Thursday, 20 February 2014

French Landscapes

View from my Brother in Law's place across the fields in France.   A great place to stay for a few days.  More photographs here.

Monday, 10 February 2014


08 March 2013:  I visited Herat as a part of our bid for airport security in Afghanistan.  The City is very different to those in the South and East of Afghanistan.

Herat is some 100km from the Iranian border and has a strong Persian influence.  Ok, it is still Afghanistan, and so a fundamentalist Islamic town, but hey, they have a Ferris Wheel and a sense of fun.

The Minarets shown here are unstable and have been the subject of much engineering work to ensure they do not topple.  More information on the history of this district of Herat, and these minarets, is available from the Lonely Planet website here.

Our security on this trip was provided by the regional head of border police, a guy we had looked after and vice versa when he ran security at the Kabul International Airport.  (We gave him $1,000 for cricket kit so that his Afghan National Policemen (ANP) could play in a local league.  We never did see a game - maybe I was naive?)  A little good will goes a long way and he came to pick us up from the airport in Herat.

The airport road is frequently bombed, and our soft skinned unarmoured ANP Toyota's would have provided little protection.  On the other hand, the two guys in the back with the Dushka Heavy Machine Gun, who were wearing motorcycle helmets to protect against the dust and the cold, gave us a certain 'Mad Max' look and were certainly a strong deterrent to any ground attack.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

When you go home...

This is from the top of the memorial to the fallen taken in Nad-e-Ali, in 2012, during a visit to G4S staff working there in support of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team.  It was shot hand held, at night.  I did think of cleaning the memorial before taking the photograph, but it seemed more poignant not to.  When we are done there I wonder if this will remain, or be brought back to the UK, much as some of the memorials in Iraq have been.

The military have been working hand in glove with the civilian administrators in Helmand since 2007.  The mission has civil primacy, and the Head of Mission, always a senior career British diplomat, was usually the equivalent of a 2 star general, and so outranked the British brigadier (a 1 star post) running the military aspect of the civil / military mission as Commander Task Force Helmand.

There are a lot of men on this plate.  Some from my own Regiment and others that I have known.  We paid a brutal price for clearing the Taliban from this area.  The Welsh Guards had a particularly vicious tour here in 2009, losing their Commanding Officer, a Company Commander, a Platoon Commander, and dozens of other men.  I knew these first two.  In fact I lived opposite the Company Commander, and we shared lunch shortly before he was killed.  I came away from lunch thinking that he had seen his future and it was bleak.  I also knew Dan Shepherd, from the JF EOD Group, who had spent some time with us in Musa Qala helping to clear improvised explosive devices from the town and neighboring countryside.  He was a good man.  They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.

Swayambutha Stupa - The Monkey Temple

In late 2012 I visited Kathmandu to see the homeland from which almost half our staff in Afghanistan are recruited, and to meet the small team there who recruit and select former Nepalese and Indian Army soldiers for service with us in Afghanistan.

Having visited Kathmandu I can understand why our Nepalese and Indian staff feel relatively at home in Kabul.  Both are busy cities, with worn infrastructure, although of course the security situation is very different in each.

The Nepalese army does have some operational experience, having spent ten years fighting a Maoist insurgency / civil war which began in 1996 and concluded in November 2006.  It is estimated that 15,000 people died in the conflict, with 100,000 to 150,000 becoming internally displaced persons.

All those that I met in Nepal were most welcoming.  They seem to be the most cheerful nation, and as is often the case those with the least seem to be the most content.  If I wanted to elect a religion based solely on the happiness of it's devotees I think Buddhism would be hard to beat.  This photograph was taken during a sight seeing trip to the Swayambutha Stupa - the Monkey Temple - in Kathmandu.  This photograph is cropped out of a much larger setting.  It was taken hand held at waist height as a candid shot.  More information on the temple is available at Lonly Planet here.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

I visited the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi late in 2013 with friends from Sweden.  The Mosque was built by the late Sheik Zayed and the first service to be held there was his funeral.  He is now interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds.  The best time to visit is late afternoon, just before sunset, when the light is striking and just right for photographs.

I was not set up for architectural photographs - no tripod or timer, and in any event I was sight seeing with friends.  I did manage to snap a couple of worth while images along the way though, including this Indian family trying to make a baby smile for a group photograph.

Ladies are allowed in the mosque, but must wear an Abaya to cover hair and the form of the body.  My two friends are modeling the Abaya below....  These can be borrowed at the mosque.  More information on the Mosque may be found here:   SZGMAD

The Blue Mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, is located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif. It is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Muhammad.

It is very pretty and very blue.  We traveled to Mazar-i-Sharif to recce the airport for a security contract.  The Afghan Ministry of Transport were tendering a security contract for the regional hub airports of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar.   I joined the trips to Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif simply to see something more of Afghanistan than Kabul and Helmand.

Both were good trips.  Mazar was the first (and at the time of writing last) place that I have seen a Leper, sitting outside the mosque in the street, missing fingers, nose, lips.  Quite grotesque.  Leprosy is alive in the mountains and towns of Northern Afghanistan, a medieval disease in a country that is still medieval in parts.

Afghans come to feed the doves in the grounds of the Blue Mosque.  Catching wild birds is something of a national pass time and it is interesting to see how tenderly they treat them.

Training Bodyguards

We ran a series of short training courses for the bodyguards of influential Afghans - or at least those who were important to us.

These included the team who looked after the Afghan Minister of Finance and, more locally, the Police District 10 Police Chief.

Both were important to us in different ways, and both were equally delighted that we ran some training, which included minor tactics, weapon handling and skill at arms, shooting, first aid, and fitness training.  Bodyguards in Afghanistan tend to be drawn from the tribe, clan, village of family of the principal.  They are chosen for their loyalty, and not necessarily their professional skills.

We aimed to provide, so far as is possible in a short course, a small amount of training which may just possibly help to keep the principle alive in future.  We provided this training gratis, in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood, rather than for any immediate financial gain or political capital building.

These, friendship, brotherhood, are traits that the Afghans admire and respect.  Respect and admiration go a long way in a country where the rule of law is tenuous at best, and where personal relationships matter more than any centrally driven decree or direction.

The Bodyguards enjoyed the training, and we enjoyed delivering it.

Range Work

Range work played a large part in our training in Afghanistan, with each team attending ranges on a regular basis.  Our Afghan Close Protection Team also had the opportunity to shoot, alongside their British and Commonwealth partners.

Shooting is definitely a skill which can be honed through practice.  The more you shoot, quite simply the better you become.  Well, with good coaching too.   You could liken the role of a Close Protection Operator to an Olympic Sprinter.  4 years in the preparation, then the event, when it comes, lasts only 10 seconds... but you have to put in the 4 years of work up to make it count.    You could stretch that analogy too far.  At least the Olympic Sprinter knows when his event is.  Our team lived their live on the starting blocks, and there are no Silver Medals in a gunfight.

Fortunately, throughout my time here, none of our CPO's were put to this test.  We did have incidents, and very nasty ones too, and the response of our Afghan and Gurkha Guard Force was a testament to the selection and training of our staff;  British Council Attack

Female Staff and the Absurd

Our female staff were the longest serving employee group on the books.  I remain uncertain if this is a reflection of their loyalty, or of the difficulty for a woman of obtaining employment