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.

Back to the Dust…

 

I spent my R&R enjoying runs around the fields of Hampshire in the mud, rain, and on one occasion surviving a rather biting hailstorm. So it was only natural that one of the first things I wanted to do on return to the picturesque countryside of Camp Bastion was go for a run to stretch my legs after the cramped journey back.

Clearly I have a memory comparable to that of a goldfish. There was a very good reason why my running habits had taken a dive here prior to their resurrection back home in Blighty over R&R.

I am now back from my 5 mile circuit feeling like some desert nomad. Only a desert nomad who went on a trek with all the wrong kit and sans camel. My eyelashes and hair have gone a pale shade of beige, my nose now houses enough sand with which to build a castle. As a result of breathing (heavily) through my mouth (partly the result of being unable to breathe through the sandcastle in my nose), I will now spend the next couple of hours chewing on grit and will not be in need of any dinner. There is more sand and dust on the inside of my socks than on the outside and my IPod is now ironically playing Faith Hill’s ‘Breathe’ over and over in a loop, probably due to the mound of sand now stuck under the ‘play’ button.

I am now off for a shower before I reveal any more embarrassing facts about the state of my nostrils or indeed my taste in music.

The marathon journey home…

 

1000 on a hot and dusty Wednesday morning.

We all set off looking quite fresh and chirpy considering it was the middle of the night, but then we were excited at the prospect of going home – whether on R&R or at the end of a long tour.

By the early hours of Thursday in Bastion departure ‘lounge’, the brew kits had been pillaged, the Kitkats were sold out in the little snack bar, and even re-runs of Top Gear on the BFBS TV screen were no longer holding people’s attention.

Just in time, the oft-mentioned ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ was bellowed across the hall and we were on our way out to the mine-taped pen on the airfield eagerly awaiting the loud hum of props and the welcome sight of the green belly of the Hercules ready to swallow us up.

A short half-hour later in the middle of the night, we landed in Kandahar. After disentangling our identical bergans and bags and humping them onto the coach, we were shipped through the darkness to a row of tents. Then another ‘sirs, ma’ams, ladies and gents’ brief before being directed by torchlight to a large collection of camp beds. Time to get our heads down for a couple of hours.

Thursday…. Daylight brought another ‘sirs, ma’ams etc’ brief.

A day of sitting in a tent watching DVDs and drinking tea was punctuated by our first reporting time around lunchtime followed by a second well after dark.

Eventually, locked and loaded onto the ageing Tristar, we trundled along the runway in the very early hours of Friday morning and back up into the skies of Afghanistan.

Friday….with dawn breaking over the Middle East far below, the never-ending supply of orange squash was interrupted. Trolleys were wheeled down the aisles laden with cans of beer. Safely out of Afghan airspace, we were treated to a celebratory can of ale each, courtesy of the generous people of Britain and some of our best-known breweries. Refreshing and symbolic, but somewhat unorthodox when served with our breakfast of omelette, sausage and bacon. But I didn’t see anyone complaining.

It wasn’t long before we were welcomed onto Cyprus soil for a quick refuelling stop, then herded back on board. So close now, not one of us was sleeping. As we got closer, we all craned out the windows for our first sight of Blighty.

Grey, rainy, lush, green, busy, traffic – it has never looked quite so appealing.

48 hours, 15 cups of tea, 3 aircraft, 7 coach and car journeys, a handful of wet wipes and one can of lager later, our dishevelled bunch arrived slightly less fresh, a tad less chirpy but no less excited to finally have made it home in one piece.

Now it’s off for a bath, crisp clean sheets and that bucket of wine I’ve been promising myself. A long journey perhaps, but thoroughly worth it to finally be home.

An Afghan date…

 

I never thought that visiting a Patrol Base in the heart of Nad e Ali would turn into social event, but then Afghanistan never ceases to amaze me.

My partner-in-crime Will and I have been out for the last few days around the Nad e Ali North area of operations. At one Patrol Base, we were kindly hosted by James, an officer with the Scots Guards and the liaison officer with the Afghan National Army. As with most Patrol Bases, the Afghan security forces live and work with the ISAF troops so we popped along to their row of tents to say hello.

The Company commander, Major Asif was charming and invited us in to his command hut for tea. We had a good chat about the area and the challenges of his job, after which he kindly invited us to come back for lunch with him and his men.

It was market day at the local bazaar – which is well stocked and a sign of hope that security is improving in the area – so his men had been out doing some retail therapy.

They returned to the patrol base laden down with bags of fresh radishes, mushrooms, some kind of grass-like vegetable that looked and tasted like the ends of spring onions, tomatoes, a couple of chickens (still squawking) and a few bottles of coke.

Although we were a little concerned that the local river – which is used for all washing of vegetables, cooking utensils, hands, and indeed for all other ablution purposes – may not agree with our delicate western stomachs, we accepted the generous offer of Afghan hospitality.

We were not disappointed. We sat cross-legged on the floor of the commander’s hut and were treated to fried chicken, seasoned rice, fresh salad; all washed down with chilled coke.

His officers and the interpreters were very friendly and full of banter so it was a very convivial affair. One young Lieutenant who we were told was a force to be reckoned with in the area then invited me to a party down at his check-point. He said he would ‘show me his IEDs’. A tempting offer, and let’s face it a refreshing change from ‘do you come here often’. Sadly I had to decline as we were due back in Bastion the next day, so a social jaunt to a check-point ten kilometres away for the night was not an option.

I am happy to say though that not only did our delicate constitutions digest our delicious lunch without a hitch, but our party with the Afghan National Army is the closest I’ve come to a social life in the three and a half months I’ve been in theatre. Fantastic.

“A special event, for a special tribute, to a special man”

Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker leaves HQ ISAFThat is how General David Petraeus described Tuesday’s events at Headquarters ISAF in Kabul.

His second-in-command has come to the end of his 10-month posting here. Lt Gen Sir Nick Parker is going home and will be taking up the post of Commander-in-Chief Land along with a promotion to 4-star.

The grassy patch outside the distinctive pink and yellow Headquarters building in the heavily fortified compound that houses the men and women running the coalition’s campaign in Afghanistan was busier than normal today. Bedecked with rows of chairs, with ceremonial tunes wafting over from the band under the gazebo in the corner, the patch of land in the centre of Kabul had something of a well-to-do garden party. Everyone who was anyone was there, representatives from every coalition country, Afghan hosts, civilian as well as military.

The speeches were heartfelt; you got the impression that the two men really got on and have enjoyed working together. General Petraeus thanked his British number two for his “wise counsel”, praised his “stoicism and unflagging composure”, and credited his “pithy sense of humour” for keeping him sane in moments of high pressure.

He had to draw the line though at Gen Parker’s obsession with “some long-running soap” (his dogs are called Rita and Mavis and some of the most important decisions of the campaign have been made over a Coronation Street mug), drawing cackles from the audience with an “it takes all kinds”. Having never watched an episode of Corrie myself, I’m inclined to agree.

Despite this unhealthy addiction to the cobbles up north, Gen Parker along with his American boss left Will (my new partner-in-crime; Cath has abandoned me for the sunny shores of Cyprus) and me not a little starstruck.

For some people it’s Tom Cruise in Leicester Square. For these two Defence spotters, it was the two General Ps at HQ ISAF.