AS the Iranian officials glared from just 50 yards away, naval officer Stuart Borland knew he’d come dangerously close to the border.
After only weeks in Afghanistan, he’d ventured within a stone’s throw of Iran to hold talks with Abdul Karim Brahawi, the Afghan governor of Zaranj – the closest town to the sea in the landlocked country.
‘It was a bit surreal,’ said Capt Borland, a father-of-two from Portsmouth.
‘There are a row of flag poles across a bridge over the Helmand River – one half of the bridge had Afghan flags and they change to Iranian flags about half-way across. That’s the only way you know where the line is.’
These situations are becoming the norm for the 49-year-old, who is on the front line with US Marines trying to kick-start Afghanistan’s recovery. Since last month, he’s been with the Stability Operations section based at US Camp Leatherneck, next to the UK Camp Bastion in Helmand.
His team is working to help establish local governance and promote economic and social development in Helmand and the neighbouring province of Nimroz, whether that is building schools or – as is the case in Zaranj – developing a secure border crossing to monitor trade.
Capt Borland said: ‘Zaranj is very important for the economic wellbeing of the country and the governor wants our help with establishing a border crossing point to collect tariffs.
‘But the object is not for us to do it for them but to help Afghans do it for themselves.
‘We advise them, using all the experience we’ve gained over the years.
‘It’s important because if locals see us doing it they think the local government can’t do it and this develops a learned helplessness.’
This sort of work is key to achieving the government’s aim of withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2015.
Capt Borland, who undertook a similar rebuilding role out in Iraq in 2008, said: ‘Afghanistan is starting to stand on its own feet, which is very encouraging.’
That is not to say the situation is entirely peaceful – the naval officer and his team never go unarmed when they are on the road. ‘There’s still that inherent risk wherever you go,’ he said.
The married father of two, who undertook a similar rebuilding role out in Iraq in 2008, will be serving in Afghanistan until early next year.
He said: ‘I’ve got 11 months to go. The way it’s going, I will thoroughly enjoy it.’