Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Life in Nahr-e-Saraj – Winter 2011

As most of us worry about a few extra pounds we put on over Christmas or sit here moaning about the football, many others will have far more serious things to worry about, debt, unemployment, poverty and then we also have those who are worried about their loved ones serving in Afghanistan.

To remind us of how these brave men and women were spending their Christmas, I attach an email that the Colonel of 5 Rifles ( a good friend and former colleague sent me yesterday)

Life in Nahr-e-Saraj – Winter 2011


Life has settled down into a sort of routine now, in the 6 weeks since we set up home here in Patrol Base 2 – a funny little community fashioned out of tents and sand-bags, countless ISO containers and a forest of radio antennae. We are in Nahr-e-Saraj District, which forms part of Helmand Province. On Google Earth you’ll find us just South West of a town called Gereshk, near a community called Paind Kalay, sandwiched between the Nahr-e-Bughra Canal and the River Helmand. Everything here is related to land and water, and the area that we are responsible for was first settled in the 17th Century, with water diverted from the River to our South, which created very fertile arable land where the Pashtun people found that they could make a comfortable enough life for themselves. To our North there is the Canal, built in the middle of the 20th Century and the area around it has been settled since then, with land claimed from the desert as irrigation ditches have spread out in a complex spider’s web. The people who control the water-flow in each community, called mirabs in Pashtu, are seriously important people. Alongside the mullahs, whose religious education and knowledge varies widely, and the senior Tribal figures and village headmen called maliks, the mirabs are essential to community cohesion and economic well-being.

The area is still overwhelmingly a farming community, with a range of subsistence crops grown – mainly wheat and maize, in terms of consumables. But the largest crop by some margin, and the primary cash crop, is the poppy, which is relatively easy to grow even in the areas with a very poor water supply. Poppy took over from cotton – previously the prevalent currency-earner – decades ago and it is now a central part of rural life in Helmand, which is one of the many different reasons that it is proving so hard to convince the Helmandis to stop growing it. Where there is plenty of water the farmers will manage to get two or even three harvests a year of different crops – there’s not much we can teach them about eking out growth from the soil, though we can help them with access to seeds that deliver increased yield, and of course they would all benefit from easier and freer access to markets so that they could get a better price for their crops. There are all sorts of ‘alternative livelihood’ programmes out here, which seek to find a viable alternative to growing poppy and selling the produce as ‘wet opium’; and as well as the ‘carrot’ of other crops, there is a fairly brutal ‘stick’ used by the Afghan Police to try and deter farmers from growing poppy. It’s an intractable issue which goes to the core of so many of Afghanistan’s issues – corruption, patronage, land rights, the insurgency, poverty and so on. But it is hard not to agree with the Afghan Government’s line that there will be no lasting security in Afghanistan as long as its major source of income (other than International Community funding) is from an illegal drug – you probably don’t have to be John Maynard Keynes to work out that this isn’t a sustainable economic base on which to build a cohesive country.

Families are large here, typically half a dozen or more children per household; marriage is often between cousins or with the children of neighbouring villages, and all of them tend to be ‘arranged’ in this rural area. Life is tough; violence, brutality, death and injury are part of people’s lives from an extremely early age. I visited a school the other day with the senior UK diplomat in Helmand, and was surprised to see the older kids (10 or 11 years old) casually whipping the younger kids into line with 3-foot lengths of rubber tyre. What was extraordinary was the ease with which this was taken by the other kids; they don’t cower or flinch, it’s all part of the routine. And the people have to be tough because the environment is incredibly harsh. During my recce visits this summer I was sweltering in the mid 40s Centigrade; now winter is here the nights are below zero, made much colder by the days rising to 20 degrees Centigrade…. quite a temperature range and it is bloomin’ cold. So the locals are hardy people; almost inured to physical hardship; immensely conservative religiously - and therefore socially. Women are veiled and kept out of sight behind compound walls except when working in the fields. You do not engage with women here at all unless you are yourself female and even then it is done with immense circumspection. Children, of both sexes, are a different matter – huge brown eyes, incredibly cute, inquisitive, wearing brightly coloured mini shalwar-kameez and pyjamas, the girls often with levels of kohl eye-shadow that would credit TOWIE. They are incredibly accurate with stones (Afghanistan has just won the Asian Cricket Cup, though there’s not much played down here), which they will throw at a heavily armed and armoured vehicle just for the pleasure of hearing it ‘ping’. Always asking for ‘chocklat’, they run alarmingly close to the side of the road as you drive past (picking up a stone to chuck as they run…). On foot patrol they will come and stare and walk alongside you, asking ‘Are you Commander?’ – which doesn’t (always) mean that they have been put up to it by the Taliban, but it still puts the willies up everyone, especially the Commanding Officer who starts to wish he wasn’t wearing his rank badge……

