Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Saturday, 3 July 2010 11:37 UK

Sweating blood to make Helmand a garden of peace

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Helmand

British troops are working hard to train Afghan police and soldiers in the heat and dust of Helmand, but with mixed results - and Afghans themselves worry that foreign troops will lose patience before the job is done.

Police recruits in Helmand Police Training Centre
Despite rises in police pay finding enough recruits is not easy

Every day inside the British military headquarters at Lashkar Gah, an elderly Afghan gardener tends a remarkable garden. He does not say much when I pass by, just nods good morning or good afternoon.

But he is there most of the day, working in the sweltering Helmand heat.

For several years now, he has lovingly sown the seeds for the flowers, and watered and nurtured them, eventually coaxing luxuriant red, white and pink blooms out of the thin, sandy soil.

His garden is at the heart of the camp, an unlikely but powerful reminder of home and normality under the harsh glare of the Afghan sun.

All around it are the usual sand-coloured tents and the gravelled car park nearby, where the heat-haze blurs the sharp metallic edges of the military vehicles.

But anyone taking that walk through the garden can be transported for a few brief minutes by the summer scent of mint and the buzz of insects taking the pollen.

On parade

Afghan police recruits wearing flowers in the shape of heart around their necks
British soldiers are helping to train the Afghan police force

I had forgotten how much Afghans love flowers until we went to see the latest police recruits graduate from the Helmand Police Training Centre.

After an eight-week course, they stood smartly to attention on the parade ground, while their British trainers watched.

As the recruits left for the police stations and spartan checkpoints where they will serve, some had hung painted hearts and flowers around their necks, smiling and posing for the cameras.

But nothing in the Afghan garden seems to grow to a Western clock and the Afghans know that our patience is running out

It was hard to imagine that the police, in too many places, are still very much part of the problem, often corrupt and addicted to drugs, their behaviour driving some into the arms of the Taliban.

Several policewomen had just graduated too. We met them in a separate room at the headquarters.

One of them, Islambibi, was a feisty woman, with a ready laugh. She told me she had been married at 10 to a man who was 43, and had had the first of her five children when she was just 15.

I must have looked aghast, because the women simply laughed.

"We have our tradition, and our culture," she told me.

One of her colleagues told me she had single-handedly squashed a would-be suicide bomber by throwing herself on top of him when he resisted arrest - a rather foolhardy thing to do, I thought, but apparently it worked.

Opium poppies
Afghanistan produces 92% of the world's opium

Islambibi told us she had joined the police to try to create a safer future for her children. But her smile faded when I asked what security was like now.

The day before, insurgents had blown up a local bank on police payday.

"Security is worse again," she said. The others nodded. Yet they seemed to accept that violence was simply something that ebbed and flowed here. None of the women in this small stuffy room had known peace for very long in their lifetime.

Roast chicken

The next day we drove in an armoured vehicle to Highway 601, one of the main roads through Helmand, sweat dripping from the British soldiers' faces.

They are trying to make the roads more secure, because if people can move safely, that might just encourage some farmers to plant crops other than the opium poppy, one of the few things to grow well in this soil.

Living, sleeping, eating and working in a sandy base by the road, British troops were helping the Afghan police man to the checkpoints.

Their presence seems to ensure the police do their job properly and do not take bribes or intimidate, at least not when the soldiers are watching.

An overloaded van passes by with a wedding party inside, children smiling and waving as the adults play celebratory drums. Another van, laden with disgruntled goats passes by, the driver looking nervously at the police.

Right next to the small British base, where the heat has risen uncomfortably to the mid 50s, is the Afghan police station, where the police chief invites us in for lunch.

For most of the recruits, this is just a job and it is about daily survival

He has a tired face, perhaps from a lifetime of fighting. But he produces a feast of roast chicken and salad, and we eat cross-legged, the plates laid out on a blanket on the floor.

"How long do British troops need to stay here?" I asked the colonel.

"For as long as we need their help," he told me. "We still do not have enough police, and they do not yet have enough weapons or ammunition."

I ask what would happen if British and other Nato troops left Afghanistan soon. The Afghan colonel was unequivocal. The bloodshed would start again, rival tribes would vie once more to be the most powerful.

It did not worry him that the man at the top of the coalition forces had changed. Whether Gen McChrystal or Gen Petraeus, that was up to the Americans.

The main thing for him was the help their forces gave while the Afghans themselves tried to sort out their rivalries and create a government that worked enough of the time.

Unyielding soil

We visited to another patrol base the next day, where Afghan army recruits are being mentored by British forces. "They are not there yet, the Afghans," one soldier told me.

For most of the recruits, this is just a job and it is about daily survival. They have survived the wars that have raged throughout their lives, he said, and they just want to stay alive as long as they can, earn enough money for three bowls of rice a day, and at the end of their military service, go home to their families.

The soldier gestures towards the recruits. Some are good and the people here like them, but others do not even want to go out of the gate to go on patrol.

Scots Guards and Afghan soldiers on patrol
Many British soldiers in Afghanistan are based in southern Helmand province

I knew exactly how they felt. The day before we came, a British soldier lost his legs to a Taliban roadside bomb not far from here.

As we walked apprehensively on a path between the fields, I looked over at the young faces of the soldiers with us, British and Afghan, and at the kit that weighed them down in the morning heat, sweat already soaking through their shirts and their heavy body armour.

It was with relief that we returned to the nearest British camp in Nad Ali. It is built on the site of an old British fort, its crumbling clay walls all that remain of these soldiers' great-great-grandfathers' efforts.

The walls are a reminder that foreign armies have come and gone, and that the British have been here many times before. This time, British soldiers are trying to turn this hot dusty province into something that has at least a chance to flourish.

They are trying hard to sow those seeds into stubborn, unyielding soil and nurture the results, eager to point out a few small green shoots just beginning to peek above the sand.

But nothing in the Afghan garden seems to grow to a Western clock and the Afghans know that our patience is running out. And they fear we may not be the constant gardeners they need.

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