The time has come to pass on the mantle of stabilisation in Musa Qal’eh. Angus and myself are making way for a new team, bringing fresh eyes and new energy to the campaign.

Reflecting on the past nine months is akin to peering into a bizarre kaleidoscope – an ever-changing fusion of colours and experiences which reveal new insights with each twist. The image that dominates my mind however is one of transformation; for in our short time we’ve witnessed nothing less than the birth of government in Musa Qal’eh.

District Governor Naimatullah’s arrival in June followed a nerve-wracking void in district leadership – the fear of uncertainty permeated any hope for the future during those precarious times. Now, and perhaps for the first time in a generation, the people of this district have a legitimate and compassionate administrator.

And we’ve since watched a trickle became a flood of local Afghans to his office – many braving the journey for the first time – to seek guidance and counsel. These days it’s not uncommon for dozens of people to be patiently awaiting an audience.

Encouraged by these wisps of change, we tempted a prospective District Prosecutor to visit. Four months later, he’s still with us – and for the first time people are taking their disputes to the government rather than to the Taliban.

And two painstaking years since work first begun, we’ve finished building the police headquarters – the finest construction in the district, symbolic of the evolution of the district police into an increasingly professional and trustworthy force. We also watched the first stone being laid for what will soon become the new District Government complex, complete with a shura hall for over two hundred people. Its unveiling will be a fitting monument for the government of a district that knew of only Taliban and warlords just a few years ago.

Then, on a sunny autumn day, we sat amongst four hundred elders who defied retribution to elect a District Community Council to represent the interests of common people across the district. We capitalised on the momentum to help the new government tentatively enforce the first ever district Counter Narcotics Plan, a remarkable achievement in a district famed for its role at the heart of Helmand’s poppy trade.

Progress in governance has also been matched by reconstruction. Roads have been improved, and a mobile phone network installed. The District Centre finally has running water and electricity every day. Two schools have been refurbished and hundreds more children now go to school. Hundreds of young men have been employed through urban regeneration schemes and agricultural goods distributed to thousands of farmers to support their livelihoods. In the past six months I’ve watched three hundred more businesses open in the bazaar, and seen the weekly livestock market grow to over 3,000 people from all corners of the district.

But what of the impact of these efforts?

To those of us in the thick of things, it’s clear that the decisive ‘political settlement’ so long sought between the government and its people is cautiously emerging from the chaos of a war-ravaged past.

Such a settlement is more than hyperbole. Ive seen it; more locals are risking their lives to share information about the location of roadside bombs. More young men are willing to work with the Government to defend their villages against the Taliban. Farmers have started to eradicate poppy from their fields. A growing number of fighters have laid down their arms in search of a life beyond the insurgency. Remarkably, we are even seeing women warily step beyond the confines of their compounds to take their own issues to the District Governor.

The gift of such progress is both precious and fragile. It must be nurtured over these coming months lest we risk the district sliding into the mire from which it has torturously risen. But it is a tribute to the resilience of the people of Musa Qal’eh that we have come this far. I remain hopeful.

And in passing on this mantle, I wish all the very best to Henry, Clive and Julius.

It costs an awful lot to repair the damage of war.

Schools must be built, roads constructed, power and water supplies installed, police stations furnished, telephone networks established and irrigation canals cleared (I could go on..).

Such efforts require a ready supply of both skills and materials. Sadly, Musa Qal’eh is short on both, which means that the cost of reconstruction is high, far higher than I had initially expected. Supplies must be trucked in from as far as Pakistan, across mountain passes and treacherous desert roads. Skilled masons, bricklayers and electricians must be found in neighbouring provinces, and paid bonuses to work here. Add to this the high cost of protecting convoys and replacing vehicles that expire en-route and you can begin to understand how the costs mount up.

