Haji Abdul Wali was just twenty when he first fired an AK47. ‘I’ve had a rifle in my hands ever since’ he says, his fierce eyes glinting beneath a brow heavily furrowed from twenty-five years of war.

Now Musa Qal’eh’s District Chief of Police – affectionately nicknamed Koka by one of his many brothers – is one of the most feared and revered figures in the district. His reputation is well earned.

His first war was lengthy and brutal; as part of the mujahideen (literally meaning those who struggle), fighting the Russians amongst the high peaks of the Hindu Kush. His father and a brother were killed before the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

He remained with the militia group during the chaos of civil war in the early 1990s – until they were defeated by the newly formed Taliban. Escaping the violence, he sought refuge in Iran for the following year.

He arrived in Musa Qal’eh in the third year of Talib rule, where as part of a deal to protect his younger brother, he fought with them for nine months, serving under the local commander Mullah Salaam who went on to become the newly re-integrated district governor. In the transition he was appointed District Chief of Police where he remains, still fighting; this time against his former comrades.

“How have you managed to survive?” I asked, awed by his story. “It is in the hands of Allah” he says. “I’ve had a terrible life and done bad things. I don’t know how many people I’ve killed.”

Its not hard to see why his faith is strong. He tells me that he has survived three suicide attacks, and goes on to declare “I fight the Talib. I never compromise with them, and I’ve never hidden from them.”

As we speak, local men greet him with reverence, bowing low and kissing his hand. His protection is widely sought, and his judgement on local disputes rarely challenged.

In his time he has transformed a police force that was predatory and utterly corrupt. Now, his two hundred men are fiercely loyal and a competent force. “I respect my men.” He tells me. “I never steal from them. And I punish them if they do wrong. If there is fighting I will help. If they get hurt, I will provide medical treatment.” Its true – he may be the only Police Chief in Afghanistan with a special fund solely for helping his wounded.

“This is my life.” he continues, and the lines on his face reveal the truth. ”But I’m tired. The only desire I have is for peace to come to this district, so that I can spend time with my family.” He has four wives and fourteen children, the eldest of which also works in the local police force.

I wondered how he carries on after so many years of war. He tells me; “If things get better in Musa Qal’eh, they will get better in Helmand. If they get better in Helmand, they will get better in Afghanistan.” Then I asked him what would happen if the international forces were to leave.

He looks at me hard. “We might stay three or four days. And then on the fifth day, the Taliban would come. Our blood is mixed with the blood of ISAF. We have fought and died together. We must continue together.”

So many walls divide us out here.

We wear helmets and flak jackets, we flail in our most basic attempts to converse, are clumsy with age old traditions, and judge the world with westernised eyes and ideals. They – Afghans – forgive our faults, laugh at our apologies, proffer their hospitality, and disguise their suspicions. It is a collision of cultures, barely survived by a precarious goodwill and constant effort.

Sometimes though, these walls disintegrate of their own accord. Three days ago on a visit of the neighbouring district of Now Zad, I strolled past the front gates of the base – an intimidating confusion of watch-towers, machine-gun posts and boom gates. I was mildly bemused to see four local children no older than seven or eight approach the heavily armed sentry. The guard’s stern features creased into a grin as they waved and smiled. He motioned them through, and I decided to follow, wondering how on earth these children had just managed to infiltrate our camp.

They picked their way past the armoured trucks and crates of equipment to our office, where they were warmly greeted by a waiting officer. Choosing their favourite cushions, they took a seat and spent the next hour receiving English lessons from two burley marines, laughing at one another grappling with the strange language. Throughout it all they whispered and wriggled and clapped, eating popcorn and sweetbread. Their father joined us at some point with more greetings. Gifts were exchanged – adding to an air of festivity. As the evening ended, there was more hugging and much waving goodbye, and the family noisily made their way back home. The Taliban would never have allowed such frivolity.

It may sound banal, but when life is pervaded by threats and fortifications, such a moment was a glimpse of normality that is all too easily forgotten. I had watched all of this stunned and fascinated (maybe I’ve been out here too long). But it was as if all the walls and the wire, the guns and the gates hadn’t existed. We had simply treated each other with humanity – and in that moment the war had suddenly become irrelevant.

“I won’t return until I’ve found you a District Prosecutor”. Major Mark Jimison’s promise had fallen on somewhat sceptical ears as he departed in late May. The Rule of Law team charged with supporting our efforts to rebuild a broken justice system had been frustrated by two earlier attempts – in both cases the appointed officials refused point blank when they realised it was Musa Qal’eh they were being sent to.

Four months of relentless lobbying later, Mark called with the news that yet another official had been found, and had even agreed to a flying visit to judge for himself just how unsavoury a location it might be.

As the wiry man with a long wispy beard stepped from the roaring helicopter two days later, the significance of the occasion dawned upon us.