Our camp is austere, and there ain’t many luxuries – but we do have warmish showers, albeit of the most basic variety. Ablutions come courtesy of a ‘Portable Restroom’ – surely one of the great inventions of the past few years. It’s a foil bag with a larger fold-out plastic bag with a drawstring, in which one does one’s business and then it’s all sealed in the foil with a zip-lock before being burned (the unique and lingering smell of burning poo-bags is one of the memories that will never leave those of us who serve in the forward areas here). Loo-paper and one of those sterile towelette things are also included and they should really be compulsory for picnics, long car journeys and shooting parties the world over. In the smallest checkpoints the facilities are even more limited; there is still hot water for shaving and showering, but it’s a case of pouring hot water into a shower bag and standing under the dribble until you’re damp all over. But food is plentiful and the chefs and 'hobby cooks' do a fantastic job of making it all as exciting as possible. At larger locations there is an adequate supply of ‘fresh’ – including fruit and vegetables – but at many of the more remote checkpoints, of which we have a large proportion, the blokes are mainly on boxed rations, which whilst packed with calories are a bit monotonous. We all much enjoy our boxes sent from home with little treats in them to add some spice and variety to an otherwise healthy but slightly tedious diet. And there is a fantastic initiative known as ‘Come Dine With Me’, where one of our most senior chefs, with an assistant, flies into a remote base by helicopter with a rucksack full of steak and fresh vegetables, cooks the chaps a slap-up meal, and flies out again. It’s a real morale-booster, however infrequent.

In their tents, the Riflemen get a camp-cot and a large mosquito net that covers it and provides the same width again as private space and in most places they will at least have one of those Ikea-style hanging shelves to put some kit in. But that’s about it – they survive on the contents of one large rucksack and a big holdall and whatever extra is sent out from home. We’re either in uniform or occasionally PT kit, though with the cold weather you now find a range of ‘pyjamas’ being sported at night – some have flowery and fancy purpose-built numbers, others tend towards the issued long-johns, which aren’t quite so sartorially elegant. Personally I favour the White Company creations that my clever wife sent out in spite of my protestations that I never wear pyjamas – that macho pretence lasted until the water in my tent started freezing every night…... There’s a wide range of other warm kit out here – down jackets and polar fleeces of every sort, and enough merino wool to repopulate New Zealand with sheep, but there’s not much chance of keeping the chill out completely until one gets back into the sleeping bag at the end of the day.

The trip to the shaving and shower area in the mornings is a particularly bleak one in the winter – but it sure does wake you up. Shaving is done in the open air, albeit with hot water, and there is a shower tent that is basic but worth its weight in gold. The girls have a little sign that they hang outside to stop the blokes from stumbling in, but apart from that there is little concession to gender out here and the dozen or so female soldiers that are here at PB2 do a fantastic job of mucking in with the lads whilst retaining, each in their own way, some trace of femininity amongst all the drab khaki and camouflage. On a serious note, in a conflict in which killing people provides only a very small part of the solution, having a diverse community from which to draw ideas and inspiration is pretty important. There is a real danger that any Western Army, predominantly led by ‘middle-aged white men’, can quickly drift into groupthink – which usually means reverting to our comfort zone of ever-increasing doses of organised violence. I have come to really value having some other viewpoints to draw on out here. Some of our most important injects have come from the least likely sources; and keeping heresy and lateral thinking alive is a critical element of framing and solving the sort of wicked problems with which we are confronted.

