Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dispatch From Sangin, Afghanistan

Lt Col Nick Kitson - CO 3 Rifles BG

Christmas Eve seems as good a time as any to provide the latest update from the 3 Rifles Battle Group, based mainly in Sangin, and with elements up in Kajaki, here in Northern Helmand.

Since I last wrote towards the end of November, the theme has been one of continued progress on all fronts. The temperature, the reduced winter vegetation and the pressure which the insurgents face – from us and others - have all acted in our favour. We have been ruthless in exploiting these advantages and every soldier in the BG has worked tirelessly, with great commitment, to ensure we press home every opportunity to increase the security in our areas and convince the locals to reject the insurgents.

Mobilising the population to reject the insurgency is the name of the game; our Afghan Army and Police partners are working with us towards this goal. Having conducted several significant operations to establish ourselves in new, smaller patrol bases with a broader and more comprehensive footprint we are now living at much closer quarters with the population. This has helped us achieve the meaningful interaction with them that is the essence of Counter-Insurgency – interaction which the enemy do their utmost to prevent. That in itself speaks volumes.

Now that we are genuinely their neighbours in a large number of places (there are 29 security force locations of various shapes and size in the BG area, of which we are present in 23), we can communicate with the locals on a continuous basis, understand their hopes and fears and tell them the truth about what we are trying to do.

This is a traditional and remote rural area with few trappings of the modern world, even by Afghan standards. Yes, there are battered old cars (normally White Toyota Corolla Estates from the 80s containing at least 15 people), motorbikes and the occasional ancient tractor but even the ubiquitous mobile phone has no functioning network here. The people have not had the benefit of meaningful modern education. The limited healthcare is normally in the hands of profiteers offering little but quackery for a populous that knows no better. Government services do not stretch much beyond the odd electricity line, knitted together and only occasionally carrying a current.

There are 50 policemen for a population of about 35 000; that’s less than 20 on duty, measured against the sort of shift system that we would recognise at home. As such the locals are highly prone to the tallest of stories that the Taleban have to offer. This intimidation and misinformation is purely to cow the population into submission – and rejection of the modern world - for no other purpose than to retain the dominance of power hungry extremists and smugglers with no interest beyond their own status and material gain.

By getting amongst the population and interacting with them on a persistent basis we with our Afghan colleagues provide them visible, tangible security and protection from these abuses. We can communicate and discuss the pros and cons of the progress we hope to bring without then leaving them to the devices of the insurgents once we have gone back to our big bases. We explain what it is that we are helping the government of Afghanistan to deliver and put all our powers of leadership and persuasion towards mobilising the population to reject the insurgency.

This sets us up to ‘win the argument’ as our 2* Regional Commander, Maj Gen Nick Carter (also a Rifleman), calls it. The majority of the people we speak to dislike the insurgents and what they bring but they say they are powerless to resist. Our job is to convince them that only they can comprehensively rid this place of the insurgents and that they will have to put their own heads above the parapet, with the ANA’s and our support, to do so. By being amongst them and providing real and visible signs of progress we hope to convince them of this.

In terms of progress, our ‘crown jewel’ is the Sangin Bazaar, bustling, prosperous and ever expanding as new stalls are renovated and stocked daily. It is unrecognisable from only last year and the local population is able to go about its business there peacefully and relatively unmolested. Such is its success that it is an increasingly visible thorn in the insurgents’ side to the point where they are prepared to send suicide bombers in its direction. This is a desperate attempt to push back on the progress that we and the Afghan Government are delivering there.

The insurgents clearly have no compunction about sacrificing the lives of local Afghan civilians in order to achieve their nihilistic and self serving objectives. In stopping just such an attempt on 15 Dec, we suffered the tragic loss of LCpl Kirkness and Rfn Brown, alongside two brave Afghan Army ‘Warriors’. Two other Afghan soldiers were seriously injured in this incident when not one but two suicide bombers on the same motorbike, heading in the direction of the bazaar, realised the game was up when they ran into our vehicle checkpoint. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those devastated by this event but we draw immense comfort and pride from the fact that these sacrifices averted a much larger tragedy, both in terms of human suffering and our mission out here. These courageous soldiers died doing exactly what we are meant to be doing, which is keeping the fight away from the population centres so that they have a chance to re-generate and show progress that people can believe in and carry forward themselves.