Despite the challenges, the amount of money being invested in Musa Qale’h has soared in recent months. This is a good thing. Firstly, the Afghan government is becoming an increasingly effective development partner and secondly, security is improving which means that suppliers are more willing to bid for contracts (for example four months ago there were five official contractors. Now we have over thirty.)

But this is not a cloudless horizon; the risk of corruption is ever present and will inevitably feed from the boom of reconstruction. Here in Musa Qal’eh such risks come in many guises – overpricing, skimping on materials, charging for non-existant labour, and sadly even kickbacks for officials.

In the face of such widespread abuse, it is all too easy to dismiss such practices as ‘acceptable corruption’, or simply ‘the cost of doing business’. Such thinking is corrosive, especially if it ultimately means that medical supplies are stolen, classrooms are not built, and public faith in the government – so pivotal in this campaign – is undermined.

The nascent Afghan administration here is acutely aware that such a toxic seed cannot be allowed to take root, and last month launched a weekly meeting to candidly examine lessons and regain the initiative. From it emerged a range of important measures;

–       Establishing a Joint Project Coordination Office to oversee all reconstruction efforts

–       Launching a public Anti-Corruption campaign

–       Blacklisting corrupt contractors

–       Deploying project monitoring teams

–       Tightening up contracting procedures

–       Taking steps to prosecute corrupt officials

This will take time and courage. But it is working already – we’ve exposed a number of flawed projects, cancelled contracts and sent more than one contractor packing. The word is spreading that there is no such thing as acceptable corruption and more importantly, we may just be able to embed a new way of doing business here in this imperfect place.

“I grew up dreaming of becoming a Navy Seal. Then I met some Marines.” Says Major Justin Ansel, the Battalion Executive Officer. “17 years later and Ive never looked back.”

As second in command of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, he has the daunting task of managing well over a thousand Marines across two districts engaged in ‘full-spectrum counter-insurgency operations’. When you first meet Ansel, he embodies the image of a Marine – broad shouldered, a strong handshake, and with an air of no-nonsense competence.

Working with the US Marines has intrigued me from the first moment. Their reputation is hewn from iconic battles in exotic places – Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh… but just how does this legendary history translate into reality here in Musa Qal’eh?

There is no doubt that US Marines are a breed apart (I was politely informed very early on that Marines are not ‘soldiers’ – which refers to US Army). I was struck by the obvious distinctions; the ‘high and tights’ (fiercely cropped haircuts), their impressive appetite for physical training, the dog tags sewn into their boots, the famed Eagle, Globe and Anchor symbol adorning their fatigues, their guttural greetings of ‘Oorah’ (reportedly derived from the sound of a submarine diving alarm).

They are a force designed for expeditionary warfighting – taking the battle to a foreign enemy wherever they may be. And this approach pervades life in Musa Qal’eh; essentially Marines carry all they need with them, forgoing creature comforts to make do with what they have. (‘Living austere’ is the jargon.) Such a mindset also means a constant state of combat readiness. Out here, that means every Marine carries a weapon no matter what they’re doing, and that includes eating, sleeping and showering.

I was also struck by Ansel’s passion for the Corps. It is the spirit that seems to bind all Marines. “We are fanatical about our history – its who we are.” he tells me.

And he is right. It was their courage in the famed (and terribly bloody) battle of Belleau Wood in World War One which sealed their reputation. A letter later taken from the body of a German solider read “I don’t know who we are fighting, but they are like Hounds from Hell.”

Now the Devil Dogs, as they have come to be known, number over 220,000 troops, which is more the entire British Armed Forces. They have become the world’s largest mobile military, supporting three fully equipped ready-reaction task forces around the globe at any one time.

Ansel, who is nearing the end of his seventh tour, seemed to capture the mood of the Marines in Musa Qal’eh. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get this done.” referring to the campaign in Musa Qal’eh and Now Zad, and to the lives that have been lost on both sides. “And Im proud of the sacrifice we’re making here – it honours all those who have gone before us.” His words also resonate with the Corps’ own battle cry;

Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful.

