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.

Chaos Reigns As Gaddafi Forces Fight Back

The rockets and mortars are relentless, dropping one after the other all around the northern edge of Bani Walid as the revolutionary forces try to advance.   The ambulances are not far behind, screeching back up the road to the north, towards the trauma bays in the small village beyond.  The incoming fire keeps the anti-Gaddafi fighters running and confuses an already chaotic battlefield.  The anti-Gaddafi soldiers launched their latest assault into one of the last of Gaddafi’s strongholds at around 7.30am.

Initially they made ground – advancing toward the centre. Some fighters on the outskirts said they had managed to seize a hotel and market square.  But every step forward is pushed back.

The terrain favours their enemy, and they have had weeks to build up defences and place their best marksmen on the hills overlooking the approaches.  Even as they edge forward into the scattering of hamlets in the valley, they are being outsmarted by Gaddafi’s well-trained soldiers.  One doctor who’s been treating the ever-increasing number of casualties told us the front ranks of the revolutionary fighters are being outflanked by snipers.  As they move in between the houses, they’re finding themselves completely surrounded – left with no way out as the bullets rain down.

The die-hard remnants of the old regime clearly intend to fight to the very end.  They are holding out, undaunted by the repeated Nato air strikes over the last two weeks.

Despite what Nato is calling an “intensive presence” over the area and the targeting of military hardware and positions, they still have an armoury of heavy weaponry which they are using to devastating effect.

At one of the checkpoints on the outskirts, the pressure is too much and an argument breaks out between the rebels.

When they launched their first attack into the city, they were optimistic it would all be over in days.

It’s now dawning on them it will take some time yet before the rebel flag is flying in the centre of Bani Walid.

‘Freedom Fighters’ Pull Back From Bani Walid

Four miles from the outskirts of Bani Walid, the men who are now calling themselves ‘Freedom Fighters’ have pulled back from the town, assaulted by the heavy rockets and artillery fire of the pro-Gaddafi forces.

We have finally been able to get to the front line proper – hindered until now by over-zealous ‘media handling’ by the anti-Gaddafi troops and their leaders.  The media convoy snaked its way south down the single lane tarmac road in whacky racers style.

The scenery is a wide expanse of orange dusty plains interspersed with craggy outcrops – reminiscent of old cowboy films. But it’s not the injuns firing at us – and their weapons are considerably more powerful.

To begin with it looks like we have arrived at a holding area for the fighters who have pulled back over the ridge and are preparing for their next surge forward.

Some of them tell us they are frustrated as they felt they were making progress; but they say the decision to pull back has come from on-high – a joint decision by the National Transitional Council and NATO.

As they wait for their next orders, they pass the time playing loud revolutionary music and firing anti-aircraft and AK47 rounds into the air, accompanied by a healthy dose of ‘Allah u Akbar!’

But it is not long before their shots are answered by incoming rounds whistling past our heads.

Journalists and fighters alike dive for cover as another volley crackles down. By this time the music has stopped and the party atmosphere around some of the anti-Gaddafi forces makes way for bossy orders for us to move out of the area.

Our team hops back in our trusty minibus and we move off down the road. A few hundred metres further on, we stop again only to find we are still in range of the rockets and artillery being fired out of Bani Walid.

So in between hasty camera shots of the crumps and billowing smoke, we move off down the road again.

From our next layby, we watch and listen to the familiar sound of planes circling overhead before loud explosions echo off the stony hills around us.

They have sent in the cavalry and the Allah u Akbars begin all over again.

Libya: More Bloodshed In Battle For Bani Walid

As convoys of anti-Gaddafi troops move forward towards Bani Walid, more bloodshed is predicted in the effort to take one of Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds.

At regular intervals, ambulances screech by in the opposite direction towards the clinic in the nearest village fifty kilometres away.

The reinforcements from the north started the day at the mosque, praying for victory in their hometown, before heading to the front line.

The National Transitional Council’s negotiator for the area, Abdullah Kenshil told us they have about 4,000 rebel fighters surrounding the collection of hamlets in the valley.

It is thought there are only around 50 die-hard Gaddafi supporters holed up in the area, but they have had time to prepare for what may well be their last stand.

When the fighters launched their assault on Friday evening, they faced difficult terrain and a barrage of heavy weaponry including rockets and artillery.

They claim their enemy is using residents’ houses as bases and firing points, making it almost impossible to fire back without risking the lives of civilians.

Abdullah Kenshil is optimistic they can take the town but says he is determined they will do it legally and while respecting human rights.

He has issued a directive to all troops, demanding: “You will not enter houses; you will not hurt the people. You will not fire in the air; prisoners will be captured and judged through the courts…”

But there is already tension between the different communities and leaders involved in the battle.

:: Pictures – Anti-Gaddafi Forces Close In On Bani Walid

The Bani Walid commanders refused to wait for the deadline imposed by Benghazi’s National Transitional Council but say the early attack was justified.

“They are inside the city, they are fighting with snipers. They forced this on us and it was in self-defence,” said Abdullah Kenshil.

And the people of Bani Walid are determined to claim this victory as theirs alone -reluctant to allow so-called ‘foreign’ fighters onto their land.

They are proud and historically very independent and they are keen to capture the “Big Fish” Abdullah Kenshil says is personally pulling the strings behind the fierce resistance in the town.

He is convinced Colonel Gaddafi himself is leading his men, alongside his former spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and at least two of his sons.

The rebel fighters have now reached the outskirts of Bani Walid. Their target, the Souk, or market place is two kilometres away.

But it may be some time before they claim the town and any Gaddafi prize within it.

And it will surely bring more of the bloodshed that they were so desperate to avoid.

VIDEO: British Forces train ANA in Kabul

We see so much of the Afghan National Army alongside coalition troops in Afghanistan – it’s hard to believe the force has only existed for a few years. British troops have stepped in to help with recruitment and training. They’re preparing the men who’ll help pave the way for NATO’s eventual exit from the country
I went to meet some of the Afghan soldiers based at the Kabul Military Training Centre.