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.

Longing for a good Bordeaux

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. Here he writes about missing French wine and Afghan hairdressers.

A photo of me

A photo of me

Sometimes the most innocuous of comments, in the most curious of environments, delivered by the most incongruous people, trigger pangs of longing and bouts of home-sickness or frustration. And so it was one balmy evening this week when I found myself in downtown Kandahar talking to a bearded Scotsman, who had been working in private security here for the last eighteen months.  I was picking his brains for some local ‘knowledge’ and a download of insurgent activity. He was regaling me, in front of a map, with the various bombings, kidnaps, murders, fire-fights etcetera, when he used the phrase ‘and there was claret everywhere’, and suddenly I lost concentration and drifted into a Bordeaux-craving reverie. Maybe for five minutes afterwards my thoughts turned to the produce of those clever little men of the Gironde and my excellent and kindly vintner, Simon Wrightson who gifted me a delicious Chateaux Beaulieu for a last drink before I departed a month ago. What I wanted at that moment, more than any other earthly pleasure, was to be sat in an English garden, with the Darling-Betrothed enjoying a bottle, or two, without a care in the world. Sadly the apparition quickly passed and it was back to the task in hand. Writing this has in no way slaked that thirst.

The view from my gun turret

The view from my gun turret

When moving around Kandahar, either in our armoured vehicles or on foot, it is hard to travel more than a street without passing flowering oleanders, either long swathes or solitary plants. The majority are of the cerise variety which lines the byways of Tuscany and Umbria. It is a striking concurrence of the natural beauty of these handsome flowers and the urban degradation and bullet holes, that allows you to glimpse briefly into a world that might have been, had the region endured prosperity rather than war, hosted with a fierce and depressing frequency.

Getting a close-up view of the streets of Kandahar

Getting a close-up view of the streets of Kandahar

There has been much media coverage in recent years over an alleged systemic failure of our military/government/whoever to provide the Army with the ‘kit and equipment’ it requires in order to execute its missions effectively, and with minimum loss of life. There have been instances where coroners have returned verdicts of unlawful death and where people much more knowledgeable than I have criticised the equipping of soldiers.

I have nothing but good things to say about the equipment at our disposal in Afghanistan. It is all good quality, there has been no shortage of it, and as an end user it fulfils my needs and criteria for the job I am performing. The armoured vehicles that are my trusty steeds are excellent, offering protection, urban mobility, and a variety of firepower that is apposite to the situation and terrain. We have new helmets, ballistic eye protection, and personal body armour. The night vision and thermal imaging systems are state of the art. We have other equipment which I do not understand as it has been designed by people in lab-coats, with all manner of science related post-nominals, who eat plenty of fish. But this stuff helps to stop bombs going off around you, and is the envy of the other members of the coalition force here in Afghanistan.

I suppose the truth is, several years ago when I first deployed to Iraq I purchased bits of kit that I needed to supplement what I was to be issued. Now however, I have bought and brought nothing to aid me in my deployment. Further to that, since I have been here, I cannot think of anything I could have self-purchased that would have benefited me on the ground.

One of the most trivial hurdles to jump when on operations is that posed by the problem of getting a haircut. A quick fix solution would be to shave the lot off, but I am disinclined to burn the old onion anymore than is entirely necessary. Standards, both those of the Army and those of a gentleman dictate that growing the mop is also a non-starter.  So I plucked-up the courage to go to a dingy place at the airfield run by dour middle-aged Russians. My heart was in my mouth when I saw the only English words on the price list were ‘flat top $5.25’. Anyone who has seen any war-movie featuring the US marines will understand my horror. Keen not to be sporting a ‘jarhead’, I mentioned this, but the hairdresser spoke no English and so the upshot was I had no idea what was about to happen. My panic, much like my writing, was a lot of fuss about nothing, for, like every time I have had my haircut for the last thirty two years, the result has been astonishingly underwhelming. And this was no exception.

“Never was anything great achieved without danger”

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. He writes about his impressions of Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

If you think donkeys had it tough in Milne’s post-apocalyptic, anthropomorphical-tragedy masterpiece, Winnie The Pooh, when poor old Eeyore had lost his tail, that is nothing compared to the lot of some of Afghanistan’s local mules…

This week in Kandahar there have been a few IEDs (homemade bombs) that have been detonated, one of which was donkey-borne. It is a sad and mortifying truth that insurgents use all manner of vehicles for delivering these horrifying blasts. It is indicative of how they regard life, human or other, in such a callous, contemptible and expendable manner.

