Yorkshire troops continue the battle for hearts and minds

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PLUMES of dust rise from the wheels of our open-top Jackals, as we drive down a narrow road to an Army checkpoint 15km away.

The route passes endless clusters of crumbling mud huts and nomads’ tents that appear unchanged for centuries.

Scrawny camels, sheep and donkeys roam the passing fields as farmers lay down their prayer mats and bend forward so close to the earth that their long beards graze the dusty floor.

The only signs of modernity are the crude Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoints built out of sandbags and razor wire, bristling with AK47 rifles.

And an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that has been discovered that morning on the stretch of road we are driving down.

Time and war have stood still side by side here in Helmand for generations now.

In many places, the road has dissolved into rutted mud and lakes of dirty water churned up by the wheels of our vehicles, which while heavily armoured, are still considerably smaller than the Warriors the Yorkshire troops were killed in.

It is a worrying period for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the Yorkshire troops I am posted with have been put on high alert, with the checkpoint we are travelling to reinforced overnight.

Uprisings are taking place across the country following the discovery of copies of the Koran thrown in a rubbish heap destined for incineration at a US army base.

Nato has withdrawn all personnel from its Afghan ministries after two senior US officers were shot dead in a retaliation killing in Kabul, with a number of attacks on soldiers taking place elsewhere.

Following the incident, dozens of civilians have also been killed as the Taliban issues a call to arms over the airwaves.

The heavy mounted machine gun on the Jackal operated by Private Robert Brown, of Hull, creaks as he whirls it around on its turret, scanning the open countryside.

The road turns into a narrow channel through a village flanked by high mud compound walls.

Suddenly, a large rock is hurled over one wall, smashing into the side of our vehicle.

The thrower has already disappeared out of sight.

As we arrive at the checkpoint, Pte Brown, 23, who is a Jackal gunner as part of 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, Quick Reaction Force, shrugs off what is the latest in a long line of incidents.

“The stones being thrown at us happens a lot,” he said.

“To the young children we are targets. A soldier got hit in the face a few weeks ago and suffered a fractured jaw.

“But I mainly don’t worry, unless it is grenades being thrown.

“Our job is to provide fire power to the lads on the ground and it has calmed down a lot – but we still get called out to a few situations.

“There was an incident on patrol, in November, where a soldier died. We were just giving support to the foot patrol but came under machine gun fire.

“It was very scary because no- one could see where it was coming from and anyone of those rounds could have had your name on it.

“You do feel exposed when there are bullets flying by.”

We head out on foot for a reconnaissance patrol through a village around the checkpoint.

While I am warned more rocks may be thrown, some residents wave and smile at the soldiers as we walk cautiously through the labyrinth of narrow mud-built alleys, occasionally stopping for a conversation through an interpreter.

Others simply stare impassively as we squeeze past children leading donkeys along the narrow path.

Like many of the Yorkshire troops in this area, Captain Steve Day is proud at the progress they have made in engaging with the local population ahead of the transition to Afghan control.

Captain Day, of Scarborough, who undertook officer training at Sandhurst after completing a degree in civil engineering, rues the Koran incident.

“It is obviously a cause of concern what has happened,” the 29-year-old said. “And for some idiot to do that without any reason is unbelievable.

“We are not too concerned here though, because of the locals’ attitude towards us and our relationship with the ALP.

“Things are improving across Afghanistan as you spend a bit more time here.

“This tour for us has been a case of standing back and letting the Afghans take charge.

“I am hopeful for the future here because of the individuals I have met.

“The locals here don’t want hand-outs; they just want to be given the freedom to farm.”

The desert sky is darkening to purple as we arrive back at the checkpoint and prepare for the treacherous journey back to our patrol base where the bulk of our company is situated.

The troops have made real efforts to engage with residents, with many able to speak basic Pashto – one of Afghanistan’s main tribal languages – in a broad Yorkshire accent while we are out and about.

But the phrase “hearts and minds” seems almost irrelevant out here as you look into the eyes of a Helmand province farmer gazing at yet another invading Army crossing his land.

“I don’t really blame them for chucking the rocks,” a soldier says, as I climb back into the Jackal.

“If I was a youngster back home watching the enemy going past in one of these, I would probably have done the same.”