If he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors never to return, then our efforts to find a prosecutor would stall, perhaps never to recover, In an instant, this golden opportunity to restore a legitimate system of justice would be swept away, and with it our aspirations of providing the people of Musa Qal’eh a viable alternative to the brutal punishment meted out by the Taliban.

His job would be daunting – to provide a vital link in a complex chain that began with an arrest and which led to the prosecution and imprisonment of criminals half a desert away in the provincial capital. It was not for the faint-hearted – the prosecutor of a neighbouring district had locked horns with several unpleasant characters, and been told in no uncertain terms not to return from his leave.

Following a typically indulgent Afghan meal on the final night of his visit, the delicate negotiations began – reassuring the still unconvinced prosecutor of his safety, of the support he would receive, and the contribution he could make. He paused to digest this information, reflectively stroking his beard. We stopped our conversations and waited in silence.

And to our collective astonishment, he told us that he did not need to return to the provincial capital. He would instead remain here, with us, to work alongside the Governor on the long journey ahead of bringing justice for the people of Musa Qal’eh. We had found our prosecutor.

It was precisely ten minutes to midnight. The moon was near full, casting its silver light across a slumbering District Centre. A moment later the stillness erupted into a deep roar as thirty-eight hulking Soviet-era trucks sparked into life. The rumbling engines began belching plumes of exhaust into the night air, shrouding the vast parking area with a choking diesel fog. In the same instant lines of waiting police pick-ups switched on their emergency lights, throwing eerie blue flashes across the gloom.

In unison, as if triggered by some unheard signal, they began pulling out onto the empty streets of the bazaar, lurching forward nose to tail. We watched in awe as the head of convoy emerged on the western side of the bazaar, its tail reaching back to the far side of the District Centre.

It was as if the streets had come to life, shuddering and growling with the passing of this mighty fleet.

Just then, the hills lit up with neon white headlights sidling down to meet the line of trucks now stretching over 2 kilometres. The US Marine escorts had arrived in their armoured trucks, and seamlessly wove themselves into the moving mass, as the police vehicles peeled off with perfect timing.

As one weaving mass, the convoy crawled across the wadi and began its torturous two-day journey back to Lash Kargah, braving IEDs and brutal desert roads to collect hundreds more tonnes of wheat seed and fertiliser for the district’s coming agricultural programme.

We were perhaps the only people who witnessed the US military, Afghan Police and these plucky civilian truck-drivers pull this off that night. It was remarkable.

In the crisp dawn chill two men cautiously picked their way past the razor wire and through the police cordon. They made their way past the shuttered stalls, along the pot-holed pavement of Governors Road toward the polling station. We watched from high above in the rooftop sentry post, clad in body armour and helmets, clasping mugs of coffee, waiting with a sense of unspoken anticipation.

Unhurriedly the men approached the waiting officials huddled together over steaming cups of chai. A brief greeting, a shuffle of ballot papers, and within moments the first votes had been cast in Musa Qal’eh for the Afghan Parliamentary Elections.

It was, in some small way, another historic moment for a district that has rarely seen such exhibitions of open democracy. The 2009 presidential elections in Musa Qal’eh had been heralded by the launch of Taliban rockets. A year later, a wary trickle grew into a steady stream of those willing to step forward at one of six official sites across the district.

The efforts required by the district government and security forces had been staggering – flying in fifty-three election officials to recruit another hundred to man the polling stations, convoyed by police teams to all corners of the district to erect their stalls in time for election day. It was hard to grasp that these mighty efforts where repeated across every district in the nation.

Every hour or two we would return to that rooftop to watch the day unfold. We heard about tractor-driving farmers risking illegal checkpoints to cast their ballot in villages to the north. We heard reports of an attack on a polling site in the south that had incensed the local population – triggering a greater turnout in protest. We were amused to see the Mayor waving up at us, proudly showing off his inked thumb – proof of his vote. Over in the District Governor’s compound the counting went late into the night.

In all 1,648 people cast their votes. A humble turnout by any measure, but the number belied the real significance – that it had happened at all. And in a place such as Musa Qal’eh, thisalone is a sign of progress.

The nature of international efforts to help stabilise regions affected by war is changing.

Lengthy campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have left western powers increasingly risk averse and less inclined to take unilateral action. Opinion polls suggest that their constituents are more aware of, and less willing to bear the costs – in both money and lives – of fresh forays abroad, unless the threat is clear and present.

One outcome to be vigorously supported is a renewed determination by allied countries to join forces to rebuild systems of government and restore law and order in war-shattered regions such as the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The advantages are self-evident; less waste, greater impact and a swifter transition of power.

A striking example is the Provincial Reconstruction Team operating in Helmand. Its forms an energetic, multi-national hub for the combined efforts of US, UK, Danish and Estonian personnel, both civilian and military.