If you look hard enough around our base you can find the occasional telltale sign that its Christmas Day.

There’s a lonely pine tree, wreathed in lights and baubles perched in the corner of the chow hall, courtesy of a passing helicopter crew. The usual tempo of operations has slowed a little, offering a brief respite for weary Marines. Festive packs sent by US veterans associations lie underneath our obligatory table decoration (a tiny plastic tree balancing atop a box of handy-wipes), containing a rifle cleaner and mini-first aid kit – a somewhat macabre gift. A deafening flyover from a fighter jet makes us all duck for cover, until we realise that the US Air Force has just delivered their seasons greetings.

We broke from tradition for our weekly barbeque last night, seeking shelter from the cold inside the chow hall to swap memories of Christmas Eves gone by.  Tales of celebrity visits to Lashkar Gah reach us, along with mythical stories of fine food and festivities – things are a little more austere here, though the grilled goat kebabs are especially fine.  (We all remind ourselves that at least we’re spared the frenzied crowds and last-minute mayhem).

The Commandant of the Marine Corps flies in for a brief visit. His whistle-stop tour takes a moment to award the Purple Heart to half a dozen Marines injured in the line of duty. His words strike a chord of hope in those listening that things will get better.

Though we wish it otherwise, life goes on. Marines stand guard throughout the freezing night. Vehicles roll in delivering fresh supplies, and the operations room hums 24/7. Late on Christmas Eve, the sharp crump of an explosion startled me. Yet another roadside bomb and someone has their life torn to shreds at the hands of the Taliban. No Happy Christmas for them.

Our Afghan friends of course don’t celebrate Christmas, though the District Governor and his team join us for the celebratory meal. Beyond the canvas of the mess tent, the mosques singing the call to prayer offer a musical reminder that for them the day is as any other.

And throughout it all, though we don’t speak it, we know that tomorrow this festive pause will be over, and the war will continue.

Allow me to share a short but frustrating story about our town generator.

I wish to tell you this not simply to unburden myself of a long-festering grievance but also with the hope that there may be some silver lining amongst it all.

Bear with me as I delve into a little history to put things into context. Since the birth of Musa Qal’eh, the local inhabitants have managed remarkably well without the miracle of electricity, adapting admirably to the scorching summer heat and the icy chill of winter.

In 1975, USAID commissioned the construction of a hydro-power plant in the neighbouring Kajaki district providing the people of Musa Qal’eh their first taste of electricity. The plant was destroyed by NATO airstrikes in 2001, rehabilitated by the British five years later, and now provides power to the district two days a week – although you can never really predict which days.

Sometime in 2008, USAID hauled a gigantic 850 KVA generator (about the size of a small truck) through the desert badlands into Musa Qal’eh – a mighty logistical feat at the time. It was a laudable effort to introduce reliable power to the district centre. Sadly, an escalation of fighting brought about an abrupt end to its service shortly after it was installed.

A year later, and with the dust settling, the District Stabilisation Team threw themselves back into the task with renewed vigour. A new network of power connections was built, extensive agreements hammered out with the local community, a plan drawn up for its policing, and a contract settled for supplying the thirsty beast with ten-thousand litres of fuel each month. A grand opening ceremony and obligatory ribbon-cutting announced to all that the lights had been turned back on (for the second time).

Five months into 2010, the generator ran out of diesel. Unsurprisingly, those responsible for the refuelling were nowhere to be found.

Just two weeks ago – some two and a half years since it was first installed – we tried to re-start the generator. We all watched with grim hope as the key turned and the monster whirred, smoked, shook and rumbled. Then fell silent. Dead. And never to be reawakened (or at least until we can find new parts from China). Sigh.

At some point in the future, I dearly hope that this story will be told as some mildly amusing historical anecdote. And that the pain will have been worth it. If there are any lessons to be gleaned, they might well include:

Afghan ownership is everything. Without endless consultation with the vast spectrum of people who miraculously appear out of the woodwork as ‘stakeholders’, such projects are doomed to failure. All too often they’re imposed upon the community, who resent or exploit the initiative, no matter how good an idea it might seem to be at the time.

