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.

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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.

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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.

Fighting fit

It’s pretty clear this is no Fitness First or Virgin gym.  I reveal the Spartan nature of the ISAF headquarters gym in Kabul.

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just another local gym – smaller, lacking the glossy finish and with a whiff of boiled clothes and sweat rather than expensive soaps and washing powder – but with TV screens and the latest equipment laid out in regimented rows whirring away at all times of day and night.

A closer look and it’s pretty clear this is no Fitness First or Virgin gym. Back home the treadmills, steppers and bikes are placed a comfortable distance apart to allow for kindle-readers and social bikers not to be offended or sprayed by Tour de France/ marathon wannabes on an adjacent apparatus.

No such attention to feng shui on operations. There is barely space to pop your towel down (and into this sauna, access is denied without one) on the floor without coming into contact with your next-door neighbour’s flailing trainer.

Water is provided – a large pile of plastic bottles inside the door – and the view out of the windows tends to be limited to different shades of concrete blast walls.

There is as you would expect a larger proportion of men here – particularly if you are brave enough to venture into the free weights corner where hulking men are quite literally lifting the gym. Where fitness centres back home offer a catwalk of the best designer gear; here there is a distinct lack of lycra and any deviation from grey/black shorts and t-shirts attracts considerable attention.

Unsurprisingly, you’d be pushed to find anyone overweight and most are a study in good nutrition and peak physical fitness. And it’s a multi-national camp all the way to its exercise regimes. The Macedonian Force Protection unit are more likely to be seen bulking up on the heavy weights; the Americans lift as a team and can be heard shouting encouragement at each other as one poor soul grunts his way through dead-lifts.

The UK contingent tend to be built more for speed – monopolising the running machines, while the French have their own reserved area on the spinning bikes. Whatever your nationality, the rules are rigid. You are expected to religiously clean off your machine, carry your ID card at all times, and most exercisers have one eye on their mobile phone should they be called back to work to respond to an incident.

Compared to the improvised gyms created by soldiers in patrol bases – dumbbells made of battery packs and chin-up bars hammered into compound walls – this is sheer luxury.

But in a headquarters where the pace of life requires personnel to endure the long hours and long months under huge pressure, the gym remains a functional area, a crucial and integral part of the workplace, where the speediest of stress-busting workouts is squeezed into the long working day. We are all expected to be ‘fit to fight’ and that applies whether you’re a General commanding the campaign, a clerk in an admin office or an infantryman on the front line. A glance beyond the iPods and the treadmills reminds you just how far removed you are from your Fitness First back home; within arms’ reach of every runner, cyclist, rower and weight-lifter is a loaded weapon that never leaves their side.

Rush Hour

If you believed only the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Afghanistan is a country at war and that nowhere is safe.  These days that simply is not the case.

There are countless villages across different regions and districts where families live a perfectly mundane day-to-day existence and the most violence they witness is the occasional spat with their neighbour over livestock.

On the streets of the capital there may be more of a military presence than we are used to at home, with checkpoints policing access to the so-called ‘Green zone’ – the district that houses embassies and some of the ISAF camps – and armed guards outside key government buildings. But it’s also a colourful, bustling city with rush hour traffic that would drive even the most seasoned London cab driver round the bend.

And it’s at rush hour that the streets really come alive. On Ahmad Shah Massoud road, elegant ladies in delicately sequined headscarfs wend their way gingerly around the cars across the dusty road. As drivers career onto the roundabout with no obvious right of way, the traffic cop under a large awning advertising a fresh yoghurt drink and the Afghan United Bank tries – to no avail – to get the ever-increasing gridlock moving with frantic arm movements.

Further down, the road splits into a dual carriageway where cars jostle in and out of imaginary lanes honking their horns and narrowly missing the odd horse and cart piled high with watermelons. Every car, motorbike and minibus is packed with as many passengers as it can hold; suited men heading home from work, families visiting friends, and people heading to the huge neon-lit Afghan Cash and Carry.

It is noticeable how many more women there are out and about on the streets. Even a couple of years ago when I was here last, they were few and far between – and then most wore the eye-catching blue burkha. It’s striking how many now feel confident enough to express themselves more freely through their choice of bright and colourful clothes. One pioneering female journalist I met recently told me women feel safer and more enpowered now – and that they will not be giving up their hard-fought freedoms and ambitions. The next generation is clearly relishing the opportunity to learn and dream of careers too; at the end of the day swarms of girls in crisp white headscarves with blue uniforms chatter their way out of the school gates in pairs with their books under their arms.

