The man who cares for goats

The Army has an unlikely secret weapon in the fight against the Taliban – a vet

It may not feature very highly in Nato's counter-insurgency manual but British forces have discovered that one way to triumph in the most vital battle of the Afghan war, winning over the hearts and minds of the local population, is through their goats and sheep.

Capt Miles Malone, an Army vet, has been flown to an area recently retaken from the Taliban to offer treatment on the herds of the farmers. His work will take place alongside other, larger-scale initiatives such as the building of hospitals and roads.

Such has been the benefit of Capt Malone's presence in Helmand that the post will now become a permanent one, with a replacement arriving when the officer leaves at the end of the tour. The numbers of vets in the battlefield may even be increased in the future.

Perhaps inevitably, the vet is being described as "the Herriot of Helmand" by colleagues at the Ministry of Defence eager to promote this positive development among the often bleak dispatches from Afghanistan.

The allusion to the fictional British television character has left many Afghans somewhat puzzled, but there seems to be unanimity among the farmers that Capt Miles is good news and they would be sorry to see him go.

In the seven months he had been based at the main British headquarters in the province, Camp Bastion, Capt Malone has looked after more than 8,000 animals and opened a series of rural veterinary clinics for communities in surrounding areas.

Being flown in by RAF Chinook to Nad-e-Ali, next to Marjah, and picking his way through paths strewn with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) has added another dimension to his work, although one of his tasks at Camp Bastion, he points out, had been to look after the sniffer dogs used by bomb disposal teams.

Capt Malone, 28, from Mount Bures near Sudbury, in Suffolk, said: "These animals are basically the bank accounts of the farmers. Some of these goats are worth $70 each. A lot of people round here are surviving on about a dollar a day, so economically they are extremely important.

"There is very little understanding among the local farmers of veterinary care or basic animal husbandry. So I split my time when I run clinics between treating the flocks and educating the farmers."

The education can be a painstaking process. "There is near-total ignorance about causes and spread of disease, breeding cycles and how milk is produced," he said. "If a goat stops milking, it is said to be 'Allah's will' rather than the fact that it has not bred for 18 months and therefore has no anatomical reason to produce milk."

Speaking at Patrol Base Shaheed which was set up by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh, Capt Miles continued: "Having the opportunity for a vet to come down and deliver medication, treatment and also advice to the local farmers has been a real win. In part because it displays our intent to stay here and that our actions are in support of the community. The Taliban just cannot compete."

The Taliban have, in the past, attempted to halt vaccination programmes for villagers by telling people that they were being infected as part of a Western plot. They have not, however, tried the same tactic when it comes to animals.

Mohammed Sharqi, at the agriculture ministry in Kabul, said: "The farmers in Helmand are like farmers in most places, they are shrewd people and they know what is getting them financial benefits. They are not going to let the Talibs interfere with that. This programme should be expanded."

The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad is running a project in Helmand training Afghan nationals to become veterinary technicians.