In principle it is a strategy that should pave the way for a faster exit, and be more likely to leave behind a population capable of governing and protecting its own.

In practice, integrated stabilisation missions introduce new hurdles that must be overcome to achieve such goals.

The most contentious obstacles appear in the form of international political agendas, which must be carefully calibrated lest they trigger discord on the ground. Other challenges lie in bridging the considerable cultural and institutional differences that divide civilian and military establishments. The difficulty is compounded by civilian organisations increasingly working alongside militaries of countries other than their own.

Efforts can be further hindered by well-intentioned government departments forced to work together in dangerous and difficult conditions. Aligning systems and bureaucracies across the civil service is a mighty challenge at the best of times, let alone amidst the fog of war.

Amidst this increasingly complex and ambitious landscape, the question becomes one of how best to align efforts to increase the effectiveness of international stabilisation missions?

International geo-politics play the trump card. Without concerted political will, any joint mission is doomed to failure. But for those on the ground, for whom foreign policy is well out of reach, the answer may be more personal.

Heroic efforts continue to be made in integrating structures, systems and strategies – a must when the alternative is half a dozen email systems that don’t talk to each other, or conflicting strategies that pit forces against each other.

But the real key to generating unity of effort lies in relationships. In the jungle of organisations, mandates and bureaucracies that increasingly define international stabilisation efforts, personalities matter a lot.

Working with populations affected by war to establish governance and tackle insecurity is extraordinarily complex. It is common – and necessary – for teams to be assembled from a rich mixture of organisations, nationality, language and skills. But they face extraordinary challenges: how to balance the need to use military power to quell an insurgency with the intent to build enduring relations with local populations? How best to work with warlords and local enforcers to secure the peace? When to mentor a government department through a complex reconstruction project, and when to use military assistance to deliver basic services? The tip of the iceberg reveals a relentless array of dilemmas that must be confronted daily.

Success in this multi-lateral environment takes outstanding people, equipped with first-rate skills and the rare talent to work together under extreme pressure. Their ability to forge relationships across sizeable cultural, ideological, religious, political and organisational differences is what forges unity under fire.

And thankfully, it isn’t being left to chance, for good fortune to bring good people of all ilk together. Enlightened organisations are embodying joined-up leadership, charting a joint and strategic direction while at the same time giving their people the space to lead on the ground.

Those in the thick of things should be encouraged by what is working in places like Helmand: building relationships and creating structures that deepen trust and build mutual accountability. The rewards lie in action that is more integrated and more likely to effect change.

It isn’t painless, quick, nor does it even guarantee success. But for international stabilisation missions such as that in Helmand, unity of effort is vital.

Out here, your world can change in a heartbeat.

Life around you, seemingly calm and within the realms of control can be violently and without warning wrenched from its moorings.

Over the past six weeks plans had been laid for a historic ‘joint-forces’ event – an occasion intended to bring the Afghan Army and Police closer together with their Marine brethren. A morale-boosting, team-building festival of sport. And who better as the centrepiece for such an occasion than the national bodybuilding champion ‘Mr Afghanistan’ himself – flown from Lashkar Gah for a three day celebrity visit.

Mr A, it was decided, would preside over proceedings, award the honours for the newly minted title of ‘Mr Musa Qal’eh Iron Man’, and crown the event with a performance of his own.

An hour into the event, as the sun’s glare waned, and the fervour of the volleyball ‘grudge match’ neared its height, the illusion of calm and control was shattered.

At the far end of the base, unbeknownst to the baying crowd, a detainee had broken free from his cell in a prison block lying adjacent to the camp.

As the match reached its climax, the prisoner overwhelmed his guard, seized a weapon and escaped from the cell-block. He couldn’t have chosen a worse moment, with the celebrity event drawing much of the attention of the security forces.

He was spotted by Ken McGonigle – a tough Northern Irishman and former policemen serving as mentor for the Afghan Police. Ken challenged then fired his pistol at the escaping man, and called desperately for help from nearby marines. As they pursued him the prisoner opened fire, bringing Ken and a marine to the ground.

The ensuing gun battle raged for 45 minutes. By its end, Ken and two marines had died of their wounds. He had acted heroically, raising the alarm and then racing to overpower a suicidal, armed escapee. He saved many lives that day.

Ken had been an adopted member of our team. We had spoken often – of his many years with the Special Branch, of his four children, and of his plans for buying a farm someday. We had played darts together – badly – and over meals of barbequed goat shared our concerns and hopes for this troubled part of the world. Despite the frustrations of his work, he held onto a spark of optimism for the district’s future.

He was a fine mentor, a good man. His memory will be engraved into a plaque mounted in our compound with the words:

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

‘Good governance’ is an overused phrase in Helmand.

Ive found it all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that simply hosting a shura – a gathering of tribal elders – constitutes ‘good governance’. Its even easier to make this mistake in a district that hasn’t seen many of them in recent years.

