C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

marines

It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

footie in helmand

He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.

An Afghan country garden: life on a Helmand base

First published on Sky News on 30th May 2010.

Bright pink magnolias, deep red roses, lush green grass, pergolas that Charlie Dimmock would be proud of and even the odd water feature.

No, this is not a lovingly manicured English country garden, this is thousands of miles away in one of the most dangerous places in the world – Sangin, Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In 50C heat, British troops are doing their laundry in basins by the river during a few precious moments of “personal admin” time on the Forward Operating Base.

Others are catching up on reading, preparing for their next patrol or having a blissfully refreshing dip in the Sangin river.

But for their Afghan National Army counterparts, it seems nothing beats a spot of gardening.

Just a few metres away from rows of armoured vehicles and pockmarked buildings stuffed with sandbags, the Afghan soldiers have created an incongruous oasis that stands out from its hard, dry, dusty, beige surroundings.

They are meticulous about watering their flower beds and lawns and coaxing creepers over gateways and walls.

And it seems civilian Afghans are no less green-fingered.

Roads and tracks through Sangin are bordered by large allotments of intricately irrigated land.

One soldier told me as we patrolled past an embryonic orchard that they are also streets ahead of us at genetically combining different fruit trees.

So it seems the English may have competition in the gardening stakes… and an unexpected hobby in common with the Afghan people.

It’s a dog’s life in Afghanistan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 31st May 2010.

Frankie

By Lorna Ward, Sky News Producer

His large red and white blanket has pride of place under the main operations-cum-dining table in the Patrol Base. He’s had his jabs, and he dines on leftover rations.

Frankie may not be a pedigree, but he’s won the hearts of the soldiers on a small and dusty Patrol Base in Sangin.

The scruffy white and brown dog is only about nine months old but has already been through the mill.

As a puppy, he was destined to be trained up as a fighting dog.

This meant grooming him according to Afghan rules, including cutting off his ears and tail.

As it turned out, he just wasn’t aggressive enough, so his career ended and he was left homeless.

Cue the arrival of the boys from 1 Scots.

Sgt Jamie Campbell arrived ahead of the rest of the soldiers who would call this small patch of land on the edge of the Green Zone home for the next six months.

He found cockroaches and rats, and one mangy, lonely dog with no ears and no tail.

Ridding the place of pests and turning it into a liveable hygienic base was a priority. Along with the rats and the cockroaches, the mangy dog had to go.

But the disfigured, mournful looking mutt won his first battle – the animal was spared and Christened Frankie.

Just under three months later, Frankie is part of the furniture.

So much so, that he insists on following the soldiers on patrol into the Green Zone.

Despite being firmly instructed to stay on the Patrol Base and left with his water bowl and snacks, he occasionally manages to escape.

Blissfully unaware of the improvised explosive device threat and the serious job the men are here to do, he bounds towards the gate of the Patrol Base, before being shooed back to safety.

Sgt Campbell has taken a particular shine to the camp mascot and plans to take him home as a family pet.

It’ll mean jumping through a number of administrative hoops and raising money – but with the process already under way, this is one ‘rescue’ dog that looks set for a loving home in Scotland in a few months’ time.

A day in the life: Media Advisor to Deputy Commander ISAF

(First published in the Pen & Sword “Scratchings” March 2013)

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless. It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter. Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today. The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of. But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service. The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that. And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way; a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command. There are drills for everything. God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’. Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts. Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots. But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered. It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged. Your writing and style are your signature. And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent. Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on. I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity. I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum. That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General. They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation. But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time. Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK. And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z. And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon. And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with. There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off. I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century. But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding. I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour. I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect. I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.

HIGHLIGHTS: The future of British military engagement with the media

March this year will mark ten years since the invasion of Iraq. In those ten years in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the media has embedded with British troops in an effort to report the conflicts.

We will be joined by an expert panel to look at the nature of the engagement between the British military and the media, in light of more than ten years of conflict overseas.

As we see changes in the British military, the media and the nature of conflict zones, how will this relationship develop? We will be examining the management of the media and the judgements that are made about what to and what not to show.

Chaired by Stewart Purvis, Professor of television journalism at City University London. He is a former Editor-in-Chief and CEO of ITN, and Ofcom’s Partner for Content and Standards.

