Jamiullah Barakzai bangs loudly on the metal door of a small British checkpoint in northern Helmand province. He has a chicken tucked inside his shawl, which he has come to sell to the soldiers. Tara Rai, a rifleman with the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles regiment, peeps through a small crack in the door and asks him to show the chicken.
“This is a tiny hen,” he says. “Bring me a fat rooster.”
For the past couple of months, Afghan villagers have been supplying locally raised chickens to a group of British Gurkha soldiers who are spread among half a dozen checkpoints and patrol bases outside the Forward Operating Base in Khar Nikah. But these are no ordinary chickens: Even the Gurkhas admit that they are eating “the most expensive chicken in the world” while fighting an expensive war. In a village where locals entirely rely on farming, a single rooster can fetch as much as $30. For a goat, the price can go as high as $200.
“When the soldiers moved in here, the chickens become expensive. The villagers know they will buy it regardless of what we charge them for it,” said Borzan, a local teenager who supplies chickens to the Gurkhas.
The British Gurkhas, who are recruited from Nepal, say they have been buying and slaughtering local animals on a regular basis since their deployment in Helmand province in 2006. The Gurkhas say food in the ISAF cookhouse is often “bland and too white,” something they are not accustomed to in their home country. So with money out of their own pockets, they purchase dozens of chickens and prepare their own “Gurkha curry” every evening.
In less than an hour, the young Gurkha riflemen slaughter up to 10 chickens with their khukuris, or traditional knives, clean them and throw them in a giant iron skillet with onions, cumin, coriander and green chilli. At one point, the idea of a “Gurkha curry” was so popular that even Prince Harry was known to eat chicken and goat curries with the Gurkhas when he was deployed to Helmand in 2008.
For the local Afghans, this has become a lucrative business model. Nobody really knows what the chickens and goats here actually cost, because most of the farmers who raise the livestock keep the animals for themselves. The Afghan interpreter embedded with the British soldiers said that a whole chicken would not cost more than $10 even in the bazaar in Kabul. But taking advantage of the Gurkhas’ demand for fresh meat, not to mention their scant bargaining skills, the locals in Khar Nikah haphazardly quote — and get — hefty prices.
But the Gurkhas’ relationship with local residents extends beyond buying chicken and goats. Corp. Chandra Bahadur Rai, who is in charge of Checkpoint Akhtar, says that routine interaction with the locals has helped the soldiers explain why they are there. Among half a dozen patrol bases and checkpoints in Khar Nikah, Akhtar is one of the few bases that have not been attacked for several months.
“The locals here trust us, and they support the ISAF forces,” said Rai. The man who owns the small hut and compound rented by the British forces for the checkpoint is now serving in the Afghan Local Police and is considered loyal to ISAF by the British officer in charge of mentoring and training the local police recruits. One of the man’s sons is on such good terms with the British Gurkhas that he hides fresh loaves of naan from his mother and brings them to the soldiers in the evening. In return, the Gurkhas give him a couple of Kit Kat chocolate bars.
On New Year’s Eve, the Gurkhas bought a goat, enough to feed them for an entire week. At the door, Jamiullah Barakzai banged loudly and screamed at the top of his lungs: “Tara, I’ve brought chicken. Tara?”
“Come back next week, kid,” Rifleman Rai said.
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