The work we do is incredibly varied and deserves a PhD thesis all of its own; but in essence our task here is to protect the Afghan people and help to connect them to their Government (in full, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – or GIRoA). The first bit is tough – but in a land where violence is common currency and has been for at least the past 40 years (and arguably 400…), the people are well and truly sick of being fought over. Most would accept any form of governance that gave them a steady life where they could tend their crops and bring up their children; what they have had for the past 2 generations is a succession of rapacious warlords, militias, invaders, fanatics and self-interested, corrupt governors. I’m sure that some would place us in one of those categories. Although there are some real signs of progress, albeit slow, this level of instability cannot fail to shape the people and they are well and truly traumatised, at least down here in Helmand. But as I found in Iraq, the weird thing about extreme violence is how quickly it becomes utterly normal; the speed with which humans adapt to a new environment is pretty astonishing - it is how we survive. As a result, many ‘ordinary Afghans’ are now part of the violence that they all want to put behind them; it is part of the fabric of society. Young men join the insurgency or the Government’s security forces because their fathers, uncles and grandfathers fought in their time – for the Russians, for the mujahideen, in the civil war, against ISAF, against the Taliban. In many Helmandi families you will find one or more sons joining the Government forces and others joining the insurgency; in a society like this, hedging ones bets is a fundamental tool of group and family survival. We are not, in the main, fighting ideological fanatics – though there are a few of them. But they are committed; and they uncomplainingly suffer and die for a cause that may be no more than a misunderstanding of what ISAF is doing here; a deep mistrust of central Government; a poor comprehension of Islam and its tenets; or because there is no other prospect for employment.

The insurgents are good at what they do; and their mid-level leaders tend to have come through a fairly Darwinian process of selection. If they’re still alive then they are either pretty good; or they’re sitting in relative safety out of reach of Afghan and ISAF forces. The lower-level fighters are less experienced and capable, but even they will have been around guns and explosives since they were teenagers, so they are pretty dangerous and know their business. But even the good ones are fallible and so far we have had some significant successes against their middle tier of leaders. When you kill or capture a couple you do see a noticeable drop in capability for a number of weeks – they are replaced but it takes some time for their successors to get into the swing of things. It is in these gaps that we can achieve some real progress – the real value of our targeting operations is in buying the time and space to bring Afghan governance a step closer to the people. It might provide an opportunity to bring a District Governor into the area to hear people’s complaints and concerns, or it might allow us to set up a new ‘Afghan Local Police’ programme, which will prevent the vacuum being re-filled by the insurgency. This is where GIRoA has a serious advantage - the insurgency has very little to offer the people. There's plenty of intimidation, at best protection of the poppy crop and the cash that comes from it, but nothing in terms of a better, fairer or more peaceful life. So it is these ‘soft’ activities that provide real advances here, rather than the ‘hard’ activities that we are more familiar and comfortable with as soldiers. So, much of my time out here is spent ‘drinking chai’, in endless rounds of discussion with local governance figures, village elders, Afghan Army and Police commanders, and the various International Community representatives who are here to help the Afghans bring some development to the farthest reaches of the country. The talking I find easy; the chai is very pleasant; what is hellish is the attempt at sitting cross-legged for hours on end….. seventy-year-old Afghans can do it but this forty-odd-year-old Brit fails miserably; luckily they find it amusing rather than insulting and, as in all these matters, they are grateful that one at least makes the effort.

