Video & Gallery: Army recreate Afghan village in Anglia

EVEN as Britain finally pulled out of one Middle Eastern conflict, the army reaffirmed its long-term commitment to another by opening a �14m training facility in Norfolk yesterday.

EVEN as Britain finally pulled out of one Middle Eastern conflict, the army reaffirmed its long-term commitment to another by opening a �14m training facility in Norfolk yesterday.

Two entire villages have been constructed at the vast Stanta training area near Thetford, modelled on Afghan war zones most likely to confront British soldiers following the withdrawal from Iraq.

It is the first facility of its kind in the country, designed by the Operational Training Advisory Group (Optag) to replicate the cultural and tactical challenges of the war in Afghanistan.

The Rural Middle Eastern Village contains single-storey compounds linked by a claustrophobic network of high-walled alleys and a bustling central marketplace, stocked with plastic fruit and meat.

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The sense of realism is completed by former Gurkhas and Afghan nationals who take on the roles of villagers and insurgents, with an Islamic call to prayer broadcast through an overhead tannoy system.

Nearby, an existing mock European settlement built during the Cold War has been adapted into an Urban Middle Eastern Complex to fit today's military priorities.

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The combined facility was built in eight months and will become a focal point for the 80,000 troops who use the training area every year.

Col Mark Waring, national commander of defence training estates, said: “There is absolutely no doubt now the army is entirely focused on Afghanistan. Having been there myself, this facility is absolutely authentic.

“It is easy to say in hindsight we should have had this earlier, but who knew we were going to be there for so long?

“It is clear now that we are going to be there for some time, so we need to move on and develop our facilities.”

Lt Col Andrew Field, chief instructor at Optag, said: “Until we had this facility, soldiers would have to practice on the type of buildings which you and I live in.

“Now we have something which absolutely replicates the environment the soldiers will find when they go to Afghanistan. There is no doubt that this sort of training saves lives. But the cultural awareness aspect is just as important as the tactics.”

The training village was opened by General Sir David Richards, commander-in-chief of British land forces, who watched exercises including the disarming of a suicide bomber, the discovery of a road-side bomb and the explosive storming of a Taliban compound.

Troops from the Royal Anglian Regiment also staged meetings with village elders, played by British-based Afghans who assist with cultural awareness training.

One of them, Optag cultural advisor Fazel Beria, said: “For anyone who has been to Afghanistan, this is very similar to what we have there - especially in Helmand. It will give the soldiers a real idea of what to expect when they meet Afghan officials and elders. By knowing their customs and their way of life they can easily negotiate with them.”

L/Cpl Nicki Whaites, 24, from King's Lynn, returned from a tour of duty with the Royal Anglians in 2007. He said: “As we were going up and down this bazaar and through the streets it hit home how real it is.

“They have got the hustle and bustle of the market place spot on - it could almost be Sangin itself.”

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