‘It’s a fine balance in Helmand – who do we shoot and who do we give out sweets to?’
By Tom Peterkin for the Scotsman in Helmand
Insurgents who had retreated from the front line to return to their homes during the harsh winter are moving back into position to take on the Afghan National Police and the British troops who support the police.
Spring marks the beginning of a new fighting season and in Bolan North, at the heart of the conflict, are the soldiers of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (2 Scots).
From their small fortified camp, Yellow 14, B Company 2 Scots are doing their utmost to ensure that the Taleban are unable to undo the hard-won gains they have made.
In the heat of the midday sun, a handful of soldiers clamber into two armoured Jackal trucks, man their heavy machine guns and drive into the Dashte, an area whose name in the local Pashtu language means desert.
Inhabited by the nomadic Kuchi, a tribe of herdsmen that scratch out a living from the arid and dusty land by rearing goats and sheep, it is an area that is ripe for Taleban exploitation.
Sgt Eric Wilson explains that a Taleban tactic is to plant improvised explosive devices on the right hand side of the track in order to tip vehicles into the disease ridden, stagnant water in the deep ditch on the left.
The vehicles come to a stop near an Afghan compound. A couple of soldiers dismount from the trucks and search the interior – looking for evidence of the Taleban.
Once the all clear is given, the patrol continues. Eventually, the convoy comes to what in Afghanistan passes for a main road. The patrol has arrived at Route Westbury, a road that eventually leads to Lashkar Gah, the district centre of Helmand.
Motorcyclists and beaten up old bangers make their way to what is little more than a dust track. As the soldiers dismount from their vehicles, a group of children meets them.
By the side of the road, the children were pestering the soldiers for sweets from their ration packs and tried to scrounge their biros, items which appeared highly sought after. The men of 2 Scots were happy to oblige.
The presence of children is a healthy sign. Only a short time ago, this place would have been regarded as too dangerous for them.
The soldiers laugh and joke with the youngsters, some of whom clutch Unicef textbooks, gently ribbing them and asking them why they were not at school?
“This is where we win the war in Afghanistan,” says Sgt Wilson. “It is with the kids. Some of the older folk are too set in their ways.
“A lot of the training we do before we come out is about how to win over hearts and minds.
“It is a fine balance between who do we shoot and who do we give out sweets to.”
The soldiers decide to set up a vehicle check point – a way of gathering intelligence and engaging with the locals.
Click here for the rest of the report on the Scotsman