The panel:

Lorna Ward, deputy foreign news editor at Sky News, currently deployed as Media Advisor to ISAF Deputy Commander, Afghanistan. In her position at Sky she runs the international news input and has spent a considerable time in the field as a reporter and producer. Previously, she was mobilised while in the TA; deploying in charge of a Combat Camera Team attached to British infantry units across Iraq, and US special forces in Baghdad.

Vaughan Smith is a news pioneer who founded the Frontline Club in London in 2003. Since the 80s Vaughan has worked as an award-winning independent cameraman and video news journalist covering wars and conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Robert Fox has worked as a journalist and broadcaster since 1967, and is defence correspondent for the Evening Standard.He is member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House.

Major General Jonathan Shaw was chief of staff of UK Land Forces between 2007 and 2008. He joined the Parachute Regiment in 1981 and went on to serve in the Falklands, Kosovo and Iraq before joining the MoD. He currently advises Digital Barriers plc and OPTIMA Defence & Security.

Poacher-turned-gamekeeper

Article published in Pen And Sword Club magazine March 2013.

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless.

It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter.  Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today.  The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of.  But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service.  The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that.  And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way;  a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command.  There are drills for everything.  God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’.  Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts.  Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots.  But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered.  It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged.  Your writing and style are your signature.  And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent.  Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on.  I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity.  I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum.  That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General.  They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation.  But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time.  Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it.  It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK.  And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z.  And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon.  And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with.  There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off.  I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century.  But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding.  I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour.  I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect.  I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.

Decompression

Bleary-eyed and disorientated, our little group of about twenty-five stragglers snaked its way into Akrotiri air terminal off an RAF Tristar.

After a couple of days travelling in-country to get to Camp Bastion, we made our way safely out of Afghanistan in between two roaring thunderstorms. On the tarmac in Cyprus, our small group left the bulk of passengers on board to head directly back to the UK for their R&R. Those of us who had completed our tours headed towards the ‘decompression’ camp in Cyprus for some compulsory fun and relaxation.

Having collected our daysacks with our one change of civilian clothing, we were asked to show our passports – ostensibly to make sure none of us had left it on-board the aircraft and to be fair it was probably a reasonable assumption to make considering the scruffy andexhausted bunch the ‘decompression team’ were dealing with. Despite the time (about 0500 local time), the Butlins’-esque, red polo-shirted party were welcoming and considerate with the eclectic group – varying in rank from an RAF Group Captain all the way to a Private soldier who didn’t look old enough to be deployed – all of whom looked like they would rather curl up in the corner of the terminal or bolt out the door to the nearest civilian aircraft bound for home.

One short bus journey later, we arrived at a spotless and brand new accommodation block where we managed to get our heads down for a couple of hours on rows of bunk beds, then hopped into showers before being taken to breakfast. Somewhat bemused and most of us wearing mismatched ill-fitting clothes that had spent months at the bottom of our rucksacks, there was a sense of convicts out on day release. But after our cat-nap and metaphorical de-lousing, we were all famished and gladly downed the large fry-up on offer.

Cue our day of enforced recreation. And to be honest, it was surprisingly fun and extremely well pitched and organised. Not quite beach weather when you come through Cyprus in February so our activities were less banana-boat and swimming in the sea, and more bowling and clay pigeon shooting. The latter gave us a chance to get back out into the fresh air after being squeezed into various forms of militarytransport for days, and acclimatise to wet and grey weather which was no doubt also waiting to welcome us back in the UK.

After attempting to destroy a number of fluorescent clay pellets with a shot-gun instructor who would have looked more at home in the Home Counties than on a hilltop behind Episkopi, we were bussed off past some glorious views out to sea, up a winding road to a camp up on a plateau. Dotted around were whitewashed one story buildings with blue doors either end, all identically kitted out with rows of bunk beds which we would fall into tonight before the last stage of our long journey back to Brize Norton in the morning. The complex was hugely well equipped with free Wi-Fi, TVs, games, lounging areas and a huge treat: today’s newspapers.

