Encountering the unusual in Afghanistan

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about the multinational operation in Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

Working as I am in a multinational combined service environment, there is all manner of nuance, nicety and niggle that one must observe, mediate and work around. The most obvious issue when on the ground, or in camp for that matter, is the language barrier. The different ‘flags on the ground’ are too numerous to mention in entirety, but apart from the obvious there are Poles, Romanians, Danes, French, Dutch, and Hungarians working with me. English is the language currency here (luckily for me) and most make a credible and intelligible stab at it. The most fluent English speakers are the Dutch and the Danes, closely followed by the Americans. Those that are the kindest, most talkative and warmly welcoming are the Australians, again closely followed by the Americans. As I type this, an excellent fellow by the name of Dennis Volpe, who is an US Navy Officer, has kindly gone to get coffee to aid this late night vigil.

From a British public perspective it may be easy to forget that it is not just the Army operating here but the RAF and the Royal Navy too, (The Marines obviously are well known). The job of the RAF is fairly self-explanatory and, to the best of my knowledge, since the tranche of Naval Officers have been operational here, there hasn’t been a single incidence of insurgency in any of Afghanistan’s coastal waters!

For someone who is used to suckling in comfort at the bosom of a Cavalry Regiment, the differences can provide both gentle amusement, confusion and, ultimately, a much wider and considered view, benefiting from the vast breadth of differing experiences, cultures and customs.

I have just heard someone talking about finances describe a friend of theirs, a helicopter pilot, as being no longer ‘upwardly mobile’, no doubt a sticky predicament for one in that profession.

Gardens are a wealth indicator in Afghanistan. It is very much a status symbol for those who are, or want to be, Someone. The Provincial Governor of Kandahar has a formal Rose Garden in the inner compound of his palace.

It consists of two square borders inside a whitewashed perimeter, with a central tree-lined promenade splitting them. Both Hybrid Tea and Floribunda are present, and there are a few Geraniums intermingled. I would guess that the reason they have become the prominent marker of affluence is that one makes a statement that one has enough money to be able to afford the surplus water required to maintain a small floral garden.

Along Highway One, which is the main road that bisects Kandahar from east to west, there is often a central island of twenty metres or so in depth. Each Island is fenced and divided into small symmetric gardens with stone pathways between. Inside you will see small groups of men having a drink and chatting, most dressed in smarter clothing, enjoying their afternoon. It creates a striking juxtaposition with the dirt-encrusted poor, dilapidated mud and concrete buildings, damaged vehicles and famished livestock that line either side of the road not five metres away from these oases.

If you have ever wondered why Army Officers can be so dull and tedious, and seldom talk about anything other than their work or variations on a theme, I think I may have the answer. Of the few distractions available when on an operational tour, when you have an hour to relax, DVDs and books are the easiest route to escapism. The majority of my brethren could not be accused of having Catholic tastes. Theirs is not a broad spectrum of interest. Audiovisual stimulus is generally in the form of ‘Sharpe’, ‘Band of Brothers’ or some other war movie. The literature tends to span the myopic chasm of military autobiography to military history, (although some do read fiction – see Sharpe). Whilst this engenders a solid springboard from which to dive into conversation about all things Army-related, it also provides the anchor which prevents a swim in the pool of variety and culture.

I know few Bishops but I expect they don’t unwind of an evening with the Old Testament in their lap or an episode of The Vicar of Dibley and I would hope that teachers don’t spend their life with a nose in a textbook, or watching Dead Poet’s Society. Next time you are at a dinner party, you have been warned…

The remainder of this week shall be spent in Camp Bastion, in Helmand Province, with the rest of my troop going through a process called RSOI. In essence it is a last chance to hone everything we have trained for over the last nine months, especially procedures designed to minimize the threat from IEDs and also a chance for those new into the country to start to acclimatise.