Breathing has been causing me some concerns this week. I am not generally regarded as one of the great respiratory practitioners of our time, and the cloying cocktail of heat, sand, dust and air-(un)conditioning systems has lead to a sore nose, and no doubt an unhelpful amount of snoring.  Another advantageous consequence of exposure to the elements is that my nose is now peeling like a well-motivated troop of campanologists, setting about their task with vim and vigour.

In that rip-roaring, unputdownable, renaissance-based, page-turner ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli pens: ‘Never was anything great achieved without danger’.  Whilst not the wittiest bon mot ever recorded for posterity on parchment, it is entirely apt and worth remembering in my current circumstances. It is a quotation that is indicative of the will to succeed that I have witnessed from the Afghanistan National Security Forces, their people and indeed the International Security Assistance Force, of which we British are a part. The fact that those involved and committed to improving the ‘security’ situation in this country are all-too-often aware of the dangerous aspects of completing this job, yet still find it within themselves to give everything, can only be a positive, and one that should ultimately provide success.

Kandahar City down the barrel of a gun

Kandahar City down the barrel of a gun

There seemed to me an opinion, largely touted by metro-leftie imbeciles, that the west is conducting a didactic expeditionary subterfuge in order to force some sort of neo-democratic grandeur on those who really don’t want it; a sort of quixotic colonialism. My experience so far would indicate that there is nothing in this fanciful notion. Speaking to people, it is clear that the rationale is much simpler, and that safety, which will enable the indigenous government to bring forward their country, is the motivating factor. Cynics will probably point out that there is no such thing as a truly altruistic act, and they are right, but I cannot foresee anyone arguing that a safer world is not a desirable and preferable prospect.

Whilst having a cigarette this morning, I was joined by a small white scorpion, travelling up my trouser leg. Suddenly smoking indoors seems a much healthier option.

Prepare for trumpet blowing. There isn’t a great deal I don’t know about food. There is a little, yes, but not a great deal. Both my nickname (Gastro) and my ever-evolving waistline bear this proclamation out. I am relatively certain that Luxembourg is not regarded as a gastronomic Mecca; in fact I am not sure if a Luxembourg-er restaurant exists outside of that tiny country. One seldom hears: ‘Shall we eat out tonight darling? We could try that Indian that has just opened off Goodge Street?’

‘No. I’m not in that sort of mood. There is a lovely Thai place just on Cambridge circus?’

‘I fancy somewhere we can have a decent drink. What about the Tapas Bodega just off Sloane Square?’

‘I know. Why don’t we go out for a Luxembourg?’

Anyway, the reason for the rather long preamble is that the cookhouse nearest our HQ is called the Luxembourg Dining Facility, or D-Fac in the vernacular. I am not really sure of the relevance. It peddles salads, burgers, sandwiches hot meals and curries. (The British Army is never too far from that generic dish). I am not sure which of these is indigenous to that country.

At Kandahar Air Field there is also an East/West D-Fac, which as you may expect is similar to the Luxembourg offerings but with more stir-fry and noodles. There is the American D-Fac which I am not allowed in as dictated by my nationality. I could imagine a world where there are enough hot-dogs to build a handrail to the moon, more Mexican than you could squash into your sombrero and all manner of healthy and not-so-healthy alternatives.

Our food is perfectly passable, and I certainly have no cause for complaint. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe I had booked into the Ritz for the next seven months. It provides exactly what it should for the diverse cross-section that requires feeding. However, if anyone is worried about whether or not I will be able to fit into my summer trousers, there is honestly no cause for alarm.

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.

Heat and dust: First impressions of Afghanistan

Captain Jeremy Hann, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar for Operation HERRICK 12. He writes about his first glimpses of Afghanistan.

A photo of me

A photo of me

County Durham, Oxfordshire, the Gulf Region, Helmand and finally Kandahar constituted my rather circuitous route to what is to be my home for the best part of the next seven months. (I know, I know, carbon footprint and all that! But I simply had far too much luggage to cycle with.) And so, having feigned sleep in order to avoid the airline meals, I arrived in Afghanistan as hungry as an Ox, but far too excited to be able to eat, and tired, but my head too full to sleep.

