Well, my year in Musa Qala is nearly up and it’s time to say my goodbyes to my Afghan and British friends here. I must say the time really has flown by and much has happened in this small corner of Helmand, not least improved security, leading to increased freedom of movement and an uplift in business in Musa Qala. And some basics are in place: school, clinic, some roads, improved electricity supply. But to fill the security "envelope" provided by the Afghan security forces and their British counterparts, the Afghan government needs to step in and be seen to be working full time in the district; Afghans deserve a government that listens to its people and is trusted. Until now in Musa Qala, we foreigners - civilian and military - have sometimes seemed to be the only people the local population could approach to discuss their problems and get things done. But the Afghan government understands that it has to assume its proper place in the lives of the locals, and in other parts of Helmand this process is already under way, led by an energetic and progressive Provincial Governor. I really believe the people of Musa Qala are ready for that next step: they are interested in the future of their country and are now gearing up for August's presidential and provincial elections. Successful voter registration earlier this year means that people are at least in a position to vote - providing they feel safe and know enough about the choices on offer.
Even if we sometimes lacked Afghan attention, we certainly weren’t short of British visitors to Musa Qala, from Ross Kemp through assorted generals to the PM, all have shown huge interest in the people of Musa Qala and the UK military who have come here to help them.
I will leave here with an enormous admiration for the British military who have hosted this strange civilian with great patience and I wish them all a safe return home. At the same time I commend our exceptionally brave and talented local staff and other local partners who I hope will remain in their country to continue to improve the lot of its people.
Thus did our incoming Battle Group announce itself in Musa Qala. But don’t be alarmed, it was just the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ way of marking St George’s Day, and the "gunfire" was actually supplied by a drummer. Quite nice, though, to be woken up with cup of tea laced with rum (I’m all for tradition). Interestingly, this is the first lot of soldiers I’ve worked with here that are predominantly English, the previous two groups being Scottish and Nepalese. Then, in the evening we marked that other fine English tradition of having a curry, cooked for us by our Punjabi MoD police mentor.
Up the hill, the District Governor is back from his epic tour of Afghanistan and India and is keeping us busy with his demands. Having been mixing with the high-fliers in Kabul and Mumbai I think he might be finding the business of local government in Musa Qala a bit dull. But we’re receiving more and more Afghan governmental visitors here who are coming to deliver their services (and spend their money) under improved security conditions, so that should help focus the Governor’s mind. In particular, a visit by a commission spent a week here assessing whether we are in a fit state to receive the Afghan Social Outreach Programme. This programme will establish a community council that will bring different community representatives together to discuss and agree actions on security, justice and development. It means we’ll have a genuinely local and representative council in Musa Qala with some real powers and some real money to spend.
And I have just waved off the Deputy Provincial Governor plus some senior Afghan security officials, accompanied by the Deputy Head of the Civil-Military Mission to Helmand. The Deputy Governor expressed his satisfaction and appreciation of a far better security situation in Musa Qala than he’d expected. This was a much needed visit that reinforced the Afghan government’s commitment to this district. It also provided a reason for the Governor to serve up some top-notch Afghan food, including fresh rations, and giving us 24 hours off the dreaded spam.
Today a large gathering (or “shura”) was held to the North of Musa Qala. This was the first opportunity for locals whose area had come back into government control last November to engage with their local government leadership from Musa Qala. The shura was held as a result of demands by the local population that they felt unrepresented in Musa Qala and that their problems were not being addressed. To answer this we arranged for the Acting District Governor, one Musa Qala District Shura (council) member and two Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development engineers to go to the Shawruz region and meet with village elders. The shura was advertised from early morning by sending round the Afghan National Police (ANP) to spread the word. We weren’t sure how many would attend or whether people would be intimidated, but it was clear that the locals felt safe enough to come as I watched them wading across the wadi long before the appointed time. The event itself, held outdoors on the banks of the wadi, attracted about 90 locals plus a similar number of very noisy children (first government action needed – send a school teacher to this area).
Much effort went into the planning of the shura and all the logistics were worked out by my military colleagues on the ground, together with the ANP and their UK and US mentors. All of them were very keen to be supporting this civilian side of the mission, following on from their military successes last autumn. And for me to be present, my Close Protection pals and the FCO had to be satisfied that any possible threat was minimised. That the event happened at all sends important messages: Afghan government representatives will go and meet their people at a time and place of their choosing; and the Afghan security forces with their international partners will ensure that such events will take place in safety. Long may it continue.
Back on the catering front, the top chef has retreated and we’re back to cold, congealed spam for breakfast. But I’m off on R & R next week, my first visit to the UK in 2009 and it’s clear I’ll have to do my bit to assist the 4 hostelries of Cartmel through the economic downturn.
