Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, Spokesman for Task Force Helmand, writes with an update on events in Afghanistan, including a visit to Kabul.
From a Patrol Base in the Green Zone to the British Embassy in Kabul . So spans the whole spectrum of the diplomatic, developmental and military support and assistance being provided by the UK to our Afghan partners. I had the rather surreal experience of one day being on the front line in that Patrol Base and a few days later splashing about in the swimming pool at the Embassy, when I was up there for a conference. Kabul is 9,000 feet above sea level – that’s more than twice the height of Ben Nevis – surrounded by snow-capped, rugged mountains. The air is clear and much cooler than the increasingly furnace-like temperatures in central Helmand. Of course, it can never be too cold to jump in a pool when you’ve come from the deprived rigours of service life in Helmand – just to say that you’d done it if nothing else. I did the same thing in Iraq 4 years ago when I had a swim in Saddam Hussein’s pool in Baghdad.
The Deputy Ambassador, Catherine Royle, chaired a meeting we had to discuss our approach to telling the story of the British contribution to Afghanistan. We had lunch in the garden where there was grass on the lawn – if that sounds odd it’s just because I haven’t seen a lawn since I left England. We have a couple of pretty gardens on the military base in Lashkar Gah maintained by two very dedicated local gardeners – but no lawns. In the evening the Deputy Ambassador held a reception for the media based in Kabul. Ben Farmer from the Daily Telegraph was there. I saw Ben in Lash a few weeks ago, he called me the next day from Bahrain and the day after that from Libya. Now he was back in Kabul after those adventures.
Rachel Thompson and Paul Wood from the BBC were also there. I had a chat to Rachel about a media induction course that we are introducing for the media when they come to visit us in Task Force Helmand. Our soldiers are trained soldiers, they spend a year training to come to Helmand for their 6-month tours and, on arrival here, they spend 5-7 days doing Reception, Staging and Onward Integration Training to give them the very latest tactics, techniques and procedures as well as spending a few days acclimatising themselves to the harsh environment and temperature. To date any journalist coming here has arrived in Camp Bastion from Britain, where the temperature is less than half of that here. They’ve been put on a helicopter and gone on a foot patrol, conducting full-on military operations.
So we’ve introduced a day-long induction package during which all media coming to visit us will experience some patrolling to learn what they should do if something happens, have a go in the vehicle roll-over demonstrator, get some basic first-aid familiarisation and some environmental health awareness – after all, there’s not much point in coming here for ten days and spending it all in the D&V tent (diarrhoea and vomiting – sorry, but that’s what happens with poor environmental health!) By providing this basic awareness we are attempting to reduce some of the risk that journalists pose to themselves and to us, giving them a day to rebalance and ensuring that they are properly kitted out for the rigours of front line life. I’m not sure why we’ve never done this before. Rachel told me that she had spent four days doing this kind of training with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force when she had last visited Helmand so she was delighted, I think, that we would be putting on this brief induction package.
Sadly, there were no Ferrero Rocher at the Deputy Ambassador’s reception but there was a delicious Afghan meal prepared by the Embassy staff.
It was a bit of a reality check arriving back in Helmand. But then I bumped into my successor, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Mackenzie, on the helicopter landing site (HLS) at Camp Bastion. He was out here on his recce before he starts his tour in late September. Gordon is, like me, from the Media Operations Group (Volunteers) and an old friend. He will be going on to command the University Officer Training Corps in Edinburgh after his tour as the Spokesman for Task Force Helmand on Operation HERRICK 15. We happily sat in the blowing dust of the HLS both catching up on news and then with me answering his questions about the Spokesman’s job. It was a reminder just how fast time flies as it seems like only yesterday that I was here doing my own recce. Life, like sand, slips between your fingers.
A few days later I met with Yakub, the Spokesman for the Provincial Chief of Police, to discuss a joint press conference that the Provincial Chief of Police, General Hakeem Angar, would be holding with Brigadier Ed Davis, the Commander of Task Force Helmand, at Police Headquarters (PHQ) in Lashkar Gah. The day itself started with the opening of a new gymnasium by the General and Brigadier Ed at PHQ. Both Mr Afghanistan and Mr Lashkar Gah, champion bodybuilders, were on hand to demonstrate all the equipment that had been brought together by the soldiers of 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles who are attached as police mentors in PHQ. Members of the Lashkar Gah media were on hand to record speeches and to note every bulging muscle. The press conference followed in a rose garden behind the gym. The media wanted to know whether Lashkar Gah would be ready to start the process of transitioning security from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces and about the capability of the police to take on the security of Lashkar Gah. The General and Brigadier handled all the questions – ISAF forces have hardly been involved in the security of Lashkar Gah for more than a year now and the 3,000th police patrol man has recently graduated from his 8-week training course at the Regional Training Centre (South West) on the edge of Lashkar Gah. Signs are for cautious optimism, noting that real challenges remain.
After talking to the media there was a volleyball match between the police and the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas won, but it was a closely-fought contest with some demon play on both sides. The Gurkhas then provided Gurkha messing – a curry supper for all the players and guests. I had dinner with Yakub, General Angar and the Gurkha Major, Major Yambahadur Rana, along with friends from the Provincial Reconstruction Team and the Lashkar Gah media. After dinner we walked back to our base across a quiet, starlit Lashkar Gah.
We had our monthly Combined Communications Conference, held this month in Camp Leatherneck in the desert west of Lashkar Gah, at the invitation of the Chief Public Affairs Officer for Regional Command (South West), Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Player, US Marine Corps. The conference brings together those responsible for communications from ISAF and our Afghan partners to discuss how we can work together and communicate better with the media. For the first time we had all the senior representatives together in one room – Lieutenant Colonel Player representing the senior ISAF HQ in Helmand, Yakub representing the Provincial Chief of Police, Colonel Rasool representing 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army and Dawood Armadi representing the Provincial Governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal.
The big event coming towards us is the start of the process of the transition of security from ISAF to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and their security forces. I asked Dawood what he was planning for communicating this process to the media and the people of Central Helmand as Lashkar Gah is one of the first districts nominated for transition by the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. Dawood outlined a comprehensive plan, which will be drawing on all elements of the government and their security forces to get the Governor’s messages across. The only ISAF involvement in the plan is for General John Toolan, the Commander of Regional Command (South West), to be called on to say how he will be supporting the transition process. This is exactly what transition is all about. Less to none of ISAF and more to all of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.