24 Jul 2010

On patrol with the Scots Guards

Does counter-insurgency work? The British in southern Afghanistan have four more years to prove it one way or another. Lindsey Hilsum writes from Afghanistan.

Does counter-insurgency work? The British in southern Afghanistan have four more years to prove it one way or another.

Yesterday I went out with a man who believes it does. Lieutenant Colonel Lincoln Jopp, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Scots Guards in Lashkar Gah, took camerawoman Philippa Collins and myself out to see a new police post at a place called Spina Cotta in the south. We travelled in a convoy of Panther armoured vehicles, an advance contingent having checked for improvised explosive devices along the dusty track.

Through the bullet-proof glass we saw scrubland punctuated by compounds surrounded by low mud walls, and young boys swimming in the irrigation canals. Very normal, and yet not, because while 10 districts in Helmand are now under British and Afghan government control, the Taliban are never very far away.

At the police post, the gossip of the day was how a young recruit called Bismillah had gone tearing off in the morning to apprehend a couple of armed robbers on motorbikes. He didn’t actually catch them, but everyone congratulated him for trying. Fourteen Scots Guards are living with six Afghan police dealing with problems ranging from kids lobbing rocks to reports of Taliban infiltration.

The senior policeman, Third Corporal Rahimullah Purdes, explained that he used to hate the police because of their bad reputation but now they were getting proper training, so he joined up nine months ago, along with his six brothers.

The bad reputation was well-earned – Lt Col Jopp said that at one police post, several of the officers had been involved in thieving, drug-taking and sex with children. The local commander had, however, got rid of the most rotten ones and disciplined the rest.

From the police post, we sped to the market at Bolans, an area of government land which people have settled over the years. We walked through without wearing body armour. A stall owner, who sold us some cold drinks, said that he used to have huge problems with the police, who would demand money with menaces, but over the last six months they had improved, and now paid for anything they wanted.

To Lt Col Jopp, sorting out the police is critical.

“We live with them, eat with them, plan with them and patrol with them,” he says. “I even went to one senior police officer’s son’s wedding. In some check points we have as few as four of Scotland’s finest living cheek by jowl with seven policemen. It’s risky, but in a counter-insurgency you have to take risks in order to get close to people and that makes you safer in the long run.”

They do make mistakes. It took a while to establish that people were unhappy with the location of Spina Cotta Police Post because the elevated guard towers would have a great view into the place where the women bathed. They built a wall as a shield.

In the evening, we sat in on the daily debrief when Scots Guards radio in the news of the day. It ranged from an incident in which a three-year-old girl got shot in the stomach and had to be med-evac’d out, to an argument over digging irrigation ditches.

It is, said Lt Col Jopp, a bit like The Archers – you learn a lot of detail about some pretty tiny places. Then Spina Cotta called in. The post had been attacked with PKN and small arms fire just after 8pm. No-one was hurt, but it seems that Policeman Bismillah may have really annoyed those robbers he tried to catch.