TARIN KOWT: As the sun lights the distant mountains, a cacophony begins. A caravan of monster trucks, armoured vehicles and tanks is brought to life and warmed – the first nip of Oruzgan province’s bitter winter is already in the air. Shouts rise over the din – barked instructions in Dutch and thick military Strine.Gunners push their heads through the hatches of armoured vehicles and adjust headscarves around their noses and mouths, flimsy shields against the pale fog of dust they are about to raise. Helmets are adjusted and weapons get a final once-over. Drivers run through checklists.MORE AFGHANISTAN STORIESThere’s a last-minute rush to the Portaloos – the only opportunity between sun-up and sundown to visit the toilet without the encumbrance of body armour. Perhaps the queues are extended by the odd bout of nerves. Not that anyone’s admitting that.The convoy of more than 30 vehicles heads ”outside the wire” to a site in the Mirabad Valley 25 kilometres from the vast Tarin Kowt military base – Kamp Holland. But the camp is deep in Taliban territory, so it will take almost the entire day to make the journey – tentative progress rewarded with the discovery and safe detonation of improvised explosive devices planted along the route.For months, Mirabad villagers have been visited by Australians – shadowy special forces moving in and out. But three weeks ago Australian troops began arriving in number by helicopter and overland and dug in to stay. Locals hid in their houses as officers sought out the elders and sat down with the council – the shura – to deliver the news they were here for the duration.With this latest convoy, members of Australia’s Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTV) are now well advanced in trucking in the personnel and hardware to establish a new patrol base at the site, which will be home to the Afghan National Army’s 3rd Kandak – an infantry battalion – and later will also host their Australian military mentors.When the base is established and operating, the mentoring task for Australians and other coalition forces is to step back to improve the capability of the Afghan National Army. ”That is ultimately a very obvious exit strategy,” the commanding officer of Australia’s Tarin Kowt operation, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Connolly, said.The Mirabad objective is to provide an outpost from which the Afghan soldiers and their coalition overseers can patrol and try to weaken the insurgent influence which has for the past seven years dominated the strategically important route stretching out to the east.Once the corridor is more secure, the next step will be to bring building contractors, development agencies and Afghan Government officials under the safety of the military umbrella to begin the community building – improving health centres and schools, constructing roads and bridges, extending irrigation and distributing seeds, putting the pieces together to nurture a healthier local economy in the heart of one of Afghanistan’s most impoverished provinces.The philosophy of counter-insurgency argues these are the elements required to win this war – a campaign for ”hearts and minds” as it would once have been known, though that term has been so devalued that it is being deleted from military parlance.As debate rages in Australia and internationally about the effectiveness and the cost of such a strategy – and evaluated against a tighter, targeted counter-terrorism assault on al-Qaeda leadership – there’s palpable frustration within the Tarin Kowt base about perceived ignorance at home of the nature of the fight forces here are engaged in.”You’ve got to approach a counter-insurgency as something that requires patience and takes a long time to get an effect,” says Colonel Connolly. ”But when you can look at it over a period of time, I am very confident we are getting an extremely positive effect. We have moved a long way. I’m quite dismayed by the people who claim that we are making no progress. Three years ago you could not have dreamt of being able to operate in Chora [a former Taliban stronghold] the way we do now.”While the area is still dangerous, it’s considered secure enough to move to the next phase. After consultation with the community on their wish list of priorities, army engineers are completing plans to build a women’s park, cold food stores and to upgrade the health centre.”People are secure enough to say ‘this is what we would like’,” says Colonel Connolly.Until recently, being seen to co-operate with coalition forces was too dangerous. Anxiety about reprisals is running high in Mirabad as Australian soldiers sit down to talk with the shuras.”It has been an insurgent safe haven for a very long time. They’ve become used to their tribal structure virtually being replaced by the Taliban hierarchy … I’m trying to say to them ‘Well, here is your opportunity to go back to the way you were’.”Now I can sense that there are a lot of old men who sit in those shuras whose body language says yes, they are keen. And talk to them individually and they are desperate to take up our offer, but when they are in public they won’t even say it because they are scared … terrified of what might happen to their family if they show support.”Counter-insurgency involves a very high level of threat, says Colonel Connolly. ”We’re involved in fighting regularly.” In Mirabad, he says, already ”we are getting stronger and stronger interaction with the local population”. And meeting intense efforts from insurgents to stop them.”Every day we continue to patrol in very small groups, which involves a certain amount of risk but gets the best reaction out of the local population.”And it is something that will take time – to create the development behind the security that we bring with us, so that we establish a local community that is starting to prosper and supports its government and is happy to stand on its own two feet.”Jo Chandler is visiting Afghanistan with AusAID.
Nanjing Night Net