That event was the start of what you will know has been a particularly tough patch for us regarding casualties. Since that day, the Battle Group has lost LCpl Pritchard (RMP), LCpl Roney (3 RIFLES) and LCpl Brown (PARA) as well as an Afghan interpreter. In amongst those tragedies we have also had several Riflemen wounded, some seriously. All these have been sustained in the course of the daily acts of courage and determination we witness out here. These losses are a bitter blow to us and take away highly valued and capable individuals. We have no choice but to dust ourselves off and carry on, ensuring that their sacrifices are not in vain. Once again our thoughts and prayers go out to families and friends, particularly as they and we all do our best to celebrate Christmas under testing circumstances.

But to put this in a perspective that rarely comes through in the media at home, these are our first losses for a month during which time we have continued to fight as hard, continued to take casualties, continued to engage with the locals and continued to make progress alongside our Afghan colleagues.

An upturn in casualties such as this is not in itself an indication of increasing success, failure or even activity in terms of our campaign here. It is simply luck - good or bad - and events taking their often unpredictable course in this most unpredictable of environments. None of these things stop the steady surge of progress that we are making and which gains momentum as it goes along. The background noise, the intensity and frequency of the fight, the daily routine remains largely unchanged – the difference between good and bad outcomes is often a matter of inches and seconds, as all soldiers know. We’ve had some bad luck but we continue to have plenty of good fortune and success at the same time.

In the past 10 days, we have opened up three new Patrol Bases and brought the beginnings of security to new communities yet further out from the centre of Sangin. Initially, our new presence is contested by the insurgents but they cannot keep it up for long; we hit them hard when they show themselves and most of the population in the new areas welcome us. This is as hard a blow for the insurgents as our decisive but measured military response to their desultory shoots and desperate, indiscriminate IED laying.

The locals are war weary and want the prosperity the Afghan government promises. They do not reject us but rather fear the day we might have to leave. That is why we also work hard to bring our Afghan comrades on, sharing bases and patrols with them as we do, setting them up for the time when they can take this on themselves. We are dominating our ground and pushing the enemy away from the ‘crown jewel’. Our task is to allow Afghan development and governance to flourish in central Sangin by creating the space for it to take root.

The brave soldiers of this Battle Group are doing just that, through thick and thin. The enemy is out there and we are doing battle with him but he is not at the gates. Fighting is less frequent, less destructive and further afield. Eid al Adha was celebrated openly here for the first time in four years, women who choose to can go about unveiled, people are moving back into their homes.

A brief mention of the home team in Edinburgh and more widely who are doing such a great job of looking after our wounded and our families. It is a source of great strength to us here that our loved ones at home are so well cared for, whether they be anxious families on ‘the patch’ or those who have sadly been affected by events out here. Reports from Selly Oak, Headley Court and elsewhere about the determination, good humour and positivity of our wounded are truly inspiring and humbling.

The generosity of our supporters who have contributed so comprehensively to our Wristband Fund has made it possible to show how much we as a Battalion and a Regiment care and are prepared to go the extra mile beyond the excellent medical care already provided. The generosity and support of the great British public, manifested through parcels and messages, is heart warming and means a great deal to us all. We shall all miss our families over Christmas but we at least have the comradeship and close bonds that sharing in this tough fight brings. Christmas this year will be celebrated with our military family – our brothers in arms.

To purchase a wrist band click here

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Christmas, from Helmand

This year instead of waking up to two very excited little girls with stockings full of presents, I prised myself out of my winter sleeping bag and stepped out into a bitterly cold Christmas day in Helmand Province Afghanistan.

I have been in the reserves now for just over eight years and have spent lots of time away in places like Iraq and Kosovo and I have been to Afghanistan once before. But this has been the first time I have spent Christmas out of the country let alone away from my family.

