Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Friday, 27 January 2006

Tribal tips for troops

By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News

A pitched roof house with shutters on the windows is being guarded by armed members of the Afghanistan National Army.

UK troops training in Salisbury Plain with Afghan civilians
Afghans living in Britain helped troops understand their customs
Built to look like a typical German house in the 1950s, this Cold War village in Wiltshire is an unlikely setting for a meeting with an Afghan tribal chief.

The scenario unfolding inside may be make believe, but the intention behind it is deadly serious.

For despite the inconsistency in building design, the meeting is simulating the kinds of work the 16th Air Assault Brigade will be carrying out in Afghanistan.

They are being deployed to Helmand Province in the south of the country and even before the force was confirmed by Parliament this week, they had begun intensive training for the role.

Defence Secretary John Reid has stressed that this is not to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda.

However, they will be dealing with insurgency and Taleban attacks on legitimate law and order.

They will also be backing up international efforts to stop the opium trade which provides 90% of the heroin on Britain's streets.

Their third task, and the one which they are being put through their paces on Exercise Herrick Eagle for, is to help reconstruct the war-ravaged country.

Afghanistan has been at war or occupied for 30 years, and the infrastructure devastated.

UK troops training in Salisbury Plain
Troops say they can easily switch from 'charm offensive' to fighting

It is a country governed by complex tribal loyalties.

The British Army may have been invited in by the elected Afghan government but it is tribal leaders who have the real power on the ground.

To operate in any way, the British must keep them on side.

Back in Wiltshire, to understand how these crucial but delicate negotiations should work, a meeting with a tribal chief is simulated for the troops.

Shah Wali, a 34 year-old Afghan writer from Kabul, is playing the chief's son.

He is among 60 Afghans taking part in role play exercises with the soldiers.

'Simple words'

Now living in London, he thinks the approach will be appreciated by his countrymen.

"We teach them how to say simple words and how to approach women - they should be careful not to look at them, otherwise they will offend.

"I think people will be happy to see them. They hope the British can bring peace - people are so thirsty for peace.

"Secondly, that they build up the country. They need the basics: housing, water, food. That would bring a lot to their lives."

While no Iraq, the soldiers are aware the Afghans will hardly be hanging out the welcome mat for them.

The Paras are heading for the more difficult south of the country which is less under the control of the government in Kabul.

Lynx helicopters
Lynx helicopters will be used in Afghanistan

Lieutenant Tom Fehley, 25, of 3 Para, is well aware of the dangers.

"We're expecting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), snipers and suicide bombers - they're quite a big threat.

"We're going on a charm offensive but we will have the ability to switch to kinetic (fighting) action."

Lieutenant Fehley, from Sheffield, only returned from a tour in Iraq in November.

Many of the threats, some of the culture and the extremes of temperatures will have prepared them for this latest mission.

It was a first "operational experience" for 20 year-old Private Chris Martin.

Facing his second, he says, is less daunting.

"Iraq helped a lot. It was 65C when we arrived - it was hideous. But we acclimatised in a few weeks. Knowing that will help in Afghanistan."

For others, it is their first taste of a hostile environment.

Commanders say the exercises are especially helpful for them.

Practising "screening" the streets and buildings around the village chief's house, is 18-year-old Private John Rowell.

He is watching roofs for snipers and scouring the roads for home-made bombs.

"I've been in the Army since 2002. I just want to be doing something, he said. His "mam" back in Newcastle, though, is "flapping" about the impending tour.

Alexsei Akilou from Tallinn, Estonia, is an old hand at the harshness of Afghan winters and summers.

Hot and cold

The corporal is returning for a second time as part of an Estonian and Danish contingent working with the British.

Training alongside the Paras in Wiltshire he is not complacent.

"It will be quite difficult. The last time I was in Kabul, the capital, where there were local police and army. In the south and on the borders of Pakistan, there is less local control".

It is the weather the soldiers seem to think will give them the biggest difficulties.

Searing heat in the summer and in the winter rain and snow that turns dust roads to impassable mud.

My kids know it's my job and I have to go
Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Curphey

A crucial part of the British deployment is helicopters which will used to cover the inhospitable terrain.

They have been training from a base in East Anglia, flying as far as Scotland to recreate the distances they can expect in Afghanistan.

For the first time Apache attack helicopters will be put to use on the front line.

After a few years training Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Curphey 38, from the Army Air Corp is looking forward to "finally" being able to use it.

He will be leaving his wife and two children but after tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, he says they're used to it.

"It will be testing for the family, especially on young wives. But my kids know it's my job and I have to go."

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