Welcome to Afghanistan? No, Norfolk

To prepare troops for action, the Army has turned a training camp into a simulacrum of an Afghan village – complete with amputees, fake blood and suicide bombers. Terri Judd reports

To a casual observer there is little to distinguish the peaceful country lane seven miles north of Thetford from any other slice of rural Norfolk. That is until you spy the high fence and the sodden young fusilier standing guard in the rain. Beyond the boundary, far from prying eyes, lies a very different world. Instead of thatched cottages there are mud compounds and instead of the famous Broads there are irrigation trenches.

This is where the men and women heading for Helmand's frontline are given a taste of what lies ahead. It is, if you like, a little piece of England that is forever Afghanistan.

Villages were first evacuated from this 30,000 acre Norfolk site in the middle of the Second World War to provide an army training ground. It was here that many troops prepared for D-Day and where Captain George Mainwaring's hapless Dad's Army later filmed some of their most famous sequences. The original "Nazi" village was later transformed to resemble Northern Ireland and Bosnia. But two years ago the last watchtowers were torn down for its most dramatic transformation to date.

In the newly created village of "Sindh Kalay", Afghan compounds surround a busy marketplace where the smell of cooking wafts over stalls. Meat vendors and mechanics vie for space with livestock. The sound of a call to prayer is drowned out by the noise of an Apache attack helicopter while a team of British soldiers patrols slowly through the crowds.

Sindh Kalay – which cost £14m to build – is populated by hundreds of expatriate Afghans, as well as Gurkha soldiers, who provide a substitute population of tribal leaders, native army and police and inhabitants – a reminder that counter-insurgency in Helmand has more to do with winning local consent than destroying an enemy. Other participants take the roles of Taliban – from the suicide bomber who slips into the market to those waiting to ambush.

Meanwhile a team of amputees are hired to play the wounded, their stumps made up to replicate the nature of the injuries that British soldiers now face all too often in Afghanistan. The attention to detail is so realistic that one young soldier recently fainted when he was suddenly faced with an amputation pumping "blood" to match a femoral arterial bleed.

A team of film make-up artists create the effect, explained John Pickup, of Amputees In Action, adding: "We have had people faint or throw up their dinners. The aim is to desensitise them so they can deal with it and save people's lives.

"We sit in a muddy puddle for hours on end, waiting to jump out and scream and shout, cold and miserable – but then you remember these guys are heading for something far worse," explained Mr Pickup, who lost his arm in a motorbike accident more than two decades ago.

Every amputee is vetted and put through specialist training beforehand to see if they are up to the job, he continued: "For some it is too close to the mark, too realistic. The last thing we want to do is traumatise someone, stymie their rehabilitation."

The same careful consideration must be applied to the Afghans, added Dr Nadir Biyria, who has been advising the military since leaving Kandahar as a political refugee in 2004. While some made the UK their home decades ago, others have very recent experience of the war.

"Initially we had difficulties when appointing someone to act as suicide bomber, as some have lost their loved ones by a suicide bombing," he explained, pointing out such emotional turmoil could be put to better use. "We use the real sufferer when we organise shuras (meetings) with British soldiers as they will be the most realistic."

Former army officers, ministers, governors and police are among the Afghans advising the training, many of whom still have regular contact and updates from key figures such as the Helmand governor Gulab Mangal as well as the heads of the Afghan army and police.

Their motivation, Dr Biyria insisted, was to prevent casualties amongst those they had left behind as well as their new countrymen.

"We hope it will result in cultural awareness as well as a reduction of civilian casualties," he said, continuing: "We are preventing them making mistakes which would result in them losing their lives. Every casualty feels like losing a member of our family."

As well as Sindh Kalay there is a town for those heading to Kabul and an area of rivers and high vegetation mirroring the tortuous terrain soldiers wade through in the notorious Green Zone. Crossroads have sandy lanes where every inch must be checked for roadside bombs. A new forward operating base is built around a helicopter pad where Chinooks practise casualty evacuation. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hover overhead; fast jets fly above.