The blokes on the ground do a fair bit of tea-drinking too, but typically it’s a bit more testing than that. Almost all of our patrolling and operations out here are on foot, sometimes following a helicopter drop-off. It is a thoroughly gruelling process, with the boys carrying upwards of 40 kg in body armour, radios, weapons, ammunition and water – that’s not far off 90 pounds and when I first saw that written down I thought it was nonsense too. They are in an out of irrigation ditches, across water-logged fields, over compound walls, and all the while straining their eyes for the tell-tale signs of an improvised explosive device planted in the earth. We have taken an equal balance of casualties from IEDs and gun-shot wounds. It’s a miserable part of our business but the blokes cope extremely well and are incredibly resilient. The medical care is quite literally better and quicker than you could hope for if you were shot in Central London. Our medical helicopters come with multi-disciplinary Consultant teams on the back of them – and several of our blokes have been on the operating table in our hospital back at Camp Bastion in under 30 minutes from point of wounding - truly remarkable. Sadly some are less fortunate and we have lost two very good men to IEDs – Private Tom Lake and Rifleman Sheldon Steel. They were both exceptional soldiers, in their prime and surrounded by friends, doing a difficult job in a tricky spot, and doing it very well. We'll not forget them.

We run a slightly sombre but very touching Vigil Service for our Fallen, back at Camp Bastion, which the dead soldier’s immediate team and closest friends are usually flown back for, and the hundreds of soldiers of all nationalities based at Bastion also attend. It is a chance for tributes to be paid, formal and informal, and for prayers to be said. And then there is an even more moving ceremony during which his closest mates carry the coffin onto a waiting aeroplane to begin the journey home to UK. These events are truly cathartic, and do a huge amount of good for the immediate team members who were part of the incident in which he was killed. For those who can’t get back to Bastion (the vast majority of the Battlegroup) we run a parallel service in all of the forward locations, so everybody gets a chance to say farewell. It does the trick; and lets people move on, or at least to put it all to one side for the rest of the tour so that we can press on with the task at hand. Fortunately the Padre doesn’t just do the sad bits; he’s constantly travelling all over the Battlegroup, doling out his never-ending supply of sherbet-lemons and listening to the fears and fancies and hopes and dreams of the old and the young, the faithful and the notso – everyone values a Padre out here.

On a lighter note, we’ve just had a surprise visit from HRH The Earl and Countess of Wessex, who are Royal Colonels for 2 and 5 RIFLES respectively. They were in great form, as always, with the Countess looking impossibly elegant in her camouflage kit, in spite of less than 3 hours’ sleep and a pretty adventurous helicopter ride across the desert. The blokes were delighted to see them; to be able to show off their kit; and tell a few tales of their scrapes over the past weeks. The Royal protection officers were understandably a little less relaxed about the whole situation, but all went off smoothly and with a minimum of fuss and bother. And luckily the whole visit was complete before the dust-storm arrived that has kept the Prime Minister stuck back at Kandahar.

Christmas will soon be on us and we have made some preparations that I won’t go into here and now. We’re entirely ‘dry’ out here, so Christmas spirit will be of the ecclesiastical variety and the Padre will be doing his rounds. But the important work will continue, albeit with a brief moment to pause and reflect on what we are doing, rejoice that we are here, and remember our mates who are not. It’s not a great time to be away from our husbands and wives, our children, our wider families and friends, but there is a pretty special shared bond in being far from home and in a difficult and dangerous place at Christmas. So we’ll hold onto that feeling, secure in the sense that we are doing something that is selfless and honourable and something to tell stories about over future pints, and keep warm in the knowledge that most of us will be home next year, and some other poor bugger will be ‘stagging on’ in a bleak sangar on the other side of the world. And two weeks of ‘Rest and Recuperation’ won’t be far away now for most of us, and before you know it Spring will be here and we’ll be cursing the heat and wondering if it really was so very cold……

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