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British and Afghan soldiers' evolving relationship

Mark Urban | 15:23 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

SANGIN, HELMAND PROVINCE - The relationship between the British soldier and the Afghan has enthralled writers from Kipling to Conan Doyle or Churchill.

Back in the 19th and early 20th Century, the security of the Raj required frequent campaigns in Afghanistan and those provinces where the same people are settled in modern day Pakistan, the tribal areas of the North West Frontier.

The Afghan mindset has been dominated for centuries by Islam, family, and often tribe.

The British on the other hand have left behind the complex of British imperial overlord pretty much entirely.

Back when Winston Churchill served with the Malakand Field Force here was a system of carrot (in the form of subsidies) and stick. Entire villages would be razed in reprisal for the murder of a British officer.

These days the British who are trying to develop the Afghan forces and state are restricted more to carrots. Many think hand outs alone are a bad idea.

"Don't give them anything", says one officer nearing the end of a six month tour in this hotbed of insurgency, "it won't curry favour and they will simply come back for more".

Instead he favours a policy of tough love.

This is not about communal reprisals of course, but about the ways to avoid dependency in order to get Afghans - from platoon commander to local official - to take responsibility for their own future and that of the community.

Otherwise interactions with Afghans simply become an attempt to fend off scroungers - from the village kids who ask constantly for pens to the local bigwigs who ask Nato to build mosques rather than schools.

When the soldiers here find a self starter they seize upon him with intense pride.

"He's a complete gleamer", says one staff sergeant, shaking his head with admiration about the spirit of one Afghan army junior officer.

Another military advisor recounts the story of a superb Afghan sergeant major he discovered recently who responded cheerfully to the Briton's compliment announcing "I'm leaving the army in three weeks to work in security for a bank in Kabul".

The difficulty of promoting talent emerges as a constant theme here. Too many capable Afghan soldiers or administrators find themselves sidelined because of tribal, ethnic, or political favouritism.

Even when the Afghan state does advance its talented people, they often spot better opportunities elsewhere. A translator working for Nato forces or an aid agency can earn ten times as much as an army officer.

On one thing pretty much all of those involved in training or advising the Afghans agree, it is their natural ability as soldiers.

"They are madly brave in contacts", remarks one officer, "they would do things we would consider crazy - and usually get away with it".

It is here that perceptions seem closest to those who soldiered among the Afghans a century ago. It is not simply courage, but the Afghan's fine eye for ground, knowing how they might approach an enemy unseen, as well as their ability to hit targets at long range that emerge as common themes with soldiers I've spoken to in the past week.

When it does go wrong, and Afghans pay with their lives, their comrades often shrug it off with dry fatalism.

One British lieutenant I was speaking to this morning argues, "it's a shame we can't follow their example".

But the emotion which is triggered by each of the losses in this place is evidence of a changed society.

And while many Victorian soldiers might be amazed by the 'courageous restraint' shown by soldiers serving here today, and the way public support at home has been shaken rather than enlivened by British casualties, the characters of the Afghans who live here would be completely familiar to them.

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