Toby Harnden

Waiting for the British

Westerners in Lashkar Gar are bracing themselves for carnage

Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan

In a dusty clearing on the outskirts of Helmand’s capital, the US army’s Provincial Reconstruction Team had set up a mobile aid station. As we approached, a Humvee gunner swung his machine-gun towards us and shouted angrily, ‘Get back, get back!’ We were clad in shalwar-kameez and sporting scrubby beards. We may not have fooled many locals but to the American soldier, viewing the world through his wraparound sunglasses, we looked like Afghans.

Moments later, Captain Alan Dollison strode over to welcome us. ‘There’s some good stuff going on here,’ he grinned, pointing over at his colleagues — square-jawed doctors from California treating Afghans for their ailments and veterinarians with buzz cuts worming a sorry collection of sheep. ‘The biggest change in Helmand is we’ve got a new governor and he’s got some really good ideas, wants to root out corruption, stop poppy-growing and get rid of whatever enemy there is here,’ he said.

Helmand, where the British troops are to be deployed, was ‘nowhere near as bad as people want to make out’. In eight months, he had experienced only one Improvised Explosive Attack, and his 70-strong unit had suffered no casualties. It did indeed seem like a benign scene — the enthusiastic, can-do soldiers and the grateful natives queuing to be examined. But Hamid, a lean man with piercing blue eyes and a beard as black as his turban, could only giggle when asked what he thought of the American efforts. ‘These guys are Taleban,’ he said, pointing to the men being treated by the doctors. ‘They will take the free American medicine today and go off and plant a bomb tomorrow.’

According to the few Western aid and contract workers brave enough to have remained in Helmand, the American Provincial Reconstruction Team had made little impact.

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