"The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. For a minute you are back there. Ask veterans of two or three tours and they will tell you it is genuinely eerie. If you can replicate that, then the shock of the first foot patrol is reduced," explains Colonel Richard Westley, commander of OPTAG (Operational Training Advisory Group).

The village is the most visible sign of a dramatic overhaul of military training in the past 18 months. If the Taliban changes its bomb-making tactics, a team in Helmand feeds it straight back and the new information is incorporated "in minutes".

Training is now moulded by soldiers returning from the frontline, whatever their rank. A corporal heading for Babaji in Helmand will be mentored in Norfolk by his equivalent flown in from Afghanistan. It is what Colonel Westley describes as a "pragmatically refreshing approach".

"We [OPTAG] are an organisation that is entirely comfortable in a bottom-up approach. If I had to wait for policy and doctrine and funding I could not do it. A lot of people are uncomfortable with my approach of 'Do it now and let doctrine catch up'. What we would not be comfortable about is waiting. If we delay here, people die."

His determination is matched by that of the man in charge, Major-General Andrew Kennett, Director General Land Warfare.

"We are much more effective in our response and much better at trying to predict what might come next. We have changed the culture here. The culture was one of waiting to be told. Now we go to theatre [Helmand] and find out," he said.

"In a year and a half, there have been an awful lot of changes. There has been an increase in the realism and sophistication of training, making sure the environment now reflects realistic sights, sounds and smells. We now have a lessons process that is alert to the dynamics of change."

The unrelenting nature of operations means that many regiments begin 21 months of training to deploy to Helmand again within three months of returning. At the moment those deploying this summer, those due out this winter and those on schedule to head out next summer, are all going through different stages of the process.

Late last year, the British military published its new doctrine on counter-insurgency and the task has been to interpret such theory into best practice, to remind soldiers that their exit strategy revolves around training Afghan forces and winning local consent.

The new process is two-pronged – to anticipate changes in enemy tactics while reacting to what becomes evident on the frontline. As well as a counter-insurgency team designed to predict changes on the battlefield in the political context, and to ensure that theories are put into best practice, the Army now taps into the knowledge of allies, academics and scientists, but equally relies on a two-way dialogue with a roving team in Afghanistan.

Brigadier Piers Hankinson, Commander of the Land Warfare Development Group, said: "The guys who are having to fight for their lives have no time spare to look at it differently. Somebody who is not close to the fight can offer reassurance and advice on how to cater for that threat. It is a lessons process – to analyse what has been successful and where the gaps may be and what do we need to work at further."

And that work is in the name. Sindh Kalay may be the exercise name of the model Afghan village but its official title is the Jackson Wright village – named by its designer, Sergeant-Major Simon Turner. He chose it after two friends from the the Parachute Regiment who lost their lives in Helmand.

War games played in deadly earnest

Within a cavernous hanger in Wiltshire sit 140 giant metal containers. Enter one and you are in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter above Sangin, another and you are driving a Warrior armoured vehicle through desert terrain, a third and you are manoeuvring an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Kajaki.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ormerod jokes that he is the proud guardian of "the PlayStation to beat all PlayStations", but this is serious business – the military's state-of-the-art training simulators at the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer. It is largest facility of its kind in the world.

For the first time, the new brigade preparing to take over in Helmand is using simulators that replicate the terrain they will face in Afghanistan. New computer graphics, pictured right, will allow a soldier heading for Musa Qala to drive the very road he will need to negotiate in a few months, past the same mud compounds and mosques, and the dried-up wadi riverbed where the locals hold their Monday market. In one scenario a suicide bomber attacks. A British patrol operating nearby is diverted but caught up in an ambush while Apache helicopters and Tornado jets come to their aid. Each participant is in one of the simulators, while officers issue orders from a mock-up of the headquarters in Lashkar Gah in the next room.

Afterwards, the scenario is played back to observe mistakes made not only in terms of the battle but the consequences of such actions on locals. Today the simulated patrol has been hit and undoubtedly paid a bloody price. Lt-Col Ormerod hopes that such training will ensure that troops will not have to do so in reality.

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