PARAS AND BOMB DISPOSAL EXPERTS TRANSFORM VILLAGE
2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment take a moment in a secure compound while on patrol around Char Coucha Village.
A village that had come to represent failure in the eyes of HelmandÕs people has been retaken, regenerated and repopulated in an ongoing operation led by British Paratroopers and supported by 80 bomb disposal specialists.
Char Coucha – once a thriving market town and place of religious pilgrimage – is back on the road to peace and prosperity thanks to the combined efforts of 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (2 PARA), members of the British Counter-IED Task Force, and their colleagues from the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
The effort – codenamed Operation KAPCHA KWANDIKALAY (or Cobra Safe Village) – has seen the biggest-scale high-risk IED clearance of an entire village to be carried out by British forces. More than 40 families have now returned, with more set to follow as efforts to maintain the stable security situation continue.
Throughout 2010, Char Coucha was the scene of intense fighting, as British and Afghan forces battled the insurgency for control of the town. But despite the insurgent fighters remaining under pressure throughout, it became clear the benefits of military successes were not being felt by local people.
As the insurgents suffered repeated losses at the hands of the British and Afghan forces, they retaliated by taking retribution on the local population, forcing people from their homes and laying IEDs in places where local civilians would be likely to trigger them, such as in the alleyways leading into compounds.
Things were clearly not right and, following the arrival of 2 PARA in the area last year, two months was spent studying the situation in Char Coucha and analysing it in the eyes of local people. It was ascertained that the town represented to locals a symbolic failure of the Afghan Government and ISAF in the area, overshadowing security successes elsewhere.
Ambitious plans were rapidly drawn up to clear the village of IEDs and then secure it until local residents had returned to their homes. An exhaustive process of consultation determined that dozens of families, scattered across central Helmand, were prepared to return home to Char Coucha if the bombs were cleared.
Despite high demand for counter-IED specialists across Helmand, a clearance force of 80 was deployed to Char Coucha to undertake the risky first stage of the operation – a painstaking fingertip search of an entire village and all its complex terrain, including partially-destroyed compounds with overgrown vegetation up to 6ft high.
Within just eight days the IED clearance was complete with nine IEDs defused, nine ordnance caches found and removed, and 75 compounds plus miles of tracks and alleyways searched and cleared.
After the physical clearance, the next step was to launch a three-phase plan to support the return of residents. Beginning with a Ôget you in packÕ to facilitate the immediate move, containing items including a cooker, back of rice, bag of sugar and plastic sheeting for roofing, this is then followed by a survey of reoccupied compounds to identify damage to be rectified.
Finally, the reconstruction effort is empowering the fledgling Village Council in Char Coucha to identify longer-term development requirements including the refurbishment of a mosque and improvement of various walkways, which will reinforce the message the Afghan Government is living up to its promises.
As efforts to return more families to the village continue, ongoing security is provided by nine checkpoints with Afghan forces playing a significant role. In total, a force of 190 British and Afghan soldiers and police have been involved in the operation.
Char Coucha religious elder, Haji Khan Agha, said:
ÒI did not initially believe it could be done but the Government and ISAF have made good on their promise to remove IEDs from this village. It is a great achievement.Ó
Officer Commanding 2 PARA, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Harrison, said:
ÒWhen 2 PARA arrived here in October, Char Coucha was a deserted ghost town, choked of life by the insidious threat of IEDs. Thanks to the courage of my men and the Counter-IED specialists who cleared Char Coucha, children are now playing in its streets and families returning.
ÒEvery day, more people re-occupy their compounds. This Ôphoenix villageÕ is now becoming a living memorial to those who fell fighting the scourge of the Taleban in its compounds and streets. It is an amazing story.Ó
Lieutenant Johnny Mortimer-Hendry, a 2 PARA officer involved in the operation, said:
ÒTo clear a village and return it to the local people is something to behold. All the soldiers have worked exceptionally hard to achieve this. Now the main effort is to finish the job and see a thriving local community before we depart Afghanistan.Ó
Sergeant Richard Morton, a 2 PARA soldier involved in the operation, said:
ÒHistorically, Char Coucha has been something of a battleground. To see the village now cleared of IEDs, protected within a secure environment and in the early stages of redevelopment is at the heart of why we are operating in Afghanistan.Ó