Culture shocks in killing fields as Scots train an army of Allah
SERGEANT Major David Gibb is on a mission normally reserved for special forces.
In a gritty mud compound in the heart of Helmand's poppy belt, the NCO from West Lothian is leading a handful of British soldiers training Afghanistan's army. They live side by side with about 40 Afghan soldiers, in a rundown farmhouse, miles from the nearest British garrison.
They are surrounded by poppy fields and irrigation ditches. Training indigenous forces is traditionally done by the SAS but the sheer scale, and urgency, of training the Afghan army has demanded an entire battlegroup of British soldiers.
Teams of six to eight are scattered all over Helmand, in small patrol bases manned by Afghan troops. Like Sgt Major Gibb, from 4 Scots (The Highlanders), they are trying to train and mentor the Afghan troops to fight a counter-insurgency.
The Afghans have known fighting for most of their lives, but they are reluctant to change their haphazard ways. "It can be frustrating," Sgt Major Gibb admitted. "They've just got a different way of doing things."
Captain Mohammed Khalid, a 30-year veteran, carries his Kalashnikov casually balanced over one shoulder, like a farmer might carry a spade.
He has refused to break his patrols into three columns, something the British do for increased protection, and his troops rarely wear body armour.
"You ask them why they're not wearing it, and it's like, 'God will protect me'," explained Ranger James Wright, at the same patrol base in the Gereshk valley.
Some of the British have dubbed their Afghan colleagues the "Inshallah army" for their nonchalant acceptance of death as part of Allah's plan.
At patrol base Barakzai, the Afghan soldiers grow cannabis in makeshift flower pots made out of the giant wire and canvas sandbags, designed to protect them from rocket attacks. A lieutenant had to be removed last month because he was constantly high.
When they do come under fire, they invariably reply with a barrage of loosely aimed automatic fire, a tactic known as "spray and pray".
Where the Afghans come into their own is patrolling through the mud hamlets that flank the Helmand River, befriending the local farmers whose support they need to defeat the Taleban.
"It's not about religious ideology," said Captain Brian O'Neill, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. "People want security and they will support whoever will provide them security. If we can help the government provide security then hopefully people will follow the government."
Capt Khalid insists he is only there to fight. "My job is to find Taleban, fight them and defeat them," he said. "It is not my job to do development and other things. "
Simply by talking to Helmand's farmers in their own language, Capt Khalid is reaching people the British might miss. Even his unusual way of carrying a rifle makes him more approachable than the British.
Despite no obvious Taleban presence in the area, there is still a climate of fear among the farmers he spoke to.
Some admitted burning aid parcels because they were terrified of being caught in possession by the insurgents. Others said they could not come to an upcoming shura, or meeting, because the Taleban would slit their throats for collaborating.
Where the Kalashnikov is king
AT THE Afghan headquarters, close to Britain's Camp Bastion, soldiers from the Royal Irish battle group are trying to wean the Afghans off their beloved AK47s and train them to use US M16s.
The M16s are more accurate over longer distances, but they need far more maintenance, they carry none of the Kalashnikov's kudos, and, crucially for an Afghan soldier, you can't empty a magazine in one burst.
"The M16 is not as good," said one Afghan private. "It only fires three bullets at a time."
Ultimately, the guns may help Afghanistan's army stand up to the Taleban on their own. Building up the local forces is a central pillar of Britain's exit strategy. But the range instructors are not convinced the Afghans will learn to aim.
"Their strengths are their legitimacy," said Lt Col Freely of the Royal Irish Regiment.
"They are Afghan and they are Islamic.
"Ultimately they are the solution, whereas Britons are forever infidels, outsiders and unacceptable.
"After all," Lt Col Freely added, quoting TE Lawrence, "Better they do it tolerably well, than we do it for them."
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