The gentle touch of the Gurkhas

Nepalese troops sent to Afghanistan are proving well-equipped in the battle for hearts and minds. Kim Sengupta reports from south of Garmsir

An Apache helicopter-gunship had just been blazing away at Taliban fighters up ahead when the Afghan farmer ambled up to the Gurkha soldier in the field for a chat. He was concerned, he said, that his community was missing out on the wheat allocation which others had been getting further north.

In the midst of the mayhem the young Gurkha talked patiently to the white-bearded Afghan in a mixture of Pashtu and Urdu. The wheat situation certainly seemed unfair, he nodded, and he would pass on the complaint to the appropriate people.

The scene south of Garmsir, in Helmand, may seem somewhat surreal. But it is not unusual for the Gurkhas in Afghanistan to combine warfighting with community relations. For British forces it is a valuable way of keeping contact with the population in a conflict which will ultimately be decided on who wins the battle for hearts and minds.

The fact that the Gurkhas are from broadly the same region is obviously a great advantage, but they also work hard at maintaining the relationship. The evening before the military operation got under way, D Company Royal Gurkha Rifles bought goat and chicken from a village outside the patrol base for a ceremonial curry for themselves and other British troops.

The effect was not only a bit of relaxation and bonding among the force for what turned out to be a dangerous mission but also helped in establishing links with the locals in an area which will be fiercely contested with the insurgents in the coming months.

Company Sergeant Major Dalindra Chetri said: "We make it a policy of buying from local people whenever we can because it's good to have fresh food cooked the way we want and we can invite others to join us. But we are also talking to the locals and giving them money so they have an interest in having us around. We are lucky we can do this because of our background which other units are not able to do. I always say to my men that talking to the local people is not only a way of keeping safe but it is part of our education."

Some of the British soldiers from B Company, 1 Royals, began to look a bit green when Capt Wesley Hughes, the officer commanding the Gurkhas, exclaimed: "You guys are brave, having a Gurkha curry just before an Op. I certainly wouldn't risk that myself."

It was a joke. He, like every other Gurkha soldier, would not eat until other troops, and the Afghan translators, had their fill, just in case there was a shortage of food. Guests leaving hungry is regarded as shameful for the regiment. Afterwards, under the stillness of a Helmand night, another Gurkha tradition was observed, sitting around a fire reflecting on past experience and what lay ahead. Kukris, the fearsome-looking curved Gurkha knives, used for the cooking, were cleaned and sharpened for the battle ahead.

There is a danger that one romanticises the Gurkhas too much. It would be hard to find a more popular cause than supporting the mountain men from Nepal in their recent High Court victory over the right to settle in the UK, and the temptation is to airbrush away their faults.

But it was difficult to find anyone who would criticise them. The one complaint I had from a senior officer was: "They can be a bit slow on the move. I suppose they will say they are thorough, but you can be too thorough at times and this can hold up things. They are also very traditional and need to think more laterally".

The loyalty among the Gurkhas, rank and file and officers, Nepalese and British, is fierce. Lt Alexander Crawley said: "Our guys have nothing to prove as fighting men. But I like the way they behave towards others. Sometimes you see other troops shouting abuse at Afghan soldiers. I have never seen that with our men. They treat people with dignity."

Soldiers from other regiments attached to the Gurkhas appear to catch the bug. Watching the troops set up defences in a compound where we stayed overnight in the middle of Taliban country, Sgt Gareth Thomas, of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, nodded his head. " Look at that, that's bloody good," he said. "Every man is helping each other. There are no shirkers as you may see elsewhere. That's teamwork, that's impressive." Capt Christopher Scott, of the Royal Artillery, said: " It's been really great working with them. Their enthusiasm is astonishing, I know I can depend on them whatever I ask. There is no whingeing, they just get on with things, and of course they are great with the locals."

The Gurkhas are mainly based in Garmsir and Musa Qala, two places which have been captured by the Taliban in the past. Winning over the local people is seen by the UK and the US as vitally important.

Ian Purves, the civilian stabilisation adviser in Garmsir, said: "It's frankly made my job a lot easier to have Gurkhas here. They have the access with the language, they have the affinity with the culture, it's a very good bonus to have."

The Gurkhas have, so far, managed to leave good impressions behind in Afghanistan. In Kabul, watching a Nato armoured convoy drive the wrong way down a road with soldiers shouting at people to get out of the way, Naimtullah Khan, a shopkeeper, reminisced: "When the Gurkhas were here, they were always on foot. They would drop in and have chai with us. We could talk about everything from the situation here to Hindi films. But now how can you talk to soldiers driving around in tanks?"

In the coming months, however, with the planned US-led "surge", the fighting in Afghanistan will move to a new level of intensity. And no one can tell how the Gurkha way of operating will be affected by the new reality on the ground.

Past battles A 1,200-year history

The Gurkhas' connection with Afghanistan goes back to the 8th century when a detachment of the warriors from Nepal went to save the country, then populated by Hindus and Buddhists, from a Muslim invasion.

The Gurkhas, who were Hindus, delayed the eventual Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent.

They returned to Afghanistan in 1879 as part of a British and Indian force, sent after the First Afghan War had resulted in inglorious defeat for the Raj's invading army, which had tried to impose a puppet king upon Kabul.

One of the seminal battles of the Second Afghan War was at Maiwand in July 1880, when the British and Indian force, with its sizeable contingent of Gurkhas, was defeated by the Afghans.

Last year the Gurkhas returned to Maiwand for an operation against the Taliban and some of the Nepali soldiers were descendants of those who fought in the first battle.

Kim Sengupta

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