Story and photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Stapleton
NAHR-E SARAJ, Afghanistan – A contingent of Royal Marines has found a new ally in strengthening relations with Afghan troops: football.
The Marines of K Company, 42 Commando, hosted a friendly football match against a local contingent of Afghan National Army troops, July 30, near Patrol Base 5 in Nahr-e Saraj District, Helmand province, to celebrate the groups’ training partnership and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Football, or soccer as it is more commonly known in the west, has long been considered to be the world’s most popular sport, and, according to Maj. Jason Durup, officer commanding for K Company, it’s also a way of helping the Marines gain the trust of the Afghan people. “Our Mission here was to further the bonding between us and the ANA,” said Durup, whose Marines have been training ANA troops, while simultaneously reaching out to the region’s rural populace.
Durup’s confidence and trust in the ANA troops at PB5 spurred the idea of hosting a coalition versus ANA football match on an improvised pitch outside the camp gates.
“The best thing that we can do to protect ourselves is have a very good relationship with the population who we are meant to be protecting,” said Durup, who was pleased to see a reasonably large crowd of local Afghans gathered to watch the event. “About 30 children came as well and played around … it signals to me that they feel secure coming to this location, right outside PB5 and engaging with us.”
The competition between the Marines, garbed in black football shirts and shorts, and the ANA troops, sporting red and white Fly Emirates uniforms styled after English Premier League club Arsenal, was fierce. Both teams’ goalies consistently prevented either side from gaining the upper hand. The Afghans finally managed to force a shot through the Marines’ makeshift metal pipe goal box for the winning tally.
The Marines groaned in defeat as local Afghan villagers applauded the ANA’s victory.
As Durup would later express, however, the Marines had accomplished an entirely different mission altogether.
“This was to demonstrate to the local community that it’s safe to do this sort of thing,” Durup stated. “We’re not fearful of the insurgents in this location.”
Following the match, the Marines of K Company treated the victorious ANA team members to a warriors’ dinner, where the two sides shared a meal, sitting on rugs and pillows in the customary Afghan fashion.
Durup said the entire event was a success and serves as an example of the progress that ISAF is making in forming a positive relationship with the Afghan people.
“It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but actually, the more barriers that we put up between us and the outside world, the less protected we are because we shut ourselves off from the information that they can give us … once they get to know us, and they’ve know us for some time now, they understand that we’re here to help,” said Durup, who added that plans are underway for a follow-up event after Ramadan.
“This generated so much interest in the local community that we’ve already had two challenges from local teams to play football,” he explained. “We’ll probably have a combined ISAF/ANA team and have a tournament to cement our relationship with the locals, but also to cement the relationship between us and the ANA. We’re not going to be here forever, and it’s the relationship between the local nationals and the ANA and ANP that must be made to last.”
More photos here.