Despite being in civilian clothes, our little gang – you witness a very different decompression when entire units are trooping through hundreds at a time – was unable to break out of our military habits. We all found ourselves picking up our freshly laundered uniforms and gathering in the long ironing room –rows of matching blue ironing boards and industrial strength steam irons – to get our kit ready for re-use in the morning.

After that, we all settled down in companionable silence to email home, read the papers or snooze on the large L-shaped sofas dotted around the brightly lit lounging area. We whiled the rest of the afternoon away until dinner and our ration of beer or wine – four cans or a bottle – from the bar, for which we had all bought tokens earlier in the day.

With a briefing on post-traumatic stress and a video on safe driving on return to the UK, the decompression team’s duty was nearly done.

If they were concerned we might all run riot on our quota of wine or make a dash for Aya Napa in the dead of the night, they needn’t have worried. On very little sleep and with long tours behind us, our greatest extravagance was watching a rock duet smash out some entertaining covers and chuckling at an unapologetically un-PC stand-up comedian, before watching The Hobbit in the mobile cinema – a brightly coloured tour bus decked out with a big screen and plush red velvet seats.

We were tucked up in bed long before bed time, after a process which may not cure the most deeply affected by a tour in Afghanistan but one which will undoubtedly make most of us a lot more palatable a proposition for our loved ones back home when we barge back in on their lives after six, eight or even twelve months away.

Image

Lieutenant Colonel Lorna Ward has been the media advisor to General Nick Carter, the Deputy Commander of ISAF and Commander of UK forces in Afghanistan – the National Contingent Commander.

Afghan National Army Officers’ Academy appoints key staff

The Afghan National Army Officers’ Academy (ANAOA) came one step closer to its opening day over the weekend with the appointment of key staff. 

Senior staff appointees

Senior staff appointees to the Afghan National Army Officers’ Academy in Kabul

At the vast site in Kabul of the Afghan National Defence University – of which the ANAOA will be a part – senior commanders of the Afghan National Army gathered with representatives from their coalition partner countries including ISAF Deputy Commander and National Contingent Commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen Nick Carter, to congratulate the individuals entrusted with the future success of the academy.

Maj Gen Payenda, the Inspector General of the ANA, remembered the day this project was born on a handshake between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Since the signing of the agreement on 19 July last year, he said, we have come very far and achieved huge progress to get to where we are today. Alongside partner countries Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark, the UK is providing mentors and training to instructors with the aim that, working alongside Afghan Army leaders, they will create an officers’ academy modelled on the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) in the UK.

General Karimi, Head of the Afghan Army, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, Deputy Commander of ISAF, and Major General Payenda (left of shot, in civilian clothing)

General Karimi, Head of the Afghan Army, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, Deputy Commander of ISAF, and Major General Payenda (left of shot, in civilian clothing)

From the windows of Massoud Hall perched on the hillside, the construction of the academy buildings spreads out across the plain surrounded by snow-covered mountains. In just a few short months, carefully selected officer cadets will begin the first commissioning course. There will be three intakes a year, with courses lasting 42 weeks each. Fourteen so-called ‘Master Trainers’ were recently nominated by Maj Gen Payenda and British contingent Chief of Staff, Brig Rob Magowan. They will shortly be sent to the RMAS for instructor training.

Their leadership will be well settled-in at the ANAOA Headquarters by then. Brig Gen Sharif, who completed staff training at Indian Staff College, was introduced at the weekend as the new Commandant of the academy. His Deputy and Director of Training, a graduate of the Advanced Command and Staff College(ACSC) in the UK – Lt Col Feda Hussein. The new Chief of Staff, Lt Col Qais Mangal is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the ACSC, and a proud wearer of the British Royal Marine Commando dagger. He said he hoped to bring his extensive experience from the British military system back to his own academy and aspiring officers.

Lieutenant General Nick Carter, ISAF Deputy Commander and National Contingent Commander in Afghanistan

Lieutenant General Nick Carter, ISAF Deputy Commander and National Contingent Commander in Afghanistan

Lt Gen Nick Carter said what a great honour it was to be there, alongside his great friend Gen Karimi, the Afghan Chief of the General Staff, whom he first met in 2002. It was from his time as a cadet at RMAS in 1967/68 that Gen Karimi had been inspired to create the Afghan officers academy and without his vision Gen Carter said, we would not be where we are today. We have now, he said, a good team of foreign advisors who have arrived to work with their Afghan counterparts at the Academy, which is on track for its first Kandak in September this year. This is a significant commitment by coalition partners, he added, and one which will be a lasting legacy for years to come.