There is of course still a security threat even on the streets of the capital and for every cluster of Toyota corollas – seemingly the car of choice on the roads here – there is an armoured SUV carrying a foreign official, a military commander or representatives of one of the many charities working here. But you no longer see the military foot patrols I went out on as recently as 2010 and military convoys are few and far between.

It is a shame that these bustling streets only seem to make the international headlines every few months; when they have been devastated by a violent attack or a suicide bomb. Because over the years I have been visiting, life in Kabul has changed; shopping malls have popped up, construction and parks projects have been completed, schools have reopened. And in between the horrific attacks, millions of Afghans refuse to be cowed and carry on with their lives. Street vendors sell their flatbreads, young men join the police force, kids look forward to the Eid holiday and like clockwork the rush hour traffic grinds to a halt on the Ahmad Shah Massoud roundabout.

Silence falls on Kabul

There is one brief moment every week when the hubbub of the busy ISAF headquarters in Kabul comes to a standstill allowing Afghan and ISAF personnel a chance to reflect and remember their fallen colleagues.

The main headquarters camp in Kabul – HQ ISAF – is a hub of constant activity. You will struggle to find a time of day or night when food isn’t available in at least one of the dining halls, a crucial briefing is going on or a close protection team isn’t preparing a vehicle for a road move.

There is one brief moment every week though when the camp comes to a complete standstill. A moment of peace descends on the brain of the Afghanistan campaign. The hulking armoured vehicles grind to a halt, the report- typing stops, the video-conferences with Brussels, Mons, the Pentagon and Whitehall freeze, and the relentless Marine instructor in the gym goes quiet.

Just a few minutes. But ones steeped in meaning and respect. From the most junior clerk to the 4-star General commanding the campaign; civilian representatives, contracted security operators and a jumble of multi-coloured berets from across the coalition nations as well as civilian and military representatives from our host nation, all gather on a patch of grass in front of ISAF and Afghan flags.

The padre begins proceedings with a poem of remembrance or sacrifice. Then one by one, representatives step forward to read out the names of their countrymen who that week, have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and Afghanistan’s future.

This week it was the turn of the Australians and Italians, both mourning one of their own. The Americans had lost two servicemen. Corporal Channing Day and Corporal David O’Connor were honoured for the British contingent. No matter how tragic the losses of coalition soldiers or how moving the reading of their names, it is the Afghan contribution which reminds us of just what the host nation is sacrificing in pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous future. When the Afghan officer steps forward, there are too many fallen Afghans to name them individually. This week alone sixty-six members of the Afghan Security Forces died.

A moment of silence and a prayer. Then it’s back to work for everyone – there is a campaign to tackle, a transition to secure and a future to plan. And getting on with the job at hand is the best possible way to remember our fallen and make sure not one of those deaths was in vain.

Highway 1….the Lifeline of Afghanistan

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards and the Household Cavalry are fighting to keep open a vital road in Afghanistan. Highway 1 runs through Helmand province and these soldiers are responsible for safeguarding 70 km of it. Working as a British Forces News reporter, I had exclusive access to the work they do.

It’s the ring road of Afghanistan, it covers over 2000km. Highway 1 starts in the East in Jalalabad and Kabul, then heads South to Kandahar, goes through Helmand Province on its way to Herat in the West, then goes up to the far North and Mazar e Sharif. Nearly half the population of Afghanistan lives within 50km of Highway 1.

It may look like an unremarkable single lane tarmac road, but it’s the most important trade route for the country and crucial to ISAF troops for the resupply of their patrol bases across the country.

The Taliban also rely on it to move around. Until recently this meant they didn’t target it directly; although settlements around it and convoys snaking down it weren’t quite so lucky.

Alongside the Household Cavalry, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards are the unit responsible for making sure the road is safe and keeps moving. They work with the Afghan National Army advising them on tactics and patrolling with them.

And the last couple of weeks have been busy. In the 24 hours we were there, their stretch of the Highway was hit by a suicide car bomber, three IED finds and a direct hit on a patrol.

The Guardsmen are based in the centre of Geresk where they live with their Afghan colleagues in what years ago used to be a Soviet Army R&R camp – swimming pool (albeit now empty) and all.

They’re acutely aware of the risks every time they go outside the gate into the bustling town and out onto to road teaming with convoys. But they also know that if they don’t keep those convoys safe and moving, the country’s economy will have little chance of getting back on track.