Magazine article The Spectator

The Work of Men like Cpl Milligan Is Worthy. but Does It Win Afghan Hearts and Minds?

Magazine article The Spectator

The Work of Men like Cpl Milligan Is Worthy. but Does It Win Afghan Hearts and Minds?

Article excerpt

Spike Milligan lives. I encountered him last week among the Australian military contingent at Camp Holland: a Dutch-led base in southern Afghanistan, in the province next to Helmand.

Corporal Milligan, to be precise. But everyone calls him Spike. And though I've no reason to think he is or could be a fine singer or a world-famous comedian, Corporal Milligan has his famous namesake's enthusiasm, optimism and punch.

I met him as part of a small posse of visiting journalists, the guests of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and Nato. Our hosts were keen to show us the good work being done by the military to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, and the Australianrun Trade Training School at Camp Holland is something of a showcase. There, Spike Milligan and his small team of Australian and Afghan instructors teach young Afghan men from the nearby town of Tarin Kowt the basics of plumbing, joinery, steel-fixing, and the skills any builder's apprentice needs to acquire.

It was afternoon. Away from the high-security perimeter walls and fences that surrounded our camp, a desert landscape stretched down towards lawless Kandahar and the deep south. Mountains like bare blades of rock rose to our north where faraway Kabul lay, mountains from which turquoise rivers - the only reason there are any inhabitants at all in southern Afghanistan - flow. But nothing green was visible. The temperature had been touching 40degreesC (104degreesF). The sun had been merciless. Now the height of the day's heat had passed, and soon the training centre would be winding up for the day.

Sun or shade, however, Spike Milligan's efforts were undiminished. A bundle of energy, he took us on a short tour of the skills-training facilities. In a big sandpit, half-buried, sprawled a geometrical maze of grey PVC waste-piping, demonstrating every T-junction, elbow bend, swept bend and ventilation pipe that a plumber could need to know. How, I asked, did the instructors know what skills to teach? 'We keep our ear to the ground in Tarin Kowt, and we talk to contractors there. We ask where immigrant labour from Pakistan is being used: these are the skills in short supply.'

I inspected the machine tools section, the impressive lathes, the welding equipment - all near-new, all funded by the ISAF effort and much of it (I speculated) flown in specially or trucked along the bomb-infested track from Kandahar. I wondered too where the new wood, the plumbing supplies and the steel rods came from. This was state-of-theart stuff: facilities that would have been the envy of many such schools in Britain. In the yard outside, in the flat, white glare of the sun, we were shown an entire wooden bungalow, beautifully constructed and ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed by trainees. 'Once they've got their certificates at the end of their three-week basic course and their five-week full course, we help them look around for local builders in search of young workers.'

We talked to their Afghan instructor, Najibullah, who works with Milligan and - having the advantage of fluency in Pashto - does most of the hands-on teaching. There was no shortage of young men keen to learn; and, though there's supposed to be a lowerage limit, some of the boys looked younger than 15. 'It's easy when someone explains, ' young Hamidullah, who was learning plumbing, told me. Another, Mohamed Sabar, said he was confident of finding work, once he had his certificate: 'Otherwise it's very difficult to get a job.'

Eager faces crowded around, bright with optimism and intensely curious, too, about us. …

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