Out here, your world can change in a heartbeat.

Life around you, seemingly calm and within the realms of control can be violently and without warning wrenched from its moorings.

Over the past six weeks plans had been laid for a historic ‘joint-forces’ event – an occasion intended to bring the Afghan Army and Police closer together with their Marine brethren. A morale-boosting, team-building festival of sport. And who better as the centrepiece for such an occasion than the national bodybuilding champion ‘Mr Afghanistan’ himself – flown from Lashkar Gah for a three day celebrity visit.

Mr A, it was decided, would preside over proceedings, award the honours for the newly minted title of ‘Mr Musa Qal’eh Iron Man’, and crown the event with a performance of his own.

An hour into the event, as the sun’s glare waned, and the fervour of the volleyball ‘grudge match’ neared its height, the illusion of calm and control was shattered.

At the far end of the base, unbeknownst to the baying crowd, a detainee had broken free from his cell in a prison block lying adjacent to the camp.

As the match reached its climax, the prisoner overwhelmed his guard, seized a weapon and escaped from the cell-block. He couldn’t have chosen a worse moment, with the celebrity event drawing much of the attention of the security forces.

He was spotted by Ken McGonigle – a tough Northern Irishman and former policemen serving as mentor for the Afghan Police. Ken challenged then fired his pistol at the escaping man, and called desperately for help from nearby marines. As they pursued him the prisoner opened fire, bringing Ken and a marine to the ground.

The ensuing gun battle raged for 45 minutes. By its end, Ken and two marines had died of their wounds. He had acted heroically, raising the alarm and then racing to overpower a suicidal, armed escapee. He saved many lives that day.

Ken had been an adopted member of our team. We had spoken often – of his many years with the Special Branch, of his four children, and of his plans for buying a farm someday. We had played darts together – badly – and over meals of barbequed goat shared our concerns and hopes for this troubled part of the world. Despite the frustrations of his work, he held onto a spark of optimism for the district’s future.

He was a fine mentor, a good man. His memory will be engraved into a plaque mounted in our compound with the words:

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

‘Good governance’ is an overused phrase in Helmand.

Ive found it all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that simply hosting a shura – a gathering of tribal elders – constitutes ‘good governance’. Its even easier to make this mistake in a district that hasn’t seen many of them in recent years.

These past months Ive observed the new District Governor – wise and honourable as he appears to be – wrestle with the daunting task of establishing legitimacy and influence over the population of Musa Qal’eh. His lack of tribal or economic affiliation is a mixed blessing. On the one hand he maintains a refreshingly unbiased view of local affairs, yet on the other, he must contrive alliances with the established powerbrokers closely watching from behind the scenes. Navigating this tightrope of Afghan politics requires both dexterity and courage.

Such efforts cannot be left to accident or good fortune. Supporting the new District Governor establish the legitimate face of Government here is – in the view of a colleague – ‘the only game in town.’

And from where I stand, it is a game far from over.

‘This is my first time to come to this place.’ Abdul Rahman told me as we sat in a recent shura hosted by the District Governor. ‘I have come here to ask for help, as my harvest has failed this year, and my family will go hungry.’

Abdul lives 30 minutes walk away – about two kilometres – farming a small plot of land with his wife and five children. I was curious about why this was his first time coming to the shura. “The Taliban will beat me if they know that I have come. We have to come in secret”.

Hours later the shura came to a close and Abdul still had not spoken. “I am too embarrassed” he confided to me, clearly uncomfortable amongst the gathered elders. He then collected his belongings and resolutely set off under the searing midday sun on the dusty trek back to his village. He didn’t say whether he would return or not.

Ive come to notice now when these shuras don’t work. They feel hollow and frail, a performance that fails to satisfy the people or serve their interests. And Ive felt what is possible when they do – a sense of participation, of unity and purpose. Either way, its clear that the shura hall is as important a battlefield as any other.

But Ive also realised that it doesn’t matter what I think. Winning the battle for ‘good governance’ in this district rests squarely on whether people like Abdul Raman feel it is worth it to make the dangerous journey from their homes to air their problems and believe that something will change as a result.

This is an extraordinary job.