The first few days have passed in a whirlwind of disorientation; new faces, names (most of which instantly were forgotten) and heat. The pre-tour training in North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Wales and Wiltshire, whilst very good in most respects, has not attuned my sweat-glands to the continuous hard graft they are going to have to put in over the upcoming weeks. The mercury is bouncing around in the mid-thirties and whilst a touch too warm for some tastes, it is at least bearable and should help me acclimatise before the summer sun sets in and I have to carry out my work in the ‘high forties’.

A view across the city of Kandahar

A view across the city of Kandahar

Before entering a country for the first time one’s pre-conceptions are constructed from a disparate cocktail of the opinions and stories of others, any media coverage and one’s own experience in similar climes. And so for me (in my head at least) I have been using my experiences of Iraq as a benchmark for misconceptions and erroneous judgements. There are some similarities. It is hot, there is a lot of sand knocking around, and the country is littered with all manner of unexploded ordnance. Whereas Iraq had itself and the Iranians to thank for the proliferation of legacy explosives, Afghanistan can doff its cap to Russia for its sub-surface treasure-trove. Some eagle-eyed historian will no-doubt be able to credit other factors to the above statement. I, however, am in no way a historian.

The differences I have noticed so far have been both subtle and geographically obvious. I have a pleasant mountain view of the north of the province and some flora, thanks to the river Tarnak. Irrigation here would appear to be much more difficult as the volume of water does not compare favourably to that of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Iraq had huge wealth poorly distributed, and my guess at first sight of Afghanistan is that it has huge poverty well distributed.

Over the coming months I hope to be able to elaborate on the culture, society and the nuances of serving here. For starters though one of the first happenstances to grab my attention is the use of nail varnish by some of the younger men. This does not occur in the ‘action-transvestite’ Eddie Izzard sense, or indeed the Soho drag queen tableaux, but is merely an adornment of the hands, possibly to impress others or possibly as a part of taking pride in their own appearance. The male ‘friendships’ are much more public than in other Arab Nations I have visited. There is a touch of the courtesan here.

Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second city and is a bustling, if small by European standards, low rise connurbation, almost all of which nestles at two storeys or lower. It has a similar feel to the outskirts of somewhere like Gwalior or any other town in Muhdra–Pradesh. The roads are flanked by fruit-sellers (a lot of which would not make it onto the shelves of our national supermarkets – the bananas being a touch too umber for the English palette), bicycle and tyre vendors, road-side food stops and gaily coloured general stores. One competes for space on the tarmac with a veritable assortment of ‘jingly trucks’, livestock, tuk-tuks, battered cars and that perennial favourite, the Toyota Hi-Lux. Anyone who has driven around L’Etoile in Paris, or attempted to navigate their automobile through Athens on a busy market day will have a good grasp of the level of road etiquette, and the level of application of a clearly defined highway code, assuming such a thing exists at all.

Many of the locals smile and wave as we pass in our armoured vehicles, but it would be an untruth to suggest that all do. This dichotomy of reaction from the population is perhaps no different to the one I garner when travelling around Yorkshire, and is probably three-quarters more genial than the general public in London. I suppose the key is how superficial this amicability is?

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Out in my vehicle on patrol

Animal life will be a running theme over the next few months, and so I’ll kick off with a couple of ignorant generalisations. The livestock I have encountered are about half as big  as those on England’s lush pastures. That is to say the cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses look roughly the same shape as they do in the green and pleasant land, but it just looks like they are standing further away. Most could fit comfortably into the size ‘S’ bracket and the goats would have no problem squeezing into kid’s clothing.

To address this balance, the Creator has compensated by making the average insect unfeasibly large. The ants are gargantuan, and had Queen Cleopatra known of their existence, she could have enlisted the help of a good half-dozen or so to carry her and her throne to Rome for her rendez-vous with old Julius, and given the rest of Egypt a well-earned day off. You would struggle to squeeze more than three of the native bumble-bees into an Airbus without a liberal helping of goose fat, and the moths have a wingspan comparable to that of Brighton’s seagulls.  If any enthusiastic naturalist has the misfortune to read this, an explanation for this phenomenon would be greatly appreciated.