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.

Christmas has arrived on Bastion…

It’s a quieter day in the BFBS compound today so we’ve pulled out the Christmas decorations and Mark, one of our engineers, has been busying himself with Feng Shui’ing the baubles and the lights. And a very good job he’s done too. Gini, our fantastic radio presenter pitched in with her Weiss PfefferNusse (delicious German Christmas biscuits) from one of her many parcels from home and has Christmas toons blaring for us to sing along to. Both are wearing the inevitable and very festive looking Christmas hats.

So we are now officially on the run-up to Christmas here and will do our best to spread some Crimble cheer to our fellow Afghanistan Tourists.

Mark has mentioned something about a real Christmas tree and glittering Christmas signs in the Danish part of camp…so we’re off to investigate and sabotage any attempts to outdo our valiant efforts…..but maybe we’ll stop for a cup of tea and a slice of Danish cake first…..

The power of the bellowed word….

As I mentioned previously – but got sidetracked with the ‘burns pit’ issue – we were down in the Babaji area a few days ago with soldiers from 2 SCOTS. As with most ISAF units, they are partnered with the Afghan national security forces and live side by side with them on their patrol base. They planned a joint operation – a patrol that would push well into Taliban-held territory, and an area into which they hadn’t ventured before. By moonlight and in the freezing pre-dawn temperatures, we set off on foot across ploughed fields, clambered over compound walls and waded through drainage ditches, all the while watching our footing like hawks for the slightest suggestion of an IED.

The patrol brief was to go as close as possible to the target village and try to coax out the locals for a ‘Shura’, an informal meeting about what they thought and what their needs were. The expectation from the British Company Commander, Major Piers Strudwick, was that we would get nowhere near the village but would end up getting targeted from the various firing points they had identified during previous ‘contacts’ across the area.

So, he brought along the ‘Sound Commander’ as an alternative means of ‘talking’ to the village elders. As we approached the village, the sky went a beautiful deep pink colour as the sun started to come up, but still no sign of insurgents and the only sound was that of birdsong and the squelching of our boots.

We reached one of the outer compounds – used we were told just the day before by insurgents as a perfect vantage point from which to shoot at a nearby Check Point (moments after we had left it) – and Maj Strudwick decided along with his Afghan colleague that we’d come quite far enough for now. They deployed the ‘Sound Commander’ – a grand name for what is essentially a loudspeaker attached to a ruck-sack. But its charm is in its simplicity. It is man-portable, easy-to-use and most of all, as we were about to find out, effective.

Within minutes of the Afghan Police commander shouting messages into it in Pashtu that echoed across the countryside (and the whole patrol bracing itself – me thoroughly included – for an onslaught of Taliban proportions), figures started to emerge from behind compound walls.

The first two individuals who appeared out of the nearest tree line were identified – rather disturbingly – by the Afghan police as Taliban leaders. They edged gingerly toward the patrol and the tension was palpable. One decided to come and join the meeting, his two colleagues thought better of it and melted back into the undergrowth.

Once a handful of elders had gathered, the ‘Shura’ began. ‘They were poor people who were stuck in the middle of a firefight’ they said; ‘they were frightened but too poor to leave the area’.

They led us deep into the compounds to show us their homes and pointed out repairs that they needed help with. A few minutes later, the elders, Afghan security forces and the British commander shook hands. Some of the Afghan soldiers even stopped for a handshake photo opportunity with the villagers.

We had been static for too long; we had to move. The ‘Sound Commander’ was packed away, hauled onto its bearer’s back ready to be despatched on the next patrol.

Despite concerns, our return journey was just as quiet (and just as wet).

They had expected a firefight. What they got was a meeting with village elders. Maj Strudwick and the Afghan commanders were very pleasantly surprised.
And the reasons for such an unexpected success? According to the British commander, simply getting out of our sleeping bags earlier than the Taliban and beating them to the village played a huge part that day and meant the elders felt able to talk more freely and weren’t frightened to come out.

But I’d also like to think that the megaphone in the rucksack added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings – the ‘Sound Commander’ on that occasion being mightier than the AK47….

The Raptor – saving lives in Afghanistan

A device for photographing and monitoring insurgent activity is saving lives in Afghanistan. The Raptor, which is attached to the underneath of a Tornado jet, can take photographs and record information, which is then fed back to be analysed in order to protect troops on the ground. I went to meet the engineers from the Raptor detachment, to find out more about what this high-tech machine does.


On patrol with 2 SCOTS….

It’s 0430 in the morning, it’s dark with a very bright full moon, the temperature is hovering around freezing, my lips have gone blue and it takes every ounce of dedication to move my shivering body out of the relative warmth of my sleeping bag on Patrol Base Nahidullah.

Before long, we’re all loaded up in the back of Mastiffs and on our way to a nearby Check Point where we’ll dismount and head off into a local village on a foot patrol – what the 2 SCOTS OC Major Piers Strudwick calls an ‘advance to Shura’.

The idea is to arrive in the village and coax locals out to talk about what they need, what ISAF troops are doing in the area and beat the Taliban at their ‘information operations’ game.

We’re walking straight into a Taliban stronghold and the 2 SCOTS soldiers are expecting trouble. Everyone is focused.

The patrol gets off to a great start when we arrive at the Check Point and all inadvertently disembark from the back of the Mastiff right into the ‘burns pit’.

The driver had (he says not intentionally but the smirk gave him away) reverse-parked into the very spot where the lads on the Check Point disposed of their, erm, waste.

Cue a broad Glasgow accent out of the darkness….“I expected we’d get into the s*** on this patrol, but we haven’t even left the check-point yet”.

As it happened, bar the odd river crossing and a couple of insurgents who came close but then must have decided it was far too cold for a full-on firefight, it was a very successful patrol with a number of locals engaging with the commander and discussing how to bring more security to the area.

A good result overall then, but my boots will, I fear, never be the same again.

A day to remember…

Kandahar – a multinational camp the size of a small city which houses about 30,000 civilian and military personnel. It is never quiet, constantly buzzing with people working round the clock and aircraft taking to the skies every minute of the day and night.

But even here there’s a time for silence and a time to pause for thought. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, British, Canadian and American personnel stopped what they were doing.

They remembered the fallen from the Great War. They remembered the fallen from more recent conflicts. And for those serving in Afghanistan, this was a particularly poignant time. Many have lost friends and colleagues, and most face the dangers of war on a daily basis.

Whatever the recent controversy and discussions surrounding the wearing of the poppy; there is no doubt that the principles and values behind the symbol are alive and well in today’s Armed Forces.