Somehow we seem to have been spared the worst of winter so we can now hold our shuras outside on the lawn whilst sipping tea in the pre-spring sunshine. A far more civilised way of doing business than being stuck in an office. Our District Governor remains in Kabul trying to drum up support for Musa Qala and Northern Helmand Province but we could do with him back soon. Meanwhile we have a temporary replacement - a charming old man, very cooperative and keen to help local people. He was a judge under the Taleban, which just goes to show that reconciliation is possible with the unlikeliest people. And now that I’ve donated my spare pair of glasses to him he can see who he’s talking to.
Anyway, the business of government goes on: representatives from the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development (MRRD) and from the Ministry of Education are in town; these are exactly the kind of visitors the local people need to see in order to believe that their government is interested in helping them. MRRD is building a wall to prevent the wadi flooding when the snow melts (which will be soon, I think) plus some wells in the villages, whilst the education reps are visiting schools in newly “liberated” areas where it’s now safe for children to go to school. Another very positive sign of people’s engagement in civic life has been the encouraging turnout for voter registration. Some days see up to 500 people coming into town to register, including people from neighbouring districts. This would not have been possible six months ago and bodes well for the forthcoming presidential elections. I hope I don’t jinx things, but the voter registration has been peaceful and intimidation-free so far, mainly thanks to the local police.
We have a top notch army chef visiting the camp. This week has seen roast turkey; but who could resist a “Hawaiian Toastie”? Canned pineapple, canned cheese with spam on stale white plastic bread.
Finally, thank you for the encouraging comments from Australia and my home village; I wonder if anyone else is reading this?
The festive season in Musa Qala is passing relatively peacefully and so we have been able to enjoy a little Christmas cheer in the camp. Christmas Eve saw my military stabilisation team colleagues and I introducing our Afghan friends and colleagues to the traditions of a British Christmas - Santa, gifts, turkey and alcohol-free beer. Our local friends had located some turkeys and the District Governor's cook was tasked to "halal" the birds and cooked them into some sort of brown curry-type meal. It was delicious. Thanks to our various families' welfare parcels we were able to pool our goodies to show our friends such delights as mince pies, etc. And on the day itself the army chefs did us proud with real turkey and real ham, all without a hint of spam.
And what hopes do we have for the coming year? Firstly, 2009 will be election year in Afghanistan and we are busy now beginning the process of voter registration in Musa Qala. Linked to this must be our drive to reassure the local population through the improved security situation and the commitment of the Afghan government and security forces to stay the course in this part of Helmand. Later in the spring Musa Qala will have the chance to obtain some large-scale investment by the Afghan government in the form of the Afghan Social Outreach Programme. But that depends on the performance of the local authorities here so my primary task must be to mentor them through that process.
On the domestic front there has been talk of an upgrade in our living conditions here in camp with the arrival of some portakabins in place of our concrete cell, but this may be one of those things that remains just talk.
And spring 2009 will see the departure of this Battle Group and the arrival of the next one, which will be my third. The Gurkhas will be a hard act to follow.
So here's to a peaceful and prosperous 2009 in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
It is an unusual day in the lives of Musa Qalans when the UK Prime Minister (literally) descends on them. In addition to the obvious morale boost for British forces based in Musa Qala it was an important opportunity for the PM to hear first hand from Afghans about the successes and challenges in their district. Exactly one year ago Musa Qala was returned to Afghan government control and a reconciled Taliban commander is now the District Governor and another is the District Chief of Police. The fact that the PM could sit and chat with gentlemen such as these and other elders from the district was quite a feat in itself. Of course such “surprise” visits don’t just take place on a whim – much preparation and rehearsal is needed.
For security reasons it was not possible to inform our local partners who the visitor was or when he was arriving until the last minute, but the vagaries of Afghan time-keeping mean that people are used to hanging about for hours sipping tea. And in a region without TV or newspapers it is unlikely they fully understood who they were talking to. However, they do like “England” (as they call it) so were happy to receive a distinguished visitor from there. Fortunately, minimal coaching was required for the local leadership since the story they have to tell is real and reasonably positive.
Reading about the PM’s press conference later I think he got their message that better security in Musa Qala means the government can improve the lives of its people in this remote outpost. Meanwhile, back in “real” life in the camp the Christmas tree has gone up, real bacon has been removed from the menu and our favourite spam is back for every meal. But this morning there was an orange for breakfast.
