Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Helmand day two - the true believer

Jim Haggerty meeting children (Photo: John Boon)
Mr Haggerty thinks of what his own wife and children want from life
In the second entry of his diary from Afghanistan's Helmand province, the BBC's Ian Pannell meets a British government stabilisation advisor who is convinced security and development are taking root in the region.

Jim Haggerty is a true believer. He is a 50-something civil-servant who speaks Pashtu with a Geordie accent.

He is a little like those people who sidle up to you on the high street with a beaming smile borne from salvation, lean in close, clasp your hand and ask: "Have you heard the good news?"

But in Jim's case your inclination is not to avert your eyes and scuttle off embarrassed but to stay and hear more.

In his case the "good news" is not the word of God but the hand of man. Jim speaks the local language, Pashtu, with a Geordie accent and his enthusiasm and optimism are infectious - as is his absolute conviction that life here is improving for ordinary Afghans.

Virulent insurgency

Jim is the stabilisation advisor for the British government here in Nad-i-Ali. The job of the 'Stabad', is to try to help bring stability and security to an area and encourage development and construction to take place.

In Helmand that is a challenge that would faze most people. The province is home to a virulent insurgency, poverty is endemic, conservative Islam is entrenched and there is long tradition of distrust of foreigners, especially in uniform.

We toured the local market with Jim and the district governor, Habibullah. The two men have a close bond borne from trying to pull off the seemingly impossible in Nad-i-Ali, bringing life back to the town.

You don't have to see great things happening to be happy in the job
Jim Haggerty

Habibullah calls Jim "Lala", it means 'older brother'. It is a sign of the affection and respect that Jim has earned here (even if he objects to being designated "older" than Habibullah).

The men embrace and we are taken to see the market. On one level it is unremarkable; the usual bustling collection of ramshackle sheds selling bread and tea and clothes and cheap plastic goods made in China. But as this town was a Taliban stronghold just a few weeks ago and the market was a shuttered-up shooting gallery, the market is in every way remarkable.

Now there are 300 stalls doing a healthy business and both men insist economic life is coming back to the town.

We also visit the new clinic, which is doing a bristling trade in sickness. More than 100 people-a-day are coming from across the district to receive treatment at this newly refurbished and equipped centre.

'Ripple effect'

It has cost about $40,000 (28,900) of British tax-payers' money. More has been spent on the market and elsewhere. There are plans for the mosque and school and help for farmers.

Jim believes these developments will have a "ripple effect" in an area where a contest for influence with the Taliban is a daily struggle.

His post is funded by the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Department for International Development. They spend millions of pounds every year on Helmand and although there are achievements like Nad-i-Ali, they are limited.

Judging success in Helmand depends entirely on perspective.

Governor Habibullah, an interpreter and Ian Pannell (Photo: John Boon)
There are only a few areas where Nad-i-Ali's progress is replicated

Although the market here has 300 stalls, there were actually 800 a year ago, before the British took on the Taliban in Operation Red Dagger in late 2008. Then, people fled the town and the bazaar was closed. The Taliban have now fled but that has come at a price.

Similarly at the clinic, where long queues are forming, progress comes with a caveat. The doctors and patients worry for their own safety because of the fighting in the area. Travelling here runs the risk of arriving with an injury far worse than the one you left home with.

But the most important caveat of all is geographic. The progress that has been made is in small, restricted areas and the rest of the Province is either 'no-man's land' or belongs to the Taliban.

At 55 years old, Jim Haggerty could be doing many other things with his retirement. But he has signed-on until the end of this year, far longer than almost anyone else spends in Helmand.

He thinks of what his own wife and children, back at home in North Yorkshire, want from life and he asks for similar things here. Not shopping malls and street lights but a basic, decent quality of life.

"You don't have to see great things happening to be happy in the job" but what keeps him here is the belief that the British effort is making small steps forward.

The military work hard and take daily risks to try to increase the size of the land it controls. But it is only small steps forward and in practice there are only a few areas where the kind of progress made in Nad-i-Ali is being replicated.

The challenge is to create far larger safe-havens in many more parts of the province. For now the tipping point, where the tide turns against the insurgency, is still far off.

The Helmand diary is reported on jointly by Ian Pannell and John Boon

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