Both he and Gen Karimi agreed there is nothing more important to a professional army like the Afghan National Army today, than leadership and a leadership academy. And that this is why the Afghan National Army Officers’ Academy project is so special and why both are looking forward to working closely together on it.

Goat grabbing film a faithful portrait of Afghan culture

ISAF personnel have attended the premier of a new movie by award-winning filmmaker Sam French based around Afghanistan’s national sport of Buzkashi – a game of horse polo played with a dead goat. I wrote this blog from Kabul.

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Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

There was no red carpet, no celebrities and no paparazzi. This was a low-key affair and not your conventional Premiere. Special guest and director of the film, Sam French, wore a three piece grey suit, rather incongruously accessorized with muddy walking boots. Or at least they would have been incongruous even by the most retro Hollywood, Paris or London styles. Here in Kabul, it would have been imprudent to wear anything finer particularly at this time of year.

He was here to introduce us to his new award-winning short film Buzkashi Boys. It’s a coming of age story about two young lads in Kabul who have dreams of becoming Buzkashi riders. These are the gladiators of Afghan society; men who in their traditional robes and hats, with flowing beards, career around a dirt pitch on horseback, sparring over the prize – a headless goat. The match starts with the carcass in the centre of a circle, surrounded by the players of two opposing teams. The object of the game is to get control of the headless beast and get it to the scoring zone. This sounds easy until you picture hordes of other buzkashi (translated literally means ‘goat grabbing’) riders charging while leaning off their horses to steal the carcass. Those who reach the scoring zone – and they are few and far between – are rewarded with points and, not insignificantly, money, fine clothes and mythical status.

For our evening of entertainment, we were joined by ISAF Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, who by sheer coincidence had just returned from the real thing. That afternoon he had been a guest of the Afghan government and treated to the spectacle that is the country’s national sport. So by the evening, he was well versed in the rules, the culture and just what place this sport occupies in Afghan folklore. He had been impressed by the resilience, the raw aggression and unflinching machismo shown by the riders in what is clearly a very dangerous sport. Much like in the film he said the arena was full of young boys with eyes on stalks, dreaming of becoming one of the men in the ring.

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Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

Those boys are portrayed in Sam French’s film by two of Kabul’s young residents . One is the son of a film-maker who is working to resurrect the Afghan film-making industry and an aspiring actor. The other, Tom told us, was “selling maps on chicken street” when he met him. He was unassuming and so earnest that the director cast him on the spot. Ironically in the film, and to great effect, he cast the real street-boy as the ironmonger’s son and the budding actor as the street urchin.

The film shows off the spectacular scenery around Kabul and tells a simple but very moving tale. It is completely faithful to Afghan culture, and I’m told the way people live, speak and behave. And that is testament to its director’s aims and the way he goes about making his films. Sam French has been in Afghanistan for four years having fallen in love with a woman and then the country he followed her to. With his small American crew, he trained up an entire Afghan film crew in Kabul. The cast is the genuine article, and there is no trick to the filming. An old Russian crane and creaky ‘dolly’ were found and dusted off and the crew braved the odd bomb threat as they filmed in the middle of bustling markets in the centre of town. Tom mobilised passionate Afghan film-makers who had been left frustrated when their industry was decimated by thirty years of civil war and the restrictive Taliban rule.


Together they put together a film about hope for the future, following your dreams and the importance of family. It’s already inspired one Afghan – the young street seller who stars in Buzkashi Boys is now at school and getting top grades. He apparently has his sights firmly set on a career as an airline pilot. Sam French hopes his film will encourage other Afghans to have hope, and the international audience to see the beautiful country and people that he has come to love, rather than the one of news reports.

So far, Buzkashi Boys has won awards and rave reviews; there’s even hope it might be nominated for an Oscar. As much as I am sure he will appreciate the professional recognition; I do not think it will be long before Sam French is back on the streets of Kabul in his muddy boots, embarking on the greater challenge of a feature-length movie this time; determined to put his Afghanistan back on the map for the right reasons.