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Fighting for prosperity

The Royal Engineers are risking their lives creating infrastructure for the future peace and prosperity of Afghanistan. Jon Young reports from Helmand province.

Armed and equipped with Osprey body armour, a convoy of Royal Engineers (RE) ventures out into the perilous streets of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand in southern Afghanistan.

The team of engineers, designers, clerks of works and draughtsmen is making its twice daily patrol of the infrastructure it believes will help free the Afghan people from more than 25 years of poverty and oppression.

Children wave at the convoy as it journeys over the potholed dirt tracks. But the soldiers are always alert to imminent attack from the Taliban. 'It's all good 'til one of them launches a rocket at you, ' says one.

Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers pose the greatest threat to the RE and the armed draughtsman watches out for clean-shaven men wearing make-up - a key sign of the preparation for the journey to the afterlife.

The infrastructure patrolled consists of Department for International Development (DFID) funded Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), designed to bring instant benets to the local population and win the support of a disenchanted people.

'We're spending what is called QIP money, it's a pool put together by the Foreign & Commonwealth Ofce, DFID and the MOD [Ministry of Defence].

And there's a strand from the British Embassy Drugs Team in there as well, ' explains 64 Headquarter Squadron ofcer commanding, Major Jeremy Holman. The squadron is part of 28 Engineer Regiment, which is tasked with construction in Helmand.

'There's approximately £6.5M here now; cash to be spent on various grass roots projects. It's money that we can spend very quickly on the ground to plug the small gaps.' The main thrust of the work of the RE in Helmand is not to impose new infrastructure on the local population or simply deliver them a new hospital or school.

Instead the aim is to engage the locals in a project, grant them ownership of it and build up the private sector by using the local construction industry as the porthole through which to feed money into the desperately weak economy.

Holman says: 'The British way of doing things is to put as much money as possible into the local economy because of the second and third-order effects we get.

Another way to look at it is this. The Taliban do have access to funding. They are linked to the drugs trade without a shadow of a doubt. They do, therefore, have money to buy gunmen.

It follows that the disgruntled villager can be turned into a Taliban supporter.

'Most Afghans want to make an honest living. Most Afghans have had a lifetime of conict and now want peace and prosperity. I don't think that's western propaganda.

As the patrol arrives at a newly constructed pastel pink police vehicle checkpoint (the colour was requested by the mayor) the soldiers disembark from the 'snatches' - the name for the armoured Land Rovers left over from Northern Ireland - and scout the area for insurgents.

Cars using the main route in and out of Lash - shorthand for Lashkar Gah - grind to a halt as they approach the convoy.

Waving the cars on, a soldier points out that the visit is limited to just 20 minutes - the length of time it will take the Taliban to mobilise a strike against them.

The pink police checkpoint marks the edge of the Afghan Development Zone (ADZ) and gives the Afghan National Police a territory marker it can defend.

Inside the zone Taliban activity is limited and local contractors feel safe enough to carry out vital projects.

Maintaining this boundary is the key role of the RE, Holman claims, because not only is it critical to the success of the projects, but it is also a role so dangerous the local contractors refuse to adopt it themselves.

'The RE has been involved at the edge of the ADZ, ' says Holman. 'There is construction happening and the security threat is relatively benign - all things being relative in Afghanistan - therefore this is an area we can concentrate on.

'The whole concept comes from the vast experience the British Army has. If you reinforce success then slowly it will spread out. The outlying areas will go: 'Hang on, these guys are getting redevelopment, they're getting an income, we'd like some of that' and the whole thing snowballs. That way, rather than trying to force security onto people and then give them development we treat the whole process like an ink blot spreading through osmosis.

'It's probably going to take years for this whole thing to happen.' The importance of the secure zone is highlighted by a local engineer, who asked to remain anonymous. He details the reality of the threat that both insurgents and poverty pose: 'The British are engaged with many workers on their construction projects. If people don't have work on the projects then how do they get their money? First they get a gun, then they join the Taliban.' He explains that on joining the Taliban, people receive money fed through channels from northern Pakistan. In return the recruits become killers - £450 for the execution of an engineer and £100 for a soldier.

