Page last updated at 02:03 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 03:03 UK

Tackling the 'Taliban' in Norfolk

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

A mocked up Afghan scene
The training village has a great level of realism about it

Afghan stall-holders beckon to the British soldiers who patrol the bazaar, offering them a salty yoghurt drink and calling out in Pashto as the troops pass by.

There is the distinctive smell of wood-smoke in the air, and in the distance, the call to prayer begins to sound.

Suddenly the calm is shattered by a blast.

A suicide bomber has struck, the force of the explosion sending the market traders diving for cover, and leaving a man lying in apparent agony with one leg blown off.

The main aim is to help British soldiers understand Afghan culture and customs, so that they don't make any mistakes
Fazel Beria, Afghan co-ordinator

Immediately, the men of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh go into action, some evacuating the casualty to safety, while others warily crouch by hard cover to assess the situation.

Luckily, this is a training exercise, and the only ones who remain nonplussed by this turn of events are a few bewildered sheep who had been grazing peacefully near the new mock village in the Stanford training area, spread over 43 square miles in Norfolk.

A few minutes later the sheep lose interest and move on.

Detailed model

This is the first time the mock "Afghan village" has been put through its paces by forces training for their deployment in Afghanistan.

So far the consensus among the Royal Welsh and the Coldstream Guards using it this week is that the £14m pounds spent on the facilities has been well worth it. Such training now should help to save lives when it is put it into practice, they say.

A man with a tray of drinks
Understanding Afghan etiquette is important for UK troops

The "village" of Sindh Kalay has been carefully modelled on the real thing in Helmand province, right down to the wood-smoke and the market stalls, though rarely have I seen such fresh-looking fruit for sale in Helmand.

On closer inspection, though, it turns out to be made of plastic.

The old training village was based on European-style houses and fields, useful for troops deploying to Bosnia or Kosovo but rather less so for the kind of wars British soldiers have been fighting in recent years.

"There has been some real investment in this village, and of my 20 years in the Army, it's the best training I've ever seen - the preparation is superb," says Lieutenant Colonel Toby Gray, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards.

They and the Royal Welsh are due to deploy to Afghanistan later in the year as part of 11 Light Brigade.

Cultural adjustment

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Lock, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, agrees.

"The guys are enjoying the training, and can see real value in being able to practise in a replica situation," he said.

The new facilities also include a more urban Afghan sprawl, mimicking one of the bigger towns, as well as several smaller forward operating bases and dirt tracks where soldiers can train to counter the other main threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan today - roadside bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Britain has lost 29 servicemen in Afghanistan so far this year, taking the total since 2001 to 166.

A soldier
This is the first time the mock village has been used by soldiers

The realism in the training even extends to using Afghans to play the villagers, with the soldiers learning how to work alongside Afghan interpreters and the Afghan National Army as the British platoon searches compounds in the mock village, and holds a shura or meeting with tribal elders.

Understanding Afghan culture is seen as more important than ever in keeping Afghan villagers onside, three years since British troops first deployed to Helmand.

The "villagers" even bake bread in the ovens here, while the former Gurkhas who play the part of the Afghan Army or insurgents surprised one unit searching their compound by offering them a home-made curry.

Realistic training

Fazel Beria, who came to Britain from Afghanistan 17 years ago, co-ordinates the 60 or so Afghan contractors playing their roles here.

He said: "The main aim is to help British soldiers understand Afghan culture and customs, so that they don't make any mistakes. That means they will be safer, and Afghan civilians should be safer too."

Many of the young men training here have already served in Afghanistan. For some, this week's exercise has brought back vivid memories of their last tour of duty.

"The training is arduous and full-on, but that only adds to the realism," says Lance Corporal Chester Harris, 22, of the Coldstream Guards.

"The bonding we do as a unit during training is the most important thing - if you've got the camaraderie there, and the ability to gel together as a unit, it gets you through the hardest times," he said.

Soldiers meeting actors playing Afghan elders
The training will help prepare the soldiers for their time in Afghanistan

He is excited by the prospect of returning to Afghanistan, after serving in Kabul on his previous tour.

Lance Corporal Matthew Wood, 21, of the Coldstream Guards is also keen to deploy, despite the dangers.

"When I was in Afghanistan last time in 2007, my mum said she couldn't bear to watch the news, but my family back me 100%. There's always that danger there, but we're fully aware of that when we sign up to join the Army," he said.

Due to the pressure of operational needs in Afghanistan, some soldiers preparing to deploy have suffered a shortage of the newest armoured vehicles and equipment to train on in the UK, with operations in Afghanistan taking priority on delivery.

That remains an issue but those here say it is getting better.

There is also praise for the way the training itself takes into account the very latest threats in Afghanistan, constantly adapting and responding to what is happening on the ground.

As torrential rain hammered down, the Afghan tribal elders drinking tea as they sit on carpets outside their compound run to take cover while the British soldiers they have been chatting to say a hasty farewell.

The one thing British military trainers have not managed to replicate in rural Norfolk - yet - is the searing heat of a real Afghan summer. That may just have to wait.



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