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.

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.

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.

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.

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….

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.