These past months Ive observed the new District Governor – wise and honourable as he appears to be – wrestle with the daunting task of establishing legitimacy and influence over the population of Musa Qal’eh. His lack of tribal or economic affiliation is a mixed blessing. On the one hand he maintains a refreshingly unbiased view of local affairs, yet on the other, he must contrive alliances with the established powerbrokers closely watching from behind the scenes. Navigating this tightrope of Afghan politics requires both dexterity and courage.

Such efforts cannot be left to accident or good fortune. Supporting the new District Governor establish the legitimate face of Government here is – in the view of a colleague – ‘the only game in town.’

And from where I stand, it is a game far from over.

‘This is my first time to come to this place.’ Abdul Rahman told me as we sat in a recent shura hosted by the District Governor. ‘I have come here to ask for help, as my harvest has failed this year, and my family will go hungry.’

Abdul lives 30 minutes walk away – about two kilometres – farming a small plot of land with his wife and five children. I was curious about why this was his first time coming to the shura. “The Taliban will beat me if they know that I have come. We have to come in secret”.

Hours later the shura came to a close and Abdul still had not spoken. “I am too embarrassed” he confided to me, clearly uncomfortable amongst the gathered elders. He then collected his belongings and resolutely set off under the searing midday sun on the dusty trek back to his village. He didn’t say whether he would return or not.

Ive come to notice now when these shuras don’t work. They feel hollow and frail, a performance that fails to satisfy the people or serve their interests. And Ive felt what is possible when they do – a sense of participation, of unity and purpose. Either way, its clear that the shura hall is as important a battlefield as any other.

But Ive also realised that it doesn’t matter what I think. Winning the battle for ‘good governance’ in this district rests squarely on whether people like Abdul Raman feel it is worth it to make the dangerous journey from their homes to air their problems and believe that something will change as a result.

This is an extraordinary job.

Trying to bring about stabilisation – nurturing the conditions for effective governance and leadership, overseeing a vast swathe of reconstruction and development efforts, pushing forward notions of law and order  – in a place such as Musa Qal’eh – is nearly impossible to describe.

Looking back on these past three months (already?), I’ve found it a relentless and demanding task, impatient for results and solutions. Requiring boundless patience, but with an insatiable appetite for action and progress. Endlessly frustrating, spiced with moments of deep satisfaction. Turning on its head in a moment, shocking with the bare knuckles of human tragedy, violence and suffering. Fusing into more and different moments, suffocated with bureaucracy, politics and administrivia. Yet offering glimpses of hope amidst confusion and doubt.

One moment you find yourself a construction manager. In another a political advisor, or a humanitarian specialist, intelligence analyst, negotiator, programme designer, human rights advocate… and you bounce across an endlessly fascinating spectrum – governance, agriculture, infrastructure, security, politics, education, private sector development…

Like a swiftly incoming tide, as I’ve already learned, it can overwhelm you in a moment, humble you in a second. It’s a test of fortitude, principles and resilience. And of taking the odd risk or two… and you never really know just what might come of it.

But then, perhaps that’s part of the fascination for it all.

Find yourself downtown Musa Qal’eh and you’ll immediately be struck by its bustling bazaar.

If its early in the morning you’ll find traders hawking all manner of wares from the cracked pavements, waving you inside from the entrances to their simple concrete stalls. There’s over a thousand shops here – in a manner of speaking – and it’s the economic heart of the district.

You’ll find colourful haberdashers, resplendent with beautiful cloth from Pakistan, you’ll pass butchers offering freshly slaughtered goat and chicken, (speckled with merrily feasting flies). You’ll see heavily laden and garishly decorated trucks (jinglys) groaning under the weight of goods purchased in Kandahar by groups of local shopkeepers. You might even find a dingy café or two serving the area’s infamous soft-serve ice-cream. If you can afford it you can buy television sets, hairdryers and fridges, or make calls from the dozen or so satellite phone shops which serve as the district’s telephone service.

Although the district is primarily a subsistence, agriculture based economy, commerce is alive and well for those with a little extra cash or an entrepreneurial flair. And its slowly growing, with 10-20 new shops appearing in the past three months.

If you ask the shopkeepers what they think is important to continue this growth – as we did a few days ago – you’ll be told a consistent message; they want security. For themselves, for their trucks bringing goods up on the notorious desert highway from Gereshk, and for their customers. Things haven’t been great in the past three months in that regard – the summer fighting season has taken its toll on people’s appetite to go shopping. But they will also say that its about providing basic services like reliable power, and finding better ways of managing the municipality.

All told it’s a pretty reasonable request, one that is guiding the government’s redoubled efforts to attract more business to the heart of Musa Qal’eh. The challenge is clear; if the conditions are right, then – as no doubt you will have seen from your brief shopping trip – business can flourish here.