In all that time although far from home in some very challenging places I know that it is harder for wives and children than it is for us soldiers. Christmas is such a special day and with the girls just four and nearly six they are very aware that daddy is not there to share it with them.

But I was with a small team of British soldiers at Patrol Base Talibjan near Musa Qala, and we were just two kilometres from what is called the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops. And it was to the FLET that we headed out to on Christmas Eve.

The Brits I was with work alongside the Afghan National Army, sharing the same basic mud walled compound. Each day they patrol the surrounding area talking to the locals, meeting with the Afghan National Police and reassuring their rural community with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. But Christmas Eve was different. While I would have given anything to back with the family the lads and I had to keep those thoughts at the back of our minds.

As you slept tucked up in bed with snow flakes falling outside we were already in the thick of a fire-fight with the Taliban. Christmas Eve was a different operation altogether, not just one of the usual patrols. We were there to intentionally probe the Taliban, to test their positions and to test their resolve. To ensure we had the upper hand we brought in support.

Once the Taliban took us on and tried to out flank us, we pushed out our Scimitar light tanks and the armoured Mastiffs broke cover. For what seemed like ages the air filled with the sound of gun fire and the sonic cracks as Taliban bullets whizzed pasted our heads.

As we pushed them back an RAF Tornado flew in low drowning out every noise in its wake, reinforcing how serious we were in our intent that day.

The team had been awesome. We pushed back the Taliban, swept through their compounds and captured a raft of components destined to make deadly IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that soldiers here fear more than anything else. But we didn’t get them all. One of the vehicles got hit by and IED. Luckily no one was hurt, the armour did it thing. It does make you think that as infantry on foot we can go where ever we choose. But in a vehicle you can be channeled by the terrain and targeted.

Not until we marched back through the fields and over the hills and once the heavy body armour and day sacks were off, did we start to think of home – wondering what our loved ones were up to – maybe sledging. Then deep in our own quiet thoughts as the events of the day sank in, did we really start to miss them.

But, being British soldiers we crack on and move forward. There was much to do. The Taliban don’t take Christmas off, so nor do the troops. But we can always squeeze in a bit of a celebration as nothing gets in the way of Christmas. Many of us had parcels from family with Santa hats and treats. We even had a small Christmas tree, not a real one, but it was there flashing away in the ops rooms.

A frozen turkey had arrived together with stuffing, carrots, potatoes and sprouts. And the Afghan soldiers’ bread oven had inspired our ammo tin oven built into one of the compound walls that cooked the turkey to perfection.

With the sun blazing in the sky, I have to say I sat down to one of the most unusual Christmas lunches I think I will ever have. I pity the girls who will no doubt hear the tale each and every year as they grow older. But this year using a satellite phone to talk to them I told them Santa had visited the little boys and girls here, just like he had at home. For now they think that I am out here to help the little boys and girls have the sort of life that they take for granted. In a way that is what we are here to do. But for now, how we do that can wait as they need not worry like my wife.

Hearing them laughing and giggling with excitement on the phone makes you realise how much you miss them. But, you have to stay strong and reassure them. However you feel at the time, it is not for them to hear, so that is not what they get.

With half of the tour complete there is still a long way to go. Looking to the future I can see that I will be back here again. But, things are improving. The ANA we fought alongside are getting better all the time. Once we get them up to speed fully and they can master their own destiny we and the International Security Assistance Force can come home.

What a day, what a Christmas Eve and what a way to celebrate Christmas. I know it isn’t the norm but it is what we are trained for, it is what we expect. It is hard out here and the environment is tough, but we take pride in what we are doing and we will do the very best that we can.

Lying here, in the cold on my cot bed with what seems like all of my clothes on, there is just one thing left to say and that’s ‘Happy Christmas’ from Helmand. We’re thinking of you.

Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES
TA soldier

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To see more pictures from the front line at christmas click the links below:

On route from Musa Quela to an OMLT Patrol Base
On ops with the OMLT from Patrol Base Talibjan
Reassurance patrol from PB Talibjan
Christmas Eve reassurance patrol from Patrol Base Talibjan
Christmas day in Patrol Base Taliban
British Troops Tuck Into Xmas Lunch in PB Talibjan
UK troops celebrate Christmas on the frontline
.50 cal sunrise on Boxing day
Living at Patrol Base Talibjan

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Day in the Life of A Thinking Rifleman

Rfn Phil Thomas - 3 Rifles BG

The day normally starts with a kick to the cot bed I’m curled up on. Its six o’clock in the morning and I can see my breath as a cloud of mist against the dirty white of the wall in my room.

“Get up Tommo! Time for a scrape.” My Plt Sjt Tim Exley says. I force myself out of my doss bag, and head down the well. The lads have fashioned a pulley system to get the water out so we don’t have to dip in to our valuable “brew water” supply.

We moved into these two compounds about eight days previous and, with the help of an engineer section, have transformed them into something resembling a home. After washing and shaving comes breakfast around the communal fire, the hub of the camp. There is the usual bartering over ration packs (usually with ALOT of corned beef hashes left in the corner, swiftly followed by the platoon commander Lt Dixon sniffing around for seconds).

The plan for the day is a routine patrol for a couple of hours and then some down-time till my multiple takes over the guard of the patrol base. We spend the next couple of hours getting kit ready, oiling weapons, checking comms and, for some of the lads, getting some head down (a good soldier sleeps when he can).

Its soon time to head to the loading bay then out the front gate. Today we have the ANA (Afghan National Army) with us, it’s a major bonus for us because they really excel at interacting with the local community in a way that ISAF forces could never achieve and this helps with building up the hearts and minds initiative that is so vital to rebuilding the country.

Whilst walking around we tend to attract groups of children looking for sweets or pens and, in the case of some of the riflemen’s attempts at Pashtu (the local language), something to laugh at. It is slow and hard going, with the weight of the kit combined with the drills we use to combat the IED threat. But we have all known people who have either been killed or injured by these devices so you don’t hear any complaints.

We meet a local mullah (elder) and the Boss discusses improvements to local amenities such as the mosques and schools. We head back to the patrol base and say farewell to the ANA until the next patrol. After a short debrief then it’s off to fill sand bags and carry on making little improvements to the camp (a plt serjeant is only happy when his men are working hard rather than hardly working).

While we were out, some mail was dropped off so the lads spend some time reading letters from loved ones and parcels full of sweets. As it’s the run up to Christmas as well, we have started to get cards and mince pies and all the usual paraphernalia that comes with it. We’ll be having the local ANA commander over for Christmas as we were kindly invited over to his base for Eid (Islamic equivalent to Christmas) where I tried goat for the first time and for the record it’s like a really fatty lamb. Christmas is a chance to have the great tradition of the boss and sjt cooking and serving us all Christmas dinner.

My turn for sentry comes around far too quickly so it’s time to wrap up warm and sit on a cold sand bag for an hour at a time, not the most exciting job but considering we’re in Sangin, a necessity none of us take lightly. Its 21:00 by that time and I’m glad the lads have gotten the fire going so when I come off the sangers, I can warm my ice cold hands and listen to the banter, with the lads coming from as far south as Cornwall and as far north as Newcastle (plus anywhere in-between) it’s quite varied, mostly at me for being the only Welshman.

By half ten it’s time to hit the hay. It’s surprising to how tired you can get, thinking you have to do the same thing tomorrow, but as we’re finding out no day in Sangin is ever the same as the one before.

A Day in the life of LCpl Paul Livingston

Its 0300 hrs and the Fire Support Group (FSG) A Company 3RIFLES from FOB NOLAY, just south of Sangin are preparing to move out on a Company operation to find and arrest a known Improvised Explosive Device (IED) maker.

I am LCpl Paul Livingston, a ‘Jackal' armoured vehicle commander and currently acting as A Company’s FSG second in command. Early starts like this are common because they allow us to move into position without the enemy knowing where we are, giving us the element of surprise. Our role is to secure a route for the Company to move along, and then using the high ground, provide overwatch to allow the Company to move forward safely to the target compound.

