A new career in journalism

Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman MBE REME is currently serving as the Task Force Helmand Spokesman and SO1 Media Operations with 16 Air Assault Brigade in Lashkar Gah on Operation HERRICK 13. In his latest blog he looks back on going out to report personally on an operation.

We have had an extremely busy week since I last reported – unfortunately it has also been a sad one: we lost one of our Royal Engineer Search Team members, Corporal David Barnsdale, and a Danish soldier working with Task Force Helmand, Private Mikkel Jørgensen.

With much of the focus of the Brigade on Operation OMID CHAR in Nahr-e Saraj, I had no resources left to cover another operation (Operation ZMARAY SARAK 5) with the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland), so I took one of our cameras, donned my gear and  embarked on a new career in journalism.

At 5 o’ clock in the morning I joined a 2 SCOTS convoy, in the back of a Ridgback protected mobility vehicle, heading out to a rendezvous – or RV – with the Afghan National Security Forces.  As dawn broke we approached the RV and were greeted by the sight of hundreds of Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police and National Directorate of Security troops in their 4×4 wagons and Humvees waiting for us to join them.

Me with Colonel Kamalluddin

Me with Colonel Kamalluddin

The aim of the operation was to clear through a large area to the east of Lashkar Gah that was suffering from Taliban oppression and a lack of engagement from the Government. The operation had been put together by Colonel Kamalludin, the District Chief of Police for Lashkar Gah, and was being supported by his British Army mentor, Lieutenant Colonel Dougie Graham, the Commanding Officer of 2 SCOTS Battle Group.

Within minutes of the operation beginning we found our first Improvised Explosive Device (IED) not far from where we stood in the RV. Luckily for us a local national had seen the Taliban placing it and he came over to point out where it was before we set it off – a promising start if all the locals were going to be this cooperative. Colonel Kamalludin sent his men off in all directions to the compounds surrounding our Line of Departure and we sat with him in the centre on an old blanket in true Afghan fashion discussing the plan, coordinating the troops and drinking tea.  After half an hour of discussion it was time to move on. Given the potential for insurgent activity we had intended to mount our vehicles for the 10km or so route to the limit of exploitation for the operation, but Colonel Kamalludin had other ideas. “We must walk,” he said, “firstly because it is healthy and secondly to show that we are not afraid.”

ANSF troops preparing for Operation ZMARAY SARAK 5

ANSF troops preparing for Operation ZMARAY SARAK 5

Our luck continued for the rest of the day and on nearing the end of our planned route, the locals came to our assistance again, warning us that the area ahead of us was “seeded” with a large number of IEDs and insurgents waiting in ambush – this was not to be their day. By the end of the operation, Colonel Kamalludin’s troops were able to capture a member of the Taliban, including one of their prestigious white flags, three drug runners with 250kg of heroin and some weaponry, and we were attacked only once.

From my perspective, this operation was very much a glimpse of the future. Afghan conceived, planned and led with cross-government support from the Afghans and minimal support from our troops, an area that was formally under the control of the Taliban is now firmly in the sights of the local Government. There is much more to do here, and more operations of this type will be necessary to ensure that the population is protected from the insurgency; there is also much scope for infrastructure development, but the mere fact that the locals were willing to talk with the Afghan Security Forces and ISAF troops, helping us to locate insurgents and their IEDs provides significant hope.

Chocolate and pens: meeting the locals

Major Mark Suddaby, a Company Commander with 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS), writes about meeting the Afghan people.

My forward operating base is home to not only the 1st Kandak, but also 1st Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, known as 1 LANCS.  They are the ISAF Combined Force for Nad-e’ Ali, who work in partnership with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) to provide security for the farming communities of this district.  All I have to do, with my four Advisor teams collocated with Afghan Tolays, or Companies, is provide the Kandak with some British Army expertise and advice.

The Afghan Warriors (soldiers) are brave and willing, but it is a new revamped army and you can’t grow an army overnight.  It’s taken the British Army (and I serve in its oldest line infantry regiment) nearly four hundred years to develop and we are still learning!  The officers try to keep up with us but lack the training and experience of a Western military machine.  So, good soldiers but lacking in key skills. This is a country ravaged by over thirty years of near continuous conflict.  It is poor and the people resigned to being the ball in a tennis match of political and religious rivalry.  It does not help that Afghanistan sits in such a strategically vital location where East meets West, with almost no natural resources, but that’s history and I’m drifting off the point.