Installing the infrastructure is the easy part. (And even then it’s not that simple!) Land use agreements, refuelling contracts, payment collections, security, maintenance, etc etc etc (ad infinitum)…the devil lies in the detail amidst the rush to build.

Its not just about the generator. Its easy to become consumed by the (very worthy) aim of providing electricity. But then – does the immense effort required move things closer to transition? How important is it for strengthening a fragile Government?

Power is political. (like everything in Musa Qal’eh). And the politics are made infinitely more complex whenever money, personalities, power and the international community are involved – much of which we foreigners are oblivious to.

There is no silver bullet. Transition of areas such as Musa Qal’eh to full Afghan control is going to take time and serious effort. And if there is one project which demonstrates just how difficult that might be to make happen, then its our town generator.

“Mutual accountability” is the fifth principle of aid effectiveness in the Paris Declaration. Importantly, it asks how governments, development agencies and civil society can hold each other accountable for delivering on their many promises. However, like the last child in a large family, it has received the least attention of any Paris principle. A recent review by OECD concluded that the development community is unclear on its definition, and there is no established best practice on how to put it into action.

Over the last year, I have worked to boost mutual accountability between African governments, development partners and others as they attempt to transform agriculture across the continent. I have concluded that it is real relationships that are the basis for achieving mutual accountability, and yet the development community rarely considers what it takes to establish productive working relationships that transcend institutions.

The accountability problem
According to the Paris Principles, development work is most effective when numerous actors align themselves behind a single strategy and co-ordinate their action. As a result, governments, development partners, and civil society make countless fine promises to act together on various issues. However, as sovereign entities, there is no formal or legal accountability for anyone to deliver on these promises. The principle of “Mutual Accountability” calls for mechanisms that provide the evidence, debate and transparency through which all partners feel the pressure to deliver.

Where mutual accountability works
There are numerous mechanisms that promote mutual accountability, but I will highlight three that are generating particular interest.

In Rwanda, for its poverty reduction strategy, the government has proactively established a performance scorecard with clear mutually agreed criteria against which all partners are held accountable. At an annual event the results are publicly announced, with the good and poor performers recognised at Presidential level, and remedial actions agreed.

The International Health Partnership (IHP+) is rationalising the inefficient jungle of health initiatives by committing partners to one strategy in each country against which to align, and then producing scorecards that show whether partners are really harmonising their efforts. The results are announced and debated at technical and political fora.

CAADP, Africa’s plan for boosting agriculture, is similarly aligning partners behind single country strategies, but then bringing together stakeholder coalitions to interrogate M&E reports and debate the quality of performance by various partners. Again the outcome is shared at technical and political fora where partners can commit to remedial actions.

Real relationships – the secret ingredient
Most literature on mutual accountability takes a typically technical or mechanistic approach to the issue, extolling structural solutions such as M&E systems, scorecards and platforms. My experience however is that fundamentally mutual accountability is a cultural issue founded on the quality of relationships between individuals that transcend institutions. People feel mutually accountable because they respect each other personally and professionally, and do not want to let each other down. Where these relationships are forged in hard work and honesty, people can demonstrate a much stronger commitment to delivery than with relationships within hierarchical institutions where formal sanctions do apply.

Furthermore relationship based accountability means issues get dealt with faster and more efficiently. My Ugandan colleague can call me up to discuss financing constraints as soon as they are apparent, rather than waiting for a senior manager to make a formal and potentially awkward announcement at the next big meeting.

The three examples of Rwanda, IHP+, and CAADP are significant because in each case there is a real community of people who are actively working closely on making progress together. This contrasts with high-level fora such as the UN Development Co-operation Forum where the discussion is more technical, and the relationships more institutional. Real relationships are necessary for people to care about delivery, and then mechanisms for evidence, debate and transparency count for something.