Not every morning is this busy. Usually my day starts at around 0600hrs. I get into my morning routine, washing, shaving and getting some breakfast, before attending the daily operational brief, which tells us what patrols are happing during the day. This is important especially for the FSG, as we are the quick reaction force (QRF) if any patrols need assistance”

The rest of the morning is spent doing essential maintenance on all the Jackal armoured vehicles, making sure they are fighting fit for whatever task the FSG may well find itself dealing with. As the second in command of the FSG my main responsibility is that we have enough ammunition, water, fuel and man power to carrying out any tasking we are given. The vehicles we have are the key to our mobility, so if they are in rag, we are practically useless.

Lunch at FOB NOLAY usually consists of noodles, pasta, and any leftovers from breakfast, but every now and again something special gets laid on like frankfurters or quiche. Usually after lunch a trip to the gym is usually on the menu. The gym at NOLAY is pretty basic, but there is enough here to beast yourself with. Hopefully there will be some extra gym equipment in time for Christmas.

Throughout the day there is the usual task of ‘Stagging on’, in the Sangers to provide protection for the FOB. Constant improvements to the FSG’s accommodation are always taking place. The most recent additions to the FSG, two chickens and two goats have meant that a new enclosure has been created to keep them till Christmas, where they will make a fine addition to the usual lunchtime meal of noodles. The evening is an ideal time to try and relax. We all try and get together and watch a film or play a few games on the Wii games console.

Over the next few days I will be leaving NOLAY to be a part of an ISAF operation to establish new patrol bases along a key supply route. The days leading up to this will be taken up by battle preparation, getting all the vehicles, and ourselves ready for the challenge. I’m really looking forward to the operation. Once it is complete it will bring much more security to a large area and will cut down movement to the insurgents.”

I wish my girlfriend a Happy Christmas, good luck with the birth, and I can’t wait to see you

LCpl Livingston platoon commander Captain Andy Michael says “LCpl Paul Livingston is an exemplary soldier. He is physically robust, professional, and cares deeply about the rifleman in his charge. He is much liked by his commanders and all members of the A Company FSG”.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


If you want to understand the Afghan then look no further than Buzkashi. Not my words but still relevant.

The national Afghan game is called Buzkashi. The translation of the name is "goat pulling".

It involves two teams of 15 setting off from a single point on horseback. They race towards a dead goat placed in a circle. The goat is grabbed and they gallop towards a second marker. The teams must get the goat round the marker and back into the circle.

The game is violent. The peculiarly Afghan element is that once a team has the upper hand the goat will often be stolen by players within that team in order to get the final glory.

The game is played in the barren desert with distances of over a mile between the markers and the circle.

I have asked our interpreters whether Buskashi is played in this area. The answer is yes but that was before the fighting.

The cultural point is that, faced with a common enemy the Afghans unite, but quickly argue amongst themselves when the external catalyst is gone.

Perhaps our answer to this is cricket, where the game is played over five days, a good tea is very important, and the most likely result is a draw.

Cricket is also played in Afghanistan courtesy of our imperialist past. We have had several six-a-side games in the FOB. Our interpreters are generally from Kabul and are archetypically good slow bowlers or wristy batsmen with a good eye.

The playing surface leaves a little to be desired, which makes the occasional LBW hotly contested.

The common ground is found in football for which we have enough room for a small five-a-side pitch.

Again the surface is a bit dodgy. But after work, if there is still enough light, I will often find a group of Tiger Team Afghan troops mixed with Riflemen, interpreters, and our locally employed civilians enjoying a kick about that more often than not turns into an international friendly.

Sport doing its bit to turn colleagues into friends.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


There is no such thing as a normal day in Afghanistan.

One of my platoons has begun to partner a Platoon from the Afghan National Army. The Afghans have already got a small team of UK mentors in their camp, but this move is part of the renewed effort to help the Afghan National Army take on the insurgency with more vigour.

All the planning and conduct of patrols is done jointly. The platoon has worked extremely hard in the last forty eight hours to give their new home enough protection.

The insurgents have responded in a number of ways but today they out did themselves.

The Afghan Army Platoon had received some information that the insurgents were going to try to strap an IED to a donkey and send it towards the camp. Donkeys do not have the reputation of being the most compliant animal, so it was treated with some scepticism at first.

