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.

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.

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.

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.