Development initiatives are rarely structured to establish personal working relationships that transcend institutions. I suggest this is essential good practice, as a foundation for accountability and delivering results. We need to think more about how to foster such relationships, but potentially heretical proposals could include:
• Co-locating teams of individuals who work together on issues from across institutions, rather than housing them in their own organisations and dispatching them for the occasional brief interaction
• Locating structural mechanisms for mutual accountability at the heart of real communities of practice, rather than operating as global, generic aid effectiveness instruments.
• Organising meetings and conferences to include more small group time, rather than lengthy formal plenary sessions; and hosting them at informal venues rather than grand conference centres.
• Organising social events at meetings or conferences to allow people to get to know each other personally, or better undertake joint field trips that build an emotional connection to the issue.
• Embracing technology such as video-skype and virtual workspaces.

Accountability will be mutual, when individuals from across institutions stand shoulder to shoulder with a personal commitment as well as a professional obligation to achieving results together.

It is just under a year since Wasafiri was established, and a further five since Impact International first launched its predecessor –  the Relief and Development Group.

Over that time we have worked alongside the people and organisations at the heart of some the most compelling issues of our time ~ climate change; poverty; wars in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Congo; the food crisis; and natural disasters in Myanmar and Ethiopia.

We recently took stock of what we have learned and concluded that these issues are fundamentally leadership challenges on a global, systemic level. And we’ve concluded that our work is to help generate leadership action that tackles these issues and which ultimately drives change in the lives of people in crisis.

Issues as complex as these are at the same time very personal and profoundly global;

  • The Haitian who is hungry because she cannot afford to buy enough food is entrapped by increasing meat consumption in China, oil price fluctuations, commodity speculators, US bio-fuel subsidies and a drought in the grain fields of Argentina.
  • The Congolese refugee fleeing armed militias is bound up with global mobile phone sales, the regional investment climate, a dysfunctional United Nations system and an absence of political leadership
  • The Burmese fisherman rebuilding his village after Cyclone Nargis is unwittingly affected by climate change, international criminal law, economic sanctions, and the price of rice.

The people and organisations who aspire to tackle such issues must themselves simultaneously operate at the personal and global levels. And meaningful change requires action across all dimensions: How does the manager of a development agency influence the global causes of suffering, while on a day to day basis the choices he or she faces are often mundane? How should I run this meeting? What are my priorities today? How do I ensure my team is working well? Who do I need to influence?

We work with individuals, teams and organisations to help generate action that is co-ordinated enough and aligned enough to have a genuine and lasting impact. This may be about achieving clarity on goals, on common ways of working, or on the underpinning values that ultimately guide action. We help people to see how their decisions cascade through ever expanding circles of influence to collectively bring about change at a systemic, global level.

At the heart of our work is our unwavering belief that leadership is a special kind of action, not a special kind of person – for it is the right kind of action that intentionally and positively impacts the future.

The world is globalised as never before. We need people who understand their leadership role beyond the parameters of their own team or organisation. This is obvious in the extremes of disaster relief and development, but is increasingly apparent in other sectors such as banking, retailing, manufacturing or extractives. Expertise in generating leadership action is needed in new and urgent ways.

As I shuffled into the compound in Camp Bastion, dusty, heavily laden with backpacks, body-amour covered in greasy splotches of helicopter hydraulic fluid, I ran into a distinguished looking gentleman and his military aide sipping tea in the morning sun. We exchanged pleasantries as I battled past with my bags, and was mildly startled to see his eyes light up when I mentioned my role in Musa Qal’eh.

“Do come and join me for a cup of tea.” He exclaimed, ignoring the aide’s pointed glance at his watch. “I’ve been dispatched by the Chief of the UK Defence Staff to look into this business of transition,” he announced. “and Id very much like to hear your views.”

Much to my surprise, and to the exasperation of his aide, we talked for the next hour and a half.

