Hotting up in Kandahar

Captain Jeremy Hahn, an armoured vehicle   commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about pre-election violence in Kandahar and the comfort of missives from home.

With all the grim predictability that the White Star Line employees must have felt regarding the jewel in their nautical crown about one hundred years ago, as that ever-so-tedious iceberg hoved into view, knowing the ship didn’t quite have the turning circle of a polo pony, it is my duty to report that the situation has got worse in Kandahar.

Having callously crowed that the amount of violence was reducing and that the true enemy of soldiers deployed on operations is  boredom, it was perhaps inevitable that the last couple of weeks have been anything but.

We just had our busiest stretch of the tour and this is only going to increase as the orchestra in Kandahar plays out. The fact that we have been well utilised is good. It helps the time go more quickly, and I think there is not a young man (or woman) deployed here who does not keenly desire to be involved and ‘doing their bit’.

The sad fact is that the last few days have been brutal in the province. There has been another spate of members of the Afghan National Police being executed off duty, and the amount of Improvised Explosive Device incidents has risen. I am not entirely sure what the catalyst for this is, although one credible school of thought is that with the elections just a fortnight away this may be a desperate attempt to destabilise the region, and the country, in order to drive a wedge between the population and the agencies of governance. I do so hope the population are not negatively swayed.

One of the most unpleasant actions of last weekend was a multiple murder. A female politician, who is running for re-election, had a large number of her office and support staff murdered by insurgents. She is still running for office, and I admire her.  That there are people who can be so cruel and myopic, based on gender discrimination, is choking. This comes after another female politician was murdered in April in Baghlan. It is a stark reminder of the differences between our two countries, and the difficulties some people are having to endure in order to make a difference.

Genuine surprises are few and far between out here. The policeman with a speed camera hiding on the Woodstock Road last year and the time I was told I was cast as Titania (Queen of the fairies) in the school production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when I was 14 (my voice hadn’t broken, so I started on the Marlboro Reds immediately and was soon reading the much more macho role of Bottom), being two examples. I was taken aback last week when it was brought to my attention that this bilge that I pass-off as a column and blog, due to the InterWeb, has been read by many thousands, and the responses were touching.  A big thank you to all of you who sent me birthday wishes and kind thoughts, and to those that made suggestions for the SOUPs  (Single Officer Unnecessary Purchases) and anyone who has taken the time to comment. At the risk of gushing like an under-water BP oil well, it means a great deal that people in the UK take such a positive interest in this soldier’s welfare. Thank you again.

As the temperature slowly starts to drop, and we approach the season ‘o’ mists and mellow fruitfulness’ the wildlife concern turns in the direction of the mosquito. Whilst these airborne disease-bearers of the insect world must exist for some higher purpose, I am entirely ignorant of what that may be. The worry is that if they are going to appear on the same size scale as the local ant community, it will be akin to being bitten by an albatross with teeth. I feel that a phalanx of windmills may be a more appropriate defence than netting.

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.