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Tor Shezada troops gauge thoughts of Afghans in Helmand

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Media captionOn the ground with UK troops

"Are you happy to see ISAF forces?"

Without missing a beat the old man with a black turban spun wide and a beard that touched his chest nodded, "yes".

His reply was recorded in the young soldiers log book.

It was one of many questions and answers that the troops have been putting to villagers during Operation Tor Shezada.

The results are fed back to headquarters and statistics are compiled.

An early-evening brief to reporters on day two of the operation relayed some of the findings.

"Ninety-five percent [of Afghan nationals] are pleased to see us, 5% are more wary," declared the irrepressibly optimistic commander of troops taking part in Tor Shezada, Lt Col Frazer Lawrence.

It fits into a wider attempt by the NATO-lead ISAF forces to change perceptions of the war in Afghanistan. But what about the realities?

Commanders can feel rightly pleased that the first phase of this mission has gone better than expected.

The Brigade Reconnaissance Force dropped in behind Taliban lines and, with the exception of a brief daily skirmish, they have been unopposed.

Somme Company, from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, fared so well that they were able to walk straight into the town of Saidabad with barely a shot fired.

'Soft-knock' strategy

The lack of opposition has allowed troops to engage widely with the people who live in Nad Ali district and this is the key to long-term success or failure in ISAF's "population-centric" mission.

Over the last few days dozens of homes have received a "soft-knock".

Instead of kicking in doors and forcing their way in, an Afghan interpreter working with the British troops calls out to the owner to ask if they can enter.

With enough heavily-armed men to sustain a small battle on his doorstep the man can hardly refuse; very few have.

The people in this area are mainly poor farmers living a humble life.

An outer high mud wall protects a small dirty compound which is home to two families and a whole host of livestock.

There are conical mounds of dung piled in a corner for winter fuel and the early-morning air is pungent with the smell of soil, straw and faeces.

Women and children are huddled into a single room as the Brigade Reconnaissance Force squeeze through the tiny doorway. They hide from the strangers' gaze as the men are "biometrically tested". Questions are asked, retinas and fingerprints scanned and mouths swabbed.

The information is used to identify friend and potential foe, as well as tribal loyalties and divisions. It gives the military a far more nuanced understanding of a society that is as complex as it is alien.

Soldiers and citizens are separated by language, culture and religion and that has undoubtedly slowed progress. This is not some ad-hoc anthropological folly. ISAF forces recognise they are involved in a battle for influence with the Taliban and that means having a far better understanding of the people they are dealing with.

But the potential for offence and misinformation in this process is enormous.

To enter a man's home, uninvited, with women and children inside is a social taboo in this deeply conservative part of Afghanistan.

Privately the soldiers concede that they are routinely lied to and decorum dictates that a guest, invited or not, is unlikely to be told he is not welcome.

What is guaranteed to generate candour and animation is questions about the Afghan National Police (ANP) or state-security (NDS).

They are feared and loathed in equal measure and stories of extortion, kidnapping, theft, corruption and physical and sexual abuse are prolific.

ISAF insists that the majority of people in Helmand do not like the Taliban but if you ask villagers whether they would rather be under the control of the insurgents or the ANP and NDS, they will usually pick the insurgents.

This should be deeply worrying for the NATO-lead mission because the exit strategy for Britain, the US and others depends upon these local forces being able to take over in the next few years.

Daunting work

A recent shura - or meeting with locals - in a part of Nad Ali captured in the last few days revealed the scale of the challenge that remains.

It was called by Major Marcus Mudd, commander of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, after insurgents had once again opened fire on his troops.

The major asked for their support, for information about the Taliban and attacks. But the audience of village elders were unimpressed.

"When will the British stop entering our compounds? Why don't you deal with the Taliban? You are much stronger than us."

The villagers say they are happy to see ISAF forces but most do not want them in their homes or on their street.

The work left to do is daunting.

The Taliban must be weakened, the Afghan army must be fighting-fit, the police must root out corruption and abusive behaviour and, above all, the people must be persuaded that all of this is in their interests and to actively support the mission.

It is nine years since troops entered the country, five summers since their war in Helmand began and just four years until combat forces are supposed to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Operation Tor Shezada may have gone well but there is still far more work to do than has been achieved so far in Helmand.

It may not be an impossible target but it is one that looks increasingly unrealistic.

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