Children come out for sweets where bullet holes pepper the rusting rails
Taunton-based 40 Commando is helping transform the landscape in Afghanistan as Royal Marines provide an essential escort service for engineers working on the canal system. Rebecca Ricks reports.
Every year the canal system of Helmand is closed for 40 days to allow essential maintenance work to take place.
In Gereshk, a team of engineers needs access to a vital dam where Afghan contractors have been working. But the route alongside is so dangerous that ISAF troops have been banned from using it for the last five months.
I join members of 40 Commando's Alpha Company as they provide a security escort for the engineers transiting along the track to check on the work of the contractors.
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Due to the high threat of the operation, commanders had already ordered it be put back 24 hours – unhappy with the level of intelligence gathered on the route.
Lieutenant Theo Hogg, a former Plymouth University student, warns me if we encounter an improvised explosive device (IED) late in the afternoon the planned six-hour mission will fall into the next day.
Leaving Main Operating Base Price, the convoy of heavily armoured Mastiffs makes its way up Highway 1. We are to make three stops canal-side. The convoy is already at risk as the size of the Mastiffs makes it impossible for the drivers to turn them around once they begin driving up the narrow track.
The first stop is next to an Afghan National Army check point. To the left is the canal, at best with two or three feet of muddy water.
Sergeant Nige Quarman, of Glenholt, Devon, tells me not to leave the hard-standing at any stage.
He adds: "There were a few incidents with this road, but with certain assets we have we can soak up on the area to make sure it's safe."
Lt Hogg had initially planned to walk through the canal, but higher water levels than expected soon scupper this. The patrol is forced to use the bridge, a route the officer had been keen to avoid – now they become more vulnerable.
The 25-year-old troop commander explained: "We weren't sure where to stop as to how we would get across the canal. We had hoped it would be completely dry and we could walk across. But now we need to use the dam, which forces us along a set route if they [the Taliban] wanted to put any IEDs.
"We are the first ISAF troops to come down this road in five months. The main threat to us is remote-controlled IEDs, but we are taking every precaution possible to counteract that."
As we reach the hand rail that runs behind the dam building, it's apparent its history has not been peaceful. Bullet holes pepper the rusting rails. In this spot, Sgt Quarman and J Company of Bickleigh's 42 Commando were under intense attack in 2006.
The 40-year-old father-of-three, who is now on his third tour, said: "It was very different – we say it was more kinetic. I was working from here with another ops company into various areas. We were dispersing insurgent activity.
"One operation took 36 hours, most of which time we were in contact. It got quite messy."
Today, though, the atmospherics tell a different story. Children come running up to the patrol hoping the marines' soft sides will win them a handful of sweets.
"Kids are kids. They always come out after sweets," Sgt Quarman said. "Previously we would come out and all the locals would leave to go into the desert a mile or so. That was a good indicator the Taliban were close by. It's suggesting they don't have as much influence here as they did previously.
"Before we wouldn't have been able to move down here without being shot at. It's good the Afghans seem to have control of the area. There is very little ISAF presence here."
Having already gathered quite a crowd and received the 'OK' from the engineers, we walk back to the Mastiffs. Within five minutes we reach the second stop, but the engineer says he is happy from what he saw standing on the Mastiff turret.
Lt Hogg is keen to make the last stop as brief as possible. There is no checkpoint here, just soft mud piled a foot or two high to the right and the canal remains on the left. A brief five minutes on the ground gives the marines chance to speak with some more of the locals. The engineers signal they are happy and are ready to head back to MOB Price.
As we look to leave, a man appears, clearly angry, and begins shouting at the marines. Through the interpreter we understand he is disgruntled because canal workers have placed excess mud by the bank of his fields. He is not happy because it is "easy" to plant IEDs without much trace in the sticky mud and he is worried people will think he has laid any devices that may appear.
Lt Hogg explains the farmer's concerns will get reported back through ISAF. The operation is completed safely and without delay.
But for Alpha Company and the engineers, such patrols will need to be repeated several more times. Each time the danger level will increase as the insurgents realise ISAF troops will be forced to use the route, risking life and limb.