Page last updated at 15:08 GMT, Monday, 25 June 2007 16:08 UK

Developing hope in Afghanistan

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Helmand province

A young Afghan boy uses a new well built by British troops
A young Afghan boy uses a new well built by British troops
Work grinds to a halt as a crowd gathers around the large platter of toffees held up alongside an elaborate ribbon.

Scissors are produced and the ribbon is cut three times - once by the mayor, once by the British colonel and a third time by the chief of police.

Mud bricks bearing colourful bows are placed into the shallow foundations of the new school building in Gereshk, Helmand province.

The crowd applauds the start of building work and grasping hands close in on the tray of sweeties.

Just four weeks ago, a shura, or meeting of elders, was held in Gereshk, as British troops explained they had driven the Taleban out of town and now wanted to give the community something back.

A school was asked for, a commitment was made and the promise was kept.

"The response to our offer was sceptical. 'The note takers are back,' they said. That was just what had happened before," said Lt Col Richard Westley of the 1st Battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters.

"People came and took notes of what the elders requested, but nothing had actually been provided. What we are saying is judge us on our actions."

The foundation stone laying ceremony at a new Afghan school built by British troops
The foundation stone laying ceremony at a new Afghan school

Soon after, pickaxes and shovels were wielded, as a large group of men sporting yellow safety helmets got the project underway.

'Quick impact projects'

A lot of heavy fighting up the Gereshk valley preceded the shura and ground was gained from the Taleban, but the key to counter-insurgency is holding it by winning the people over - proving to them that the government is a better bet than the Taleban.

That means patrols around the bustling market - a sign of better security - and the chance to give the community projects that are quick and obvious.

"To open the window and convince people we are worth investing in, and their future is worth investing in, you have got to show them something that will give them that hope, so these are quick impact projects," said Lt Col Westley.

"And yes, a cynic might say that that is to buy our way in. That's not the case, but they have got to see some hope."

Like Gereshk, in Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital, work is being done.

Right now women aren't even coming out of their houses because of the security situation
Fawzia Olema
Lashkar Gah women's centre

Security is obviously still bad - we travelled with British government teams in armoured vehicles driven by heavily armed guards.

But the hospital has a new accommodation block, there are dozens of new wells providing clean water, a bus station is being built, and a couple of Afghan workers hammer crazy paving tiles into the pathway of a new park.

The park is supposed to be a sign of normal life, but costing a hefty $800,000, questions must be asked over whether the money is all being spent wisely in the desperate rush to give the elders what they want.

Women's struggles

The girls in the classroom rattle out the English they have been learning: "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, how are you? I'm fine, what is your name? What is your job? What is your father's job?"

Things got better, particularly for women, after the fall of the Taleban, but the head of the women's centre in Lashkar Gah, Fawzia Olema, says things have deteriorated in the last year or so.

"Security was better then," she says. "We had more activities for training and education, but right now women aren't even coming out of their houses because of the security situation. Before, the women could work, now they can't."

Building work in Afghanistan
Building work goes on despite the fighting in Afghanistan

The fighting has been bad in Helmand - most districts outside the capital have seen long, protracted and destructive battles between the sniping Taleban, taking potshots at the British forces, and the overwhelming air power and high-tech weapons and rockets being used against them, not always to great effect.

Markets, businesses, homes have all been damaged and in some cases civilians killed. In a couple of places, schools built by previous international teams have been destroyed in new battles.

Trying to bring any kind of long-term development to such an unstable area is incredibly difficult - much of the money is spent on security infrastructure like police stations and checkpoints.

A lot more is being done now than it was a year ago, even if people don't notice their lives being changed in a dramatic way.

In this conservative, traditional area the Taleban always had support because they brought the justice, peace and security people still crave today.

It will take a long time and a lot more money to persuade them to abandon old alliances and back a new government and its international security force, especially when outsiders in this foreign land have always been at best feared, at worst killed or driven away.

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