Today we made the first steps in reinvigorating the Musa Qala District Council (or “Shura” as it is called here). Having a strong district governor is both a bonus and a hindrance to governance in Musa Qala. The bonus is that we can get clear decisions and direction from him. The downside is that it is not healthy for him to be deciding everything for Musa Qala, and in any case it’s not possible. Fortunately he agrees with this so we have begun to gather some local, worthy men to start to work on the problems of their constituents. And, yes, for now there will just be men on the shura given the traditional nature of this district. However, the new shura represents the main tribal and geographical interests of the district and as such should be able to make decisions that will be acceptable to much of the local population. The most encouraging thing is that the shura members are willing and able to come into the district centre to hold their sessions. Only three months ago eight members of the previous shura were kidnapped by insurgents and persuaded to resign from the shura. These days the security situation, although still fragile, is reasonably good in the district centre. Amongst other developments, we completed and signed off today a new building in the district centre designed to house the governor’s civil secretariat and government visitors to the district. And just in time, since reps from the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development are in town to start work on some of their irrigation projects, so they now have somewhere to sleep. The weather in Musa Qala has suddenly turned very chilly and I am wondering whether the concrete shed in which we sleep will turn into a fridge in winter, just as it was an oven in summer and whether my sleeping bag will hold out. On the plus side, there was a slice of melon for breakfast this morning – the first fresh rations we have had in two weeks. However, I am lucky to be heading home shortly for R & R so will have chance to stock up on winter clothing and Marmite. Lucky, too because it can be quite difficult to get helicopter seats out of Musa Qala but thanks to our amazing Royal Navy fixer I’ve got a seat. Strange, though, that the navy are working here so far from the sea on matters to do with aviation but the system seems to work.
Today we observed Remembrance Day in Musa Qala, particularly poignant and pertinent given the recent loss of our first Gurkha. The service was a combination of the Christian and Hindu reflecting the mix of personnel currently serving in Musa Qala. Nothing, however, seems to have dented the Gurkhas’ natural positive outlook nor cheerful courtesy that they seem to maintain at all times. The operation in which Rifleman Yubraj Rai lost his life has led to Afghans being able to return to their homes just to the south of Musa Qala after a period of several months. My military stabilisation team colleagues formed an integral part of the operation from the outset and were able immediately to begin engaging with the local population to assess their needs on returning home. At the same time two gangs of labourers from the Cash for Works project managed by an Afghan NGO went into the area to start the clear up. Our next task must be to get the Afghan civilian authorities into the area to begin listening, and to start to deliver services to, their people. Meanwhile, back in Musa Qala it is very much business as usual despite the temporary absence of the District Governor. Regular meetings, or “shuras” must go on to discuss justice and security and other themes with our local hosts. The new Afghan National Army battalion that shares our camp and operations has just arrived and must learn, as I have, what it means to live and work with the remarkable UK military and understand their specific language. Many is the time that I have observed an Afghan interpreter’s bafflement when hearing for the first time such phrases as “no dramas, chaps, I’ll pop up and square that away”. But I think as the Afghan soldiers looked down on this morning’s Remembrance Day parade, everyone understood and respected what the ceremony taking place represented.
Welcome to my blog. And welcome to Musa Qala, a small market town situated in Northern Helmand province, Afghanistan. I arrived here three months ago to begin my work as a stabilisation advisor and so I feel I may have learnt enough by now to be able to share my experiences through this blog. Musa Qala was the scene of heavy fighting last December when Afghan Government forces retook the town from the Taliban with the aid of British and other NATO forces. The two civilian Musa Qala stabilisation advisors live and work with the UK military, currently led by the 2nd Battalion of Royal Gurkha Rifles, in their camp in the town centre. Despite being the only civilians in a camp of around 400 soldiers we are well received, supported and, I believe, fully integrated into the work and plans of the Battle Group. The most confusing thing for all concerned is the collision and melding of the Whitehall and military acronyms which feature heavily in our day-to-day work.
The post of Stabilisation Advisor is relatively new out here (created in the last year or so) and its functions are certainly multifaceted. The main stabilisation “advice” I provide is to the District Governor of Musa Qala and other local officials. The governor is an extremely interesting character with a long history of providing tribal, military and spiritual leadership in the Musa Qala region. Much of my day consists of working with him to help deliver effective governance to Musa Qala. As a former fighter he is, as he freely admits, new to civilian politics and needs a certain amount of mentoring. As well as the stabilisation advisors (STABADs – a new acronym for you) we provide the governor with a civil secretariat who are two very committed and talented young locals whose job it is to interpret (in all senses) what STABADs and others are putting to the governor. Being of a more traditional bent (his first comment upon meeting me was “how can you be my advisor when you have no beard”), the governor is not always immediately open to new ways of working. But he is always ready to talk and it is my job to listen and to provide the liaison between him and the UK forces here.
As I begin this blog I have just returned to Musa Qala from delivering the governor to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, for meetings with his provincial-level bosses and counterparts. This means that I’ll have a bit more time to work on other matters and with other Afghan partners during the governor’s absence from Musa Qala. Problems awaiting me range from the curious – a letter from students on our electricians’ vocational training course accusing their teacher of stealing their cakes and biscuits – to the more serious – a deputation of villagers concerned about the security situation in their locality. However, what both of these examples prove is that the local population is unafraid of approaching us and is confident that we will listen to them. And so I don’t mind leaving the relative luxury of Lashkar Gah and returning to my portion of (surprisingly tasty) Spam curry in Musa Qala.