Then in the afternoon the gate guard realised there was something suspicious going on. A group had just let go of a donkey a short way from camp and hurried off. He tried to divert the animal with flares and other warnings.

Obstinacy not being the best quality in that situation, the beast of burden eventually had to be stopped by a rifle shot.

The team went out and established there was something very suspicious under the bundle of hay carried by the donkey.

Eventually one brave ANA warrior set fire to the hay with a flare from a distance, and 30 seconds later there was a considerable explosion. No one was hurt.

Swift appropriate action had saved them from an unusual attack. But it is impossible to report a donkey IED up the chain of command without either a wry smile at the ridiculousness or a feeling that the world is slightly off its axis.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mother of all baptisms on first tour of Helmand

FLIGHT Sergeant Tony Kyle’s first shift on his maiden tour to Afghanistan is one he will never forget.

The Bishop Auckland-born nurse had been in Helmand Province only a matter of hours when he was faced with a major incident.

The 38-year-old arrived in Camp Bastion at the start of last month, but was almost instantly plunged into an emergency.

Multiple injuries were reported to the Medical Emergency Response Team (Mert) and once he had flown via Chinook helicopter out to the scene, miles outside of Camp Bastion, he discovered four patients – all with legs severed and bleeding heavily, more victims of improvised explosive devices – the Taliban’s deadliest weapon.

It was the Mert’s job to pull them out of trouble, treat them and make sure they arrived at the medical centre, at Camp Bastion, in the best possible condition. All the patients survived – it was the mother of all baptisms for Flt Sgt Kyle.

Back at the Mert’s camp, sitting on a large wooden table, covered with graffiti and names carved into the grain, Flt Sgt Kyle explains that it is something that he would soon get used to.

The former Parkside School student, from Oakenshaw, near Willington, County Durham is currently off duty, having completed a 24-hour shift – the norm for the Mert.

The team camp has been well personalised – a Mert sign, scrawled with marker on a piece of wood hangs above the door, just next a joke bag of blood.

They even have their own pets – a ginger kitten playfully attacks flies in the warm afternoon sun at the door to the canvas tent. Many camps will use vaccinated cats to control vermin.

Flt Sgt Kyle started his medical career in St John Ambulance before gaining a nursing qualification at Bishop Auckland College and going on to practise at Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle.

He joined the RAF, gaining an emergency nurse degree and worked in Portsmouth and Birmingham before being posted to Afghanistan this autumn.

His 24-hour shifts start at 10am with a briefing before the team, normally made up of a doctor, two paramedics and a nurse, heads to the helicopter to prepare equipment should a call come.

After that it is just a case of waiting. There’s admin work and other tasks to be done, but everything is immediately dropped if a casualty needs treatement. It’s not always as serious as Flt Sgt Kyle’s first shift.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as appendicitis or a high temperature, but that still means we fly out to the front line,”

says Flt Sgt Kyle.

Every trip comes with its dangers – the vital role of the Mert doesn’t go unnoticed by Taliban fighters.

“We have been shot at and had rounds go through the cabin because they want to take the helicopter down.

“One of my colleagues was in the front of the helicopter when a round just missed his head and it was only afterwards that you realise how close he came.

“When it is happening the adrenaline is pumping and you just don’t have time to think.”

Flt Sgt Kyle said he regularly speaks to his parents Norma and George, who live in Oakenshaw, but rarely goes into detail about his job.

“My mum and dad are petrified for me, so I try to keep as much from them as possible.

“I have had to treat Afghan children and it is at times like that you start reflecting on things back home,” said Flt Sgt Kyle, who has one son and another child on the way.

As part of the Geneva Convention, Flt Sgt Kyle is required to treat an injured member of the Taliban with the same care and attention that he would give to a British soldier. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that two men who hours earlier had been involved in a gun battle against each other, could be lying side by side in a hospital bed at Camp Bastion. But Flt Sgt Kyle says giving medical treatment to the enemy is not something that concerns him.

“Patients are patients to us,” he says.

“We are here to save lives and it doesn’t matter if they are Taliban, Afghan or British – it could be anybody.”