A local contractor explains how he frequently receives threats from the Taliban warning him off working with the British army. In order to protect the project and ensure its success, the contractor employs labour from the village and buys the support of the village elders.

This, says Captain Gary Allen of 64 Squadron, gives locals a vested interest in the project and means they can defend the construction as a village project unrelated to the British Army.

Commenting on the scope of the work confronting the RE and the nature of the tribal system in Helmand, 28 Engineer Regiment's commanding ofcer, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Sherwood says: 'We're in the business of turning a medieval country into a third world country.' Moving back towards Lash the patrol travels to the temporary police checkpoint that the new pink building will replace. The checkpoint is little more than an earth mound with walls of giant sandbags and a corrugated iron roof.

'We built some police stations from Hesco Bastion [the giant sandbags]. They don't look like police stations, but they are certainly t for purpose, says Holman.

'They were built in a 36-hour period and provide ballistic protection as they were getting rocket attacks. They also provide a large footprint on the ground.

'You can search vehicles and monitor who is moving in and out. The Afghan National Police are a lot more militaristic than the British bobby. They've each got an AK47.' For £1.50 a day the police risk their lives searching every vehicle and every person passing through the checkpoint. Holman explains that the provision of quality facilities is key to getting the police to stand up against the Taliban. The policeman's honour drives him to defend the building that is something of a status symbol. Previously he might have ed.

The patrol leaves the checkpoint for its nal stop at the city's hospital. After securing the compound the RE meets with the hospital chief. Standing in a room no more than 6m 2, with two concrete tables in the centre, he tells the soldiers that the morgue does not have the capacity to cope with the aftermath of a suicide bomber.

His request for refrigeration and a cabinet capable of holding 20 bodies is typical of how QIP funding is allocated.

To the rear of the hospital the RE proceeds to check on the construction of a new midwife training facility. The ground floor of this two storey construction is almost complete; construction techniques are largely the same as those used in the west, but the materials and plant are more primitive.

There are issues to resolve.

One local says: 'Due to bad security the RE can't go outside every day or every hour when it wants so it monitors [the projects] every week, just once.

This is a problem because some of the contractors use this as an opportunity to do what they want. It's a kind of robbery.' It is the type of opportunistic pilfering that takes place in every construction site in the west, but the difficulties faced by the RE make it more frequent and more tempting in Afghanistan.

By employing local site supervisors the RE transfers the dangerous task of visiting the projects daily to a trusted local who can carry out the same task in relative safety.

The importance of having a working culture that utilises local capacity is clear to engineer Sayd Akbr. He explains how, when working for Central Asia Development Group (CADG) on a western-sponsored relief project in northern Afghanistan, a conflict arose over working practices that led to him leaving the company.

'They [CADG] wanted to assign 56 labourers from the Philippines. I disagreed with that.

Why bring labourers from the Philippines when they [labourers] are already here? The target of the project was that money should go to locals; the strategy of the international community and the donors was that the money to help build Afghanistan should go to locals.' Akbr explains how the Filipinos, on £550 a month, were treated to luxuries unattainable by the locals. 'I asked the director of the company [CADG], why do you spend the money on the Filipinos? That money should go to the locals. Why bring in 56 labourers? We are okay with the skilled workers, we need them, but not labourers. That is not acceptable. This conict was the reason I lost my job, ' he claims.

Holman explains how the British approach differs: 'The primary aim is to use contractors who are actually from Helmand.

What we are trying to achieve is not just to get stuff done, but to put money into the economy.

'We've got £1.3M committed downtown. When you think that to build a permanent checkpoint costs approximately £12,500 it's a lot of projects that we've got on at the moment and you get a lot for your money here.

'There is an additional £300,000 that has been used on military construction projects and we've got another £900,000 of schemes that are designed, ready to go.' Holman says that in Helmand, 'the forgotten province of Afghanistan, the private sector is good. It's the public sector that is the weak area. Ultimately the job is to glue those two together because we sit between them at the moment. But ultimately we will want to back out and let them work with each other.'

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