As the armoured convoy rolls through the busy city streets of Gereshk in Afghanistan, Hampshire’s troops look at ease in the back of the Ridgeback – but they are ready for anything.
The three army vehicles slow down for a goat herder at the side of the road. But local traffic whizzes past at speed. Cars and motorbikes seem to be everywhere and there appears to be no such thing as a highway code amid the chaos.
But despite the very real threat of a Taliban attack here, the soldiers from First Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment keep their cool and the convoy continues to snake its way to an Afghan police checkpoint a mile down the road.
Gereshk is a city of 50,000 people in Helmand province – just south of an area known as the Valley of Death. It’s situated on Afghanistan’s main motorway, Highway One, and is a major thoroughfare for trade and, more specifically, smugglers.
Based at Gereshk police headquarters in the heart of the city, the soldiers – known as The Tigers – are leading the front-line mission to train the local police force here.
Just two weeks before The News arrived in Gereshk, a Taliban suicide bomber stepped out in front of a car carrying the local governor Dr Abdul Wali and the district chief of police Lt Col Shadi Khan. Fortunately, only the bomber was killed in the blast and the two men miraculously escaped unscathed.
Suicide attacks and roadside bombs are commonplace in the city and the surrounding areas. Taliban assassination teams who ride in on motorbikes to hit their targets have also been active in Gereshk and the Tigers have been involved in shoot-outs with enemy fighters on the outskirts of their patch.
However, the area is actually the most peaceful it’s been for years. Just two years ago, it was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the warzone.
Sergeant Baz Bliss, 35, of Waterlooville, who is on his second tour of Afghanistan, is second-in-command of the Tigers platoon in Gereshk.
He said: ‘I was out in 2008 to 2009 in Musa Qala we had three or four fire fights a week at times.
‘Before, Gereshk was pretty much a no-go area. It was an enemy populated area but now it’s not so much. The enemy is still here but a lot has changed in my mind since the last time I was here.
‘In comparison to Musa Qala, it seems like the enemy definitely has been pushed back on to the back foot. They are still here but they are not as prevalent as before. It’s definitely down to the police and I think the Afghan army as well.’
The News joined the Tigers on a routine vehicle patrol to a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. Acting on intelligence, they mentored the Afghan police as they checked incoming vehicles for drugs, explosive materials and possible suicide bombers.
But at this checkpoint, the troops hardly needed to step in as the young men in their blue Afghan National Police (ANP) uniforms carried out their checks.
As the soldiers stand on looking out for signs of danger, children living nearby pester them for a dollar, pens or sweets. Adults go about their daily business, few giving a cursory glance at the British forces in their neighbourhood.
Sgt Bliss said: ‘Last time I was in the area there were not many people because our policy at the time was not to let people near us. Now we are in a massive city shaking hands with people we meet every day. We are very much a part of the city.’
The Tigers make regular vehicle patrols to the 16 Afghan checkpoints on their patch. Most areas are fairly quiet these days but they have twice come under fire at checkpoint seven on the outer limits of Gereshk district.
Sgt Bliss said: ‘About two and a half weeks ago there was quite sustained enemy fire coming in at that location. There were about four firing points. The Husky machine gunner fired back and one of our privates was able to identify the enemy and fired back on their position. We believe they took a casualty so they withdrew but that wasn’t confirmed.
‘When you come under fire it gets your heart rate pumping. You get a massive energy rush. You become focused very quickly and basically do your job looking for enemy positions.’
The younger soldiers are keen to head back to checkpoint seven and take on the Taliban again, but Sgt Bliss – who has also served in Iraq and Kosovo – is not so keen.
He said: ‘For me personally, I’m experienced and I’ve been there and done it. It’s not the kind of thing I’m looking for. I don’t particularly want to get shot at while a lot of the younger lads are looking for contacts.’
Being based out of a police headquarters, the Tigers are at the fore of the effort to train up the local police force so it can be handed over to the Afghan government.
Lieutenant Paul Charlesworth, who commands the Tigers in Gereshk, feels that although there is some way to go until the ANP can stand on their own two feet here, the police are largely doing a good job.
He said: ‘A lot of foreign aid goes through Gereshk because it’s on Highway One. It’s a pretty significant place. It’s a massive melting pot.
‘In the police station we do hear stuff going on but because it’s quite imposing and quite a secure place we don’t get any hassle. We get threat warnings all the time but the police put out cordons and do vehicle checks and nothing gets through.’
He added: ‘With the ANP, we are not so much making improvements in their command structure to make their police force like ours, we are trying to tailor theirs to make it more effective.
‘They don’t talk to each other that much. The commander keeps things to himself because it’s how they’ve always done things. They don’t quite understand how a fully informed network works. Everyone is kept in the dark until five minutes before, that’s when they find out they are doing something like going on a drug bust.
‘We will not hear anything for days then we get “there’s a suicide bomber facilitator in this compound, let’s go” and three minutes later we’ll be rolling out the door. It’s a strange way of doing things but in a way it seems to work.’
In the early days of training the ANP, the police had a bad reputation for being corrupt. But Lt Charlesworth says times are changing.
‘We have a saying here that it’s one person deep,’ he said, explaining: ‘If you’ve got a good commander then the blokes under him will be good but if you get a bad commander the blokes under him will be bad.’
Back in the safety of Lashkar Gah base – the nerve centre of operations in Helmand – the commanding officer praised the efforts of his men in Gereshk.
Lieutenant Colonel James Coote, of Fareham, said: ‘The guys’ work out here is really making a difference.
‘As a soldier, if you go away for six months and do not see any change and you’re just marking time that’s pretty frustrating.
‘But if you go away and see change happen it’s very positive and that’s what we are seeing out here.
‘I think overall we can be very proud of what we’ve achieved.
‘We’ve had a lot of success where we are and I think that we will continue to do so for the rest of our time here.’
This 11-strong platoon of Tigers deployed to Gereshk in September on a seven-month tour as one of a number of Police Advisory Teams (PATs) in Helmand. And they have made quite a name for themselves.
Early in their tour, they seized a truck packed with enough explosives to make 400 Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But their biggest triumph so far came when they discovered £17m worth of guns and drugs in a Taliban compound just 300 yards from the police station – one of the biggest busts ever made in Afghanistan.
A senior Taliban facilitator is now in jail awaiting court in Afghanistan.
Sgt Bliss said: ‘We basically found millions of pounds worth of armoury and wet opium.
‘It makes me feel good. In my mind, it takes drugs off the street of England.’