Trying to bring about stabilisation – nurturing the conditions for effective governance and leadership, overseeing a vast swathe of reconstruction and development efforts, pushing forward notions of law and order  – in a place such as Musa Qal’eh – is nearly impossible to describe.

Looking back on these past three months (already?), I’ve found it a relentless and demanding task, impatient for results and solutions. Requiring boundless patience, but with an insatiable appetite for action and progress. Endlessly frustrating, spiced with moments of deep satisfaction. Turning on its head in a moment, shocking with the bare knuckles of human tragedy, violence and suffering. Fusing into more and different moments, suffocated with bureaucracy, politics and administrivia. Yet offering glimpses of hope amidst confusion and doubt.

One moment you find yourself a construction manager. In another a political advisor, or a humanitarian specialist, intelligence analyst, negotiator, programme designer, human rights advocate… and you bounce across an endlessly fascinating spectrum – governance, agriculture, infrastructure, security, politics, education, private sector development…

Like a swiftly incoming tide, as I’ve already learned, it can overwhelm you in a moment, humble you in a second. It’s a test of fortitude, principles and resilience. And of taking the odd risk or two… and you never really know just what might come of it.

But then, perhaps that’s part of the fascination for it all.

Find yourself downtown Musa Qal’eh and you’ll immediately be struck by its bustling bazaar.

If its early in the morning you’ll find traders hawking all manner of wares from the cracked pavements, waving you inside from the entrances to their simple concrete stalls. There’s over a thousand shops here – in a manner of speaking – and it’s the economic heart of the district.

You’ll find colourful haberdashers, resplendent with beautiful cloth from Pakistan, you’ll pass butchers offering freshly slaughtered goat and chicken, (speckled with merrily feasting flies). You’ll see heavily laden and garishly decorated trucks (jinglys) groaning under the weight of goods purchased in Kandahar by groups of local shopkeepers. You might even find a dingy café or two serving the area’s infamous soft-serve ice-cream. If you can afford it you can buy television sets, hairdryers and fridges, or make calls from the dozen or so satellite phone shops which serve as the district’s telephone service.

Although the district is primarily a subsistence, agriculture based economy, commerce is alive and well for those with a little extra cash or an entrepreneurial flair. And its slowly growing, with 10-20 new shops appearing in the past three months.

If you ask the shopkeepers what they think is important to continue this growth – as we did a few days ago – you’ll be told a consistent message; they want security. For themselves, for their trucks bringing goods up on the notorious desert highway from Gereshk, and for their customers. Things haven’t been great in the past three months in that regard – the summer fighting season has taken its toll on people’s appetite to go shopping. But they will also say that its about providing basic services like reliable power, and finding better ways of managing the municipality.

All told it’s a pretty reasonable request, one that is guiding the government’s redoubled efforts to attract more business to the heart of Musa Qal’eh. The challenge is clear; if the conditions are right, then – as no doubt you will have seen from your brief shopping trip – business can flourish here.

The context: In 2008, farmers in Helmand province of Afghanistan cultivated over 60% of the world’s total opium crop, undermining security, governance, and licit economic growth. Developing sustainable, alternative livelihoods presents a vast challenge amidst one of the world’s most complex and insecure of environments.

Wasafiri’s role: Wasafiri consultant Hamish Wilson was engaged by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to manage the US15million 2009-10 Helmand Alternative Livelihoods Programme – arguably one of the largest and most visible stabilisation projects of 2009.

Generating action: Initial indications suggest the programme has strengthened local governance and the legitimacy of the provincial government, while stimulating economic growth and further rural development.

“Good to see you mate. It’s been a long time”. Angus, the district Political Officer and the other half of our Stabilisation Team greeted me as I stepped off the military transport, fresh from two weeks leave. He looked ever so slightly haggard – the usual spring in his step a shade less energetic than I remembered.

But then I waved him off – it was now his turn and he’d earned it. It sounded a tough time, and he gleefully wished me well as he departed. I was just a little daunted at the prospect of coordinating stabilisation efforts across two districts solo.

