was part of a MSST embed­ded with the Oper­a­tional Men­tor­ing and Liai­son Team, and explained that, first and fore­most, get­ting out amongst the peo­ple is the first respon­si­bil­i­ty of the MSST:

“You have to be talk­ing to the peo­ple to be doing your job, there’s no point stay­ing inside.

“So I got out with them, did a lot of talk­ing. I just got stuck in, start­ed talk­ing to the peo­ple and start­ed find­ing out what the vil­lagers want­ed.

“I then fed that back in so that the StabAd [sta­bil­i­sa­tion advi­sor], team leader and bat­tle group com­man­der could start work­ing out what they want­ed to do and how they want­ed to influ­ence them to change the area, and so they had an under­stand­ing of what was going on out on the ground and what the per­cep­tions of the peo­ple were.”

From there WO2 Davis was deployed in the van­guard of Oper­a­tion PANTHER’S CLAW, the large ISAF oper­a­tion of Sum­mer 2009, tasked with gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion on local com­mu­ni­ties, before being rede­ployed down to Chah-e Anjir — a vil­lage to the north east of Nad ‘Ali — with the Welsh Guards:

“We were the only com­pa­ny in there. Chah-e Anjir has a pop­u­la­tion of about 5,000 and a mar­ket place of about 300 shop fronts, of which only three were open at the time. The insur­gents were intim­i­dat­ing them big time.

“They had a school there but the prin­ci­pal had been killed by the Tal­iban. It was one of their pride and joys and they had it guard­ed 24-hours-a-day, with a guy stood on it at eight-hour inter­vals.”

WO2 Davis explained that there was pres­sure from the com­pa­ny to reopen the school and get a ‘quick, easy win’. How­ev­er, WO2 Davis used his abil­i­ty to find out what the local pop­u­la­tion real­ly want­ed and dis­cov­ered that open­ing the school was actu­al­ly not a pop­u­lar idea:

“The locals said no as they were wor­ried about the secu­ri­ty, so I advised the com­pa­ny com­man­der to step back and we would chip away at that. We would deliv­er first and then we would open the school.”

After a gru­elling ten days of going out on patrol, three to four times a day, WO2 Davis began to win the trust of the local pop­u­la­tion and the first break­through came when the local wak­il (town may­or appoint­ed by the dis­trict gov­er­nor) came in to see him:

“The wak­il did come and see us but said don’t acknowl­edge us in the street — on the face of it you could have said he was a Tal­iban or an insur­gent; but he was a sur­vival­ist, he was look­ing after his vil­lage and didn’t want to put his vil­lage in jeop­ardy.”

WO2 Davis tried to com­mu­ni­cate that he and the com­pa­ny were there to help and after a vil­lage assess­ment he asked the reli­gious elders to spread the word at prayers:

“I then iden­ti­fied a few low key projects, such as clean­ing up the bazaar. The gut­ters were dirty, there was debris all over the place,” WO2 Davis explained.

“There were one or two locals who were real­ly forth­com­ing and talk­ing to us and so I said ‘what do you think about get­ting the bazaar cleaned up?’ ”

After this he invit­ed bids for the work — a key aspect of MSSG work as a whole is that the Afghans do the lion’s share of recon­struc­tion work them­selves:

“They came back and said ‘right, it is going to take us five days work­ing from this hour to this hour, four guys, what do you think?’

“I said OK. I think the going rate at the time was $5 or $6 but as Chah-e Anjir was quite poor I chanced my arm and offered $3 and they said OK.

“I couldn’t upset the local eco­nom­ics and start giv­ing some­one $6 when poten­tial­ly the doc­tor is only earn­ing $4.”

From there, oth­er com­mu­ni­ty projects were com­plet­ed — fund­ed by the Provin­cial Recon­struc­tion Team (PRT) and car­ried out by the local vil­lagers.

The test came on elec­tion day when the school was to be used as a polling booth and the vil­lagers held their breath, hop­ing that their pride and joy would not be a tar­get for insur­gent attack:

“There were no con­tacts [attacks] and no over­spill,” WO2 Davis said. “The next thing I knew [the wak­il] was knock­ing on the camp gates say­ing I think it’s time we opened the school.”

WO2 Davis then start­ed col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion on the chil­dren and sent the infor­ma­tion up to the PRT in Lashkar Gah:

“The next week we had a vis­it from the PRT and the edu­ca­tion min­istry and they said the school needs repaint­ing, a new ablu­tions block built, and a new well.

“So I turned round to the peo­ple and said OK, this is what needs to hap­pen, and asked for peo­ple to start putting ten­ders in for those jobs. We had it done in two weeks.

“We opened it the day after Eid and they did all the work. All I did was tap the but­tons for the resources. It was all their work and that is impor­tant as it is their own­er­ship, it’s theirs.”

On the face of it, open­ing a school might not be con­nect­ed to secu­ri­ty, but, as WO2 Davis explains, it had a knock-on effect:

“The proof of the pud­ding came when, just before we left, the vil­lage elders from a vil­lage about 600 metres north of Chah-e Anjir came to us and said they had asked the Tal­iban to leave and they want what has hap­pened in Chah-e Anjir.”

Buoyed by his achieve­ments and the progress he was able to con­tribute to, WO2 Davis has now extend­ed his tour at the MSSG and is look­ing for­ward to his next deploy­ment as part of the MSST.

WO2 Davis said:

“The British mil­i­tary is mas­sive­ly chang­ing its atti­tude to sta­bil­i­sa­tion. The com­pa­ny com­man­der I was work­ing with actu­al­ly got the DSO [Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Order] and in the cita­tion it actu­al­ly goes on about open­ing the school, engag­ing with the locals and things like that. He got it.

“A lot of peo­ple say to you ‘you go to Afghanistan and you can’t make a dif­fer­ence’. But you can start to make a dif­fer­ence. It real­ly is a fan­tas­tic job.

“I’m stay­ing here for longer than I thought. They just said to me ‘do you want to stay at the MSSG?’ Bloody right I do!”

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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