It was clear that I needed to improve the living conditions of the Warriors and help them get equipment through their own logistics chain.  So, me and my small team of utterly determined men (and a woman – our medic) are now setting about the Kandak like a whirling dervish, peeking into every process and under each procedure to get the Afghans what they need to fight and defeat the insurgents, or enemies, as the Afghans call them (there is no word for insurgent in Dari).

One of the Jackals we use on patrol

One of the Jackals we use on patrol

I get out with my six man company headquarters, mounted in two Jackal patrol vehicles, pretty much every other day, to visit my teams or attend shuras, or meetings, with the local population.  The Jackals ride high but are open which I like as you can interact with the locals.  We drive slowly, so as not to kick up too much dust into the faces of the locals on bikes, and I realise that this little piece of Afghanistan is not so different from the wheat fields of home.  Clearly the people are dressed a little differently and there is very little traffic, but squint and I could just be back home.

But you know what, it’s the children.  It always is; as it was in Bosnia and Iraq.  They have nothing.  The older girls are “mums” to the younger kids.  They have nothing; no toys, no mobiles, no Game Boys.  But whenever we come along they rush out of the fields or compounds, dropping water cans or rakes, waving and jumping around as if we are something special.  It’s no surprise that one of the only English words they know is ‘chocolate’.  But the other, used far more often is ‘pen’.  They need them for school and the schools, along with ISAF and the Afghan Army, have returned.  For these children school is a blessing; a path to a life free from oppression and poverty, and pens, books and bags are prizes to be cherished.  But it is the smiles of delight on their innocent faces when the exotic and other-worldly men in their big noisy, funny-looking truck-things appear that is priceless.  They are the future and that future hangs on a pen.  Or two.  This is Advizer 10A off to steal some pens from the Battalion Headquarters stationery cupboard.

Heading to Afghanistan: A shock to the system

Major Mark Suddaby, a Company Commander with 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) writes about leaving home for Afghanistan.

Me and my crew after arriving in Afghanistan. I am second from the right.

Me and my crew after arriving in Afghanistan. I am second from the right.

I left Edinburgh on a bitterly cold night.  It had been a long winter and for the men and women of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, known as 1 SCOTS, it had been one spent on exercise in some of the worst conditions I had encountered in my many years in the Army.  And, all in preparation for a summer tour of Afghanistan!

I’ll admit that I was pretty apprehensive as I packed the last of my kit and drove the short distance from my house to the barracks that night.  I hardly spoke a word.  What would Afghanistan be for me?  Would it make me, or break me?  Would I even come back?  Writing ‘those’ letters was hard too; but delivering them and explaining the contents far harder.  But, as always when you live and work with such a close knit bunch of motivated and professional people, the minute I walked into the high-ceilinged, amber glow of the battalion gym, and saw the banter, the bravado and the camaraderie of my Jocks, I knew that it would be fine.  With them around me the war in Afghanistan seemed a little further away; a little less dangerous.  Of course, the feeling evaporated pretty sharpish when, eighteen hours later, I was climbing out of the back of a C-17 Globemaster into the dusty, dry night of Camp Bastion.

Before you can deploy forward of Camp Bastion you have to complete eight days of in-theatre training.  These were long hot days after the winter that went before.  But it was quickly done and again I found myself, along with the advance party from my company, flying low over the fertile fields and the uniform beige squares of compounds that make up Nad-e’ Ali’s artificially irrigated ‘green zone’.  More dust, more lugging of kit, more hot sunshine and I had arrived, sweating and tired at my home for the next six months.

My job?  To command an Adviser team charged with developing the 1st Kandak, or Battalion, of the Afghan National Army, who have been fighting hard in Helmand Province for the last four years.  To turn them into a modern Army Unit, equipped and capable of bringing real and lasting security to Afghanistan long after the international community has completed its mission and gone.

No pressure then.

This is Advizer 10A off to find some respite from the heat.