It became clear that that my well-dressed inquisitor was visiting in response to recent announcements by the US President and UK Prime Minister of timetables for troop reductions and a renewed focus on the ‘end-state’ for this campaign.

Despite my eagerness to change into a shirt not saturated with oil, I found the conversation stimulating – adding fuel to the gathering embers of interest in Musa Qal’eh about ‘what happens next.’ For a short while at least, it prompted me to step back from the mire of day-to-day dilemmas and frustrations to examine the big questions that define our collective contribution in Musa Qal’eh:

– What must be done in the time remaining to ensure a smooth transition to a state that is able to protect its people and govern with a reasonable degree of accountability and legitimacy? In other words, what is ‘good enough’ for the international and Afghan community to feel confident that progress will sustained?

– How must we involve Afghans in this process? Indeed – to what extent should Afghans lead the process? And which Afghans? How important is re-integration of the Taliban to the success of transition?

– Where must we focus our developmental and reconstruction efforts – and what are the minimum standard of education, healthcare, basic services such as power and clean water that should be reached as a basis for transition?

– How should the role for international civilians and institutions evolve to support this milestone? How can the space for military, governmental, private and humanitarian actors best be reconfigured?

– And what happens when we formally hand over to full Afghan control? How valid are fears of disintegration and a return to the dark days of Talib rule, warlordism and a feudal state?

– How must we forge a regional settlement in the meantime – and what will be the implications for those of us, Afghan and international alike, in remote areas such as Musa Qal’eh?

– How, (from a selfish point of view) should my daily contributions be defined such questions?

It occurred to me that our chance encounter had been unexpectedly refreshing. It had forced me to grapple with big issues that were genuinely hard, with no quick remedy or silver bullet for a solution. And I realised that such discussions – at every level – were more and more essential, even if it left me pondering many more questions than answers.

As we parted ways – to an audible sigh of relief by a now thoroughly irritated aide – and exchanged contact details, I discovered that I had been talking to Dr The Honourable Gilbert Greenall CBE, High Sheriff of Herefordshire and Fourth Baron of Daresbury.

Remarkable place this Camp Bastion; you never know who you’ll run into around here.

What next for the people of Musa Qala?

Each day out here sparkles with a frenetic uncertainty, a kind of relentless unpredictability that defies planning and never ceases to catch me unawares.

The day broke with the surprise arrival of retired Royal Marine Nick Pounds, an old Helmand hand and my very welcome leave replacement. We crammed the next four weeks of issues and priorities into a rapid-fire chat over steaming mugs of tea as the sunlight crept into the compound.

Children of Musa Qala – constant companions in our work

Before we had a chance to refill the kettle, my radio crackled to life. Nazir, the head of our Afghan team reported the news that a local doctor had been kidnapped by the Taliban while returning from leave in Lashkar Gah. We quickly dispatched several of our local ‘fixers’ into the district centre rush hour to do some digging – things out here are rarely as they seem at first glance.

We hurriedly made our way to the District Governor’s compound for the first gathering of the District Community Council Justice Sub-Committee, as it considered a growing dispute over land between two families from a long troubled and tribally divided village. My hope for a quick resolution receded quickly as the argument grew more heated.

The Director of Education intercepted me as the meeting closed with news that another school had been shut down – the second in as many weeks. Apparently the landlord of the private compound that had served as the classroom had decided that it was no longer profitable. Another issue to be added to the decidedly gloomy state of education in the district.

During a fleeting pause for lunch (chicken fajita has become a personal favourite), the Civil Affairs Team Leader stopped by with an update from the recent chaos caused by an accidental overpayment of one of the Cash For Works programmes – which had instantly sparked spontaneous strikes and angry demands for pay rises across the district centre. (Not that I could blame them)

By this point the day’s schedule was shot to pieces. In our (belated) daily meeting with the District Governor he confessed rather gleefully that he had spent the morning with the Chief of Police on an impromptu – and dangerous – cross country road trip to several villages on the fringes of government control – a far cry from the norm for someone who has stepped out of his office only a handful of times in recent months.

