A significant moment highlighting the progress made in Nad-e Ali took place last week as almost 170 elders discussed the future at a checkpoint manned by Royal Anglian soldiers.

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The traditional Afghan meeting, or “shura”, was held in a remote patrol base known as Zarawar, in the Kopak region in the north of the district.

Soldiers from C Company communicated the event through local Afghan contacts, and watched as a stream of village elders, religious leaders, police commanders and army representatives arrived to greet each other and sit on the rugs and pillows arranged on the floor.

Six months ago, a shura on this scale would have been almost impossible as fierce fighting was under way to wrestle the area away from Taliban control.

In a theatrical and statesmanlike address, district governor Habibullah Khan pleaded with Afghans to unite with the common goal of peace and security. He promised funds would be made available for education and irrigation projects, and issued a rallying call for people to join the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a part-time force operating within their own communities.

“You have got to stand up and protect your land,” he said, according to an interpreter who offered to help me understand the proceedings. “Because you not being able to step up and make this country is bad for the world.”

The Vikings’ commanding officer, Lt Col Mick Aston, spoke to me in his armoured vehicle en route to attend the Kopak shura. He said building a strong system of governance was crucial to create a united sense of nationality among remote tribal villages, and convince influential elders that the government-back security regime is the better alternative to Taliban rule.

“Kopak was one of the last contested areas in the central Helmand belt,” he said. “Only six months ago, the area we are going to was a very, very difficult place.

“Police and government soldiers were not able to go here, and in these conditions the population has no alternative to what the insurgent is forcing upon them.

“Now the insurgent has been removed from the equation – although he lurks in the background through intimidation and coercion – the governor can step into that space and show them what his offer is. That goes a long way towards countering the insurgent narrative.

“Ultimately, insurgency is about the popular support of the people and if they reject it, they (the insurgents) cannot just shoot their way out of it. It is the non-uniformed population that will win this – not us.”

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