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Territorial Army Major Kerry Hutchinson revisits Musa Qaleh in Afghanistan
11:14am Wednesday 23rd October 2013 in Features
Kerry Hutchinson recently returned from a tour of Helmand Province in Aghanistan. During his stay, he revisited Musa Qaleh, to see what progress had been made since he was last there.
YORK civil servant Kerry Hutchinson spent six months as a Territorial Army captain in Afghanistan in 2008-9. He passed much of that time with a Gurkha battle group in the town of Musa Qaleh, a district centre an hour’s drive north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.
Earlier this year Kerry returned to Afghanistan for an extended, seven-and-a-half month tour. Now a major, he was seconded to the US Marine Corps at Camp Leatherneck, deep in the heart of the Helmand desert. His job was to help analyse progress being made by the Afghan government in taking over responsibility for defence and security in the country from western forces.
During his tour of duty, he was asked to return briefly to Musa Qaleh, to see what had changed in the four years since he was last there.
He found there had been some progress – in opening schools and in building a bridge across the Musa Qaleh wadi, which opened up new trade routes.
But there was still a constant threat from insurgents, and from narcotics warlords who often work hand-in-hand with them. And corruption in public life was still a major problem.
The district governor in Musah Qaleh, while doing his best, was hampered by lack of support from Kabul.
“So while Musa Qaleh itself was stable, I was disappointed that more had not been achieved,” said Kerry.
Kerry has been back in the UK since early September. He is on post-operational leave before returning to his job with the Chemicals Regulation Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive, which shares a building with DEFRA in York.
• Kerry’s account of his return to Musa Qaleh…
The last time I stepped through the normally locked gate from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) compound into the district governor’s office compound in Musa Qaleh was for a meeting with him in 2009.
Then, I was wearing my helmet and body armour and was armed with my 9mm Browning pistol and rifle. Four years later, and on a short three-day assessment to Musa Qaleh, progress was such that I could walk through the now-open gate into a courtyard with children playing in it and a gardener tending a small vegetable plot.
This time there was no need for my helmet, body armour or rifle. Atmospher-ics had radically improved since March 2009.
In 2008/9 I served for six months in and around Musa Qaleh, as the military stabilisation support team leader attached from the 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment to the 2nd Battalian, Royal Gurkha Rifles.
My job was to help connect with the local population and try to help restart normal life after a long period of civil war in the region. It was a dangerous place for ISAF and civilians alike, with ambushes, roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices forming our daily pattern of life Then the Taliban had been pushed out of Musa Qaleh but were sending suicide bombers into the district centre and attacking ISAF patrols in the local rural areas. Then, there were no utilities, domestic services we take for granted, buses or taxis. Then, I was on daily foot patrol carrying 90lbs-plus, helping deliver stabilisation effects to local villagers who were traumatised by the constant fighting and whose poverty-stricken lives were smitten by a lack of medical aid, clean water and any kind of municipal governance.
Attempts at refurbishing village buildings as makeshift school rooms were thwarted by the Taliban, who would arrive at night and torch the building. Anyone regarded as helping the infidels (such as, for example, by wanting to teach, be a doctor, or help the community) would have night letters nailed to their doors threatening execution if they carried on.
There was virtually no civic municipal governance or Government representation to speak of then.
True, there was a former warlord who had been installed as district governor, but he was more interested in securing his cut from the local opium poppy trade than trying to improve governance outreach. He had his own private armed militia who wore Afghan Police uniforms, were armed with AK47 assault rifles and were usually high on heroin or hashish. That’s why if we had to speak with the then district governor, we went in armed and protected, avoiding eye contact.
People made a living by growing opium poppy as a cash crop. Needing little tending and being drought-tolerant, opium poppy was then and remains now the only way to grow a fast buck. And the cash the narco-gangs pay at the farm gate is enough for a tenant farmer to pay his debts and stock up on essential supplies after the growing season. This much is as it was four years ago.
But the area has changed in other ways, and generally for the better. I visited the local Afghan National Army (ANA) unit who had now taken over control of our former British HQ building. The second-in-command, Major Shamsul Haq, explained that the Taliban was still a problem – but only if they tried to venture past the security cordon set up by the Afghan National Security Forces some three years earlier.
He took me up on to the flat roof of the ANA building, and I saw the bridge now spanning the Musa Qaleh wadi. It was thanks to the bridge, Major Haq said, that local townsfolk and those of the rural villages nearby, now had all-year access in and out of the district centre.
This, he said, was good for business and for emerging commerce, because locals could now get in and out of the district centre even when the wadi was a raging winter river of snow melt.
I was pleased to see this bridge because it was a project we had tried to get going in 2008, but resources were needed for higher operational and humanitarian priorities. And now here it was, no longer a pipe dream of mine, but a vibrant reality.
There are now ten schools across the district, all fully staffed and resourced, with teachers actually receiving their pay. There is a community health clinic that is about to be expanded to have a 15-bed hospital annex.
It was good to see the clinic not only still in one piece but thriving. This was one of the building projects we’d started in 2009.
And whereas in 2008 ISAF had to provide fuel for the district centre’s only municipal electricity (ISAF-supplied) generator, there was now a mains power connection from the hydro-electric power station at the nearby Kajaki Dam. This provides domestic and commercial mains electricity three days a week, with solar power providing the rest.
But four years on, corruption remains. The new district governor, a former teacher and a man committed to the local people, is desperate for funded community projects to start, after a wait of some 18 months.
The contracts were awarded recently for the work to begin – but the contracts went to those who paid the biggest ‘bung’ to win them. And they are all based in Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, unlikely to make the daily journey to and from Musa Qaleh up the dangerous road from the capital.
Unless the work is sub-contracted to companies in Musa Qaleh, and work starts urgently, then the district governor, and the government he represents, might not have enough to generate the jobs and work Musa Qaleh so desperately needs.
That would play right into the hands of those opposed to peace and stability, and put the clock back to 2009.
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