Just a few hours before speaking to Flt Sgt Kyle, Camp Bastion had been under a communications lockdown – when there is a ban on outgoing phone calls in the wake of a fatality or serious injury.

This time, it is following an injury to a soldier, but Flt Sgt Kyle says news of a communications lockdown always brings on sadness among soldiers.

“There is a depression that sets in and people do grieve because they know that someone is badly hurt or dead,” he says. “But one thing I have realised is that people here are so professional they get on with their jobs. Even though their best friend might have died, they just carry on.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Welcome to Helmand

Economic Adviser, Afghanistan

I work in a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province, Afghanistan – part of the international mission to support the Government of Afghanistan and help Afghans govern their country for themselves.

I work in a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province, Afghanistan – part of the international mission to support the Government of Afghanistan and help Afghans govern their country for themselves. My job title is Economic Adviser. I work with the local government to support economic development in Helmand and help give people the chance to earn a decent living - so they aren’t forced to join the Taliban’s ranks out of desperation.

We’re a multinational team, made up of staff from the UK, Afghanistan, Estonia, Denmark and the US, and working closely with the UK and US military, known as Taskforce Helmand and Taskforce Leatherneck respectively. I’m the new kid. I flew in from Kabul last week – so I’m still getting used to the way things work and learning all the military terminology. (To me, M&E means monitoring and evaluation. To the military it means mines and explosives. It’s important to be clear exactly what we’re talking about).

Life here is very different from the picture of Afghanistan you see on the news. I’m based in the town of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, which sits on the Helmand River 200 miles from the southern border with Pakistan. The Helmand River valley is actually one of the most green and fertile regions in Afghanistan. But security remains very difficult, and British soldiers are laying down their lives in the fight against the insurgency. Yesterday I attended a memorial service for two soldiers from this base who were killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). It brought home the stark reality of the situation here.

The aim of the Provincial Reconstruction Team is to help the Government of Afghanistan improve security, create jobs and deliver services to the Afghan people. It’s a crucial part of the international mission here. I’ve already seen some of the successful projects we’ve delivered. In the photo I’m standing next to a bus station which we helped to build.

We’re providing small-scale loans so local farmers can buy land and equipment. And as a result of a US funded project, people in Lashkar Gah recently started receiving a reliable supply of electricity for the first time, generated using hydro-power from the Helmand River. Businesses can now operate more easily. Families can switch on a light and listen to the radio. Winter is approaching in Helmand and one of the Afghan staff in my team who lives in Lashkar Gah told me that he can now use an electric heater for the first time.

This is just the beginning of the story. Over the coming months I’ll try to explain what it’s like working here and what my team is trying to achieve in Helmand.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Major Richard Streatfeild, OC A Company 4 RIFLES


For all soldiers in Afghanistan, the basics of living assume much greater importance.

Food, drink, sleep, cigarettes for some, press-ups for others, or a visit to the deep trench latrine, are all important rituals in the day.

Food is by far the most important element of this. There is an army joke that the chef's course is the hardest in the Services because no chef seems to have passed it.

Whilst variety and taste has improved immeasurably in recent years, the staples are still there - bacon grill, sausages, tinned tomatoes, powdered egg and beans for breakfast. Generally with porridge. Noodles and soup for lunch with a couple of rice or pasta choices for supper.

Military efficiency being what it is, the food is chosen for its nutritional value and ease of preparation. In this base we are particularly lucky that the chefs are doing an outstanding job.

Given limited ingredients the four chefs from of the Royal Logistic Corps have done us proud. The processed cheese cheesecake, tinned fruit crumble, pizza, spam balls in sweet and sour sauce, chicken jerky and fresh bread have all been added to the daily fare.

We all eat together on bench tables in the cook house. Cardboard plates and plastic cutlery are the order of the day in order to prevent the spread of illness.

But whilst there is much that is functional about the food the best days are reserved for when fresh rations come in. Steaks to order were a particular highlight, as well as fresh fruit in place of the processed fruit bar.

Being well fed is probably the single most important aspect of a soldier's morale. We still march on our stomachs.