Meeting the Afghans on home turf

Lieutenant Colonel G M Strickland

Lieutenant Colonel G M Strickland

Lieutenant Colonel G M Strickland is the Commanding Officer of 1 Royal Gurkha Rifles. Here he writes about winning over the locals.

We started this week with a strong push into an area in which our adversaries thought they were safe. But we did not go to fight; we went to talk.

Because this campaign is more about communication than anything else. Many of the parties in this conflict are locked into a cycle of mutual suspicion, and rumour and conspiracy theories are rife. We have found that the only way to convince people of the benefits of backing the government is to go and meet them. Of course, it would be easier if they came to us, but the insurgents have put paid to that by threatening them with beatings if they do. So we go to them, and that can take a lot of effort, but it is worth it to see an Afghan Army officer sitting on the floor, surrounded by villagers, and winning them around by explaining how the Afghans must work together to solve their problems. All we do as ISAF is help them to find an Afghan solution, because it is their country and the more we take a back seat the better. There is a small story to illustrate this. As we entered a village from which we had been fired upon, the Afghan Army went to look in some of the compounds to check that there were no more insurgents there. As they entered one they were suspicious about two veiled figures. They rapidly worked out that it was in fact two young men hiding under the burqa, and detained them. The following morning, the boys’ father came to protest their innocence, stating that they had only put on the burqa because they were scared. This actually seemed plausible given what had been going on, so the Afghan officer decided to release them, but he did so to the assembled gathering of elders an hour or so later. As the Afghan officer explained the story the elders rolled around with laughter, and chastised the boys for being such fools, but they also promised to keep them on the straight and narrow in the future – and they do not make such promises lightly. It may seem a different world, but it works, and the troubles must be resolved their way.