My first day is a maelstrom, awaking to the deep boom and shudder of an explosion. The nearby bazaar had been attacked using a motorcycle converted into a lethal homemade bomb, killing five innocent civilians. A cowardly, insidious act.

We immediately convened a meeting with the Government – where my worries deepened learning of the District Governor’s absence, away now for over four weeks and leaving precious few officials to deal with such crises. We made plans for the swift repair of the blast site and search for those responsible. We also met with the Afghan National Police to strengthen security around the Governor’s compound.

But things don’t slow down for such an incident, and I am quickly embroiled in a whirlwind of briefings to catch up on the myriad of latest events… the town’s generator has run out of fuel and the contractor has disappeared. Insurgents have launched a campaign of intimidation which must be nipped in the bud. A host of construction projects are demanding my attention (and a new school has been approved for construction). The governor’s council is to be reconvened  There are land disputes to be resolved and I learn that a young girl has been sold to pay for her father’s drug addiction. A recent counter-narcotics themed volleyball match between marines and local students has been an unbridled success (much relief at this news). It goes on.

And endless administrivia sits waiting impatiently. Reports, budgets, reviews, workplans are all buried within a morass of emails.

By midnight, its been a mind-numbing 11 meetings, and my leave is a distant memory. Its been a long first day back in Musa Qal’eh.

Commuting isn’t easy at the best of times. Travel into and out of Helmand’s northern district of Musa Qal’eh however, requires a whole new level of resilience.

Heading out on leave involves the planning of a military operation. Limited helicopters mean I can only travel on odd-numbered days – provided I submit my request at least four days in advance. I can only hope that the day of my flight is not ‘Patrol-Minimise’ – a condition grounding all non-critical movements due to a lack of available hospital beds. (A grim and all too regular occurrence).

The night before, my flight is confirmed ‘wheels-up’ for eight-thirty am. I am packed and waiting at the windswept HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) before eight. You never want to be caught off-guard if the bird comes early.

It doesn’t arrive.

We are told to wait an hour. We wait. There is a sandstorm in Bastion. The air-coord thinks we’ll be ok for eleven-thirty.

Just after eleven all hell breaks loose on the HLZ. An incensed crowd of Afghan Army soldiers appear, wielding rifles and angry expressions. They are immediately followed by a military ambulance and I quickly see the reason for their rage. Three of their own had been shot in a hit-and-run attack by the Taliban just moments before. The ‘Pedro’ – a Chinook tasked with emergency evacuations – is inbound. I grab the corner of a stretcher and help carry one of the stricken men onto the helicopter when it arrives. He is covered with blood and I have no idea if he will live. The chinook disappears as quickly as it arrives and the HLZ empties of people and vehicles. It is as if nothing has happened. I resume waiting.

The medevac has delayed our helicopter. It is 43 degrees so we find a seat in the shade.

At two, it arrives. We are overjoyed and leap on before it can escape.

Arriving dusty and laden in Camp Bastion Im told there is a flight leaving at three am.  A good thing I hadn’t planned to unpack.

I check in at the loading hall – an enormous tent teeming with soldiers wearing all manner of uniforms. We are herded onto the runway of one of Britain’s busiest airports. Standing in our body armour and helmets we brace ourselves against the hot spray of sand driven by the relentless jetwash of departing cargo planes.

We are marched into the bowels of a giant C130, and strapped in against the netting. As the lights dim and the engines howl, I feel like I am about to parachute out into the void.

I am met in Kandahar by one of our weary staff. It is just after four am. Helping with my gear he tells me of a flight leaving later that morning to Dubai, but there will be no time to sleep if I am to get a seat. No rest for the weary it seems. I haven’t eaten since the previous morning, I’m in the same sweat drenched clothes, and I haven’t even made it out of the country yet.

The whistle blew and 300 people cheered for the first time in a generation. Ten men in Afghan Army fatigues advanced toward their opposite numbers, local students clad in matching striped jerseys. Plumes of dust rose from the freshly raked pitch while people clambered onto rooftops, straining for a better view. Popular music boomed from the loudspeakers, creating a carnival atmosphere.  Football had come to Musa Qal’eh.