We then scrambled to the top of the base accommodation block to watch an artillery bombardment of Talib positions to the south – staring in silence as distant booms reached our ears and huge plumes of smoke rose from the far off hills.

Before the dust had settled I was called to a hastily convened meeting to discuss plans for hiring local villagers as a private security force to protect ‘critical infrastructure’ beyond the areas of government control, and as a means to repulse nightly raids by the Taliban. A proposal to be treated with care in a region of shifting allegiances such as Musa Qal’eh.

Late afternoon the secure phone rang with the PRT health team wanting to discuss the relative merits of upgrading the local clinic to the standard of a district hospital. Given the challenges of getting supplies into this remote northern district, I remain wary about such an investment.

As the sun set behind the bleached mountains, I stole a quick half-hour to play volleyball on the HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone). We were forced to pause every few minutes as aircraft shuttled Marines and supplies in and out of the district.

We gathered in the office at nightfall for a brief presentation by our local team on the economic impact on the local bazaar of a recent three-day ‘blockade’ of the district centre by insurgents in the south – in which commercial vehicles were forced at gunpoint to drive their goods instead to Taliban controlled markets, causing huge spikes in the prices of basic products. Here their reach is never too far away.

After a short evening meal (chilli macaroni washed down with Gatorade), I met with our close protection team to discuss plans for the ‘winterisation’ of our compound – a recent downpour had proved an alarming warning of what was in store for us as the new year wet season closes in. Im thinking of thigh waders and thermal gloves.

In the nightly Operations Brief, I learned that the following day we would be hosting a group of senior French officers on a lesson-learning tour of Helmand. I would need to prepare a presentation on the Politics and Governance of Musa Qal’eh for eight am the next morning.

No place for complacency out here. Or rest it seems.

A 40-minute helicopter flight and my rather sober world of desert sand and military rations is transformed.

A mirage of familiar faces, hot showers and second-helpings of ice cream … my infrequent visits to the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah are a welcome chance to reconnect and recharge.

The PRT Helicopter Landing Zone at twilight

For a stabilisation adviser – particularly one deployed to the far reaches of the province – the PRT is a home away from home. And like any homecoming, it is the familiar rituals that offer respite from the pressures of the ‘out-stations’. A casual cuppa outside the coffee shop, the obligatory evening volleyball, a well worn movie in the Brown Lounge and chance catch-ups with old friends and fellow stabads on their own way through.

Part of its appeal is the casual interaction of people that transcends rank, culture and institution. It is common for British officers to work alongside US marines and civilians from the UK Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence or US State Department. Institutionally, it’s impossibly complex, but somehow it works.

There’s usually a frenetic hum of activity and a throng of nationalities; British, Danish, American, Australian and of course Afghan… bringing together an impressive array of expertise in all manner of areas; health, education, governance, intelligence, counter-narcotics, the rule of law.

The PRT flags at sunset

To any outsider the idiom is impenetrable; the names of organisations are freely interwoven with the acronyms of any number of programmes – USAID, FCO, USDA, DANIDA, DFID, AVIPA, HMEP, RAMPUP, SWSS, ACEP… the landscape is fascinating and ever-changing.

A visit also presents the chance to pick up some of the rudiments of life in Musa Qal’eh – a thick wedge of Afghan banknotes, a box of ‘wag-bags’, printer cartridges, soap and a large supply of chocolate (the golden rule of any PRT stopover is never to return to the districts empty handed).

Such visits are essential for District Stabilisation Teams. We cannot operate in a vacuum; and this is where the PRT serves as more than a retreat – it is our lifeline; for resolving complex dilemmas, shaping new policies, lobbying distant governments in Kabul, London and Washington, or galvanising institutional support. And the ice cream is excellent.