3 weeks earlier, our planning had started with modest intentions; to host a public event to build closer ties between the Afghan security forces and the local community. It hadn’t dawned on us that such an occasion would be a first for many years. ‘We would never have been allowed to do this under the Taliban.’ The organiser (and Director of Education) Ghulam Ali later told us. ‘We would have been punished. Very badly.’

The scale of organisation required also caught us unawares. The teams needed jerseys, a referee to be found, goalposts constructed, security to be planned, trophies purchased, music selected, the district governor’s blessing. This was no ordinary weekend knockabout.

And despite our myriad fears, it worked. The crowd swelled and shouted. The teams put on a fine display (to our relief it was a draw). There were no attacks, riots or explosions. And it proved that what we call ‘stabilisation’ doesn’t just have to be about building bridges or planning elections.

For outsiders today may have seemed a humble game of football, but for the people of Musa Qal’eh it was small step toward a brighter future.

The Huey skimmed the jagged crest of the mountain at a furious pace. I squinted into the gale as the district of Now Zad emerged from behind the line of peaks standing guard. This rollercoaster 10-minute flight spared me the dangers of a gruelling, IED-riddled road journey from Musa Qal’eh.

This had been my third attempt to reach the north-western most district of Helmand. To date I had been forced to abandon this half of my remit by a predictable combination of unavoidable local problems and delayed flights. I was growing ever more frustrated and curious to visit this beautiful place with as violent a history as any in the country.

For decades Now Zad was a prosperous city of over 20,000, and an important transit route supporting the largest bazaar in North Helmand. Its riches appealed to the Taliban, who seized the town four years ago. Bitter fighting forced the population to flee, and razed large parts of the city to rubble.

Retaken in a massive assault by the Marines late last year, people are slowly starting to return despite it remaining one of the most heavily mined districts in Afghanistan.

I found cause for hope in this ghost town, walking among the few shops open in the once thriving bazaar. Sayed Murad Agha, new into post, is an active and enthusiastic Governor, and leads animated weekly shuras in which local elders and religious figures are courted for their views on the district’s future.

Security now extends almost 10km in any direction from the District Centre – maintained by a large contingent of Marines working hand in hand with the growing Afghan police and army presence. I was astounded to feel more secure here than in any other district in Helmand.

The challenge now becomes one of development – rebuilding the bazaar, repairing destroyed homes, ridding the area of mines, opening new schools and clinics, and bringing life back to the bazaar. Cautiously trying an ice cream produced as if by magic from an unlikely (and slightly alarming) looking soft serve machine tucked away in a tiny corner store, I was both surprised and encouraged. Things are clearly improving.

If it is true that stability emerges through an all too rare combination of sustained security, effective governance and visible development, then Now Zad is making more headway than most.

As the lumbering Osprey helicopter roared overhead, blasting its audience with a searing cloud of dust, so ended the era of Mullah Salaam.

With the fall of Musa Qal’eh to the British in late 2007, Mullah Salaam became the highest profile Taliban commander to turn over his arms and renounce his position. In return he was granted protection and the Governorship – in the hope that others would follow suit.

His subsequent reign – maintained through an iron fist, political ties and a notorious private bodyguard – made a complex situation only more frought.

Yesterday that all changed.

An unassuming man by the name of Neimatullah arrived as Musa Qal’eh’s newest Governor. Serving as Deputy Governor for Marjeh, Neimatullah earned a reputation for getting things done – high praise for someone overseeing a district suffering the heaviest fighting of 2010.

I was curious to learn more as we shook hands. He smiled through his cropped white beard, crinkling his eyes and nodded. ‘These people have lived in darkness for so long’ he said as we talked of his plans for the coming days. ‘We cannot simply sit and talk and promise. We must listen and act to demonstrate our commitment to them. We must not rest in the days ahead’

‘Step by step we will bring back the government to the people. And if we fail, we will fail together’ he said – looking at Angus, myself and Col Manning as he spoke. ‘But if we succeed, we will succeed together.’

I began to see how he had earned his reputation. Humble and thoughtful, sharing a wry smile yet offering a glimpse into the ambition behind his words. I sense a dim ray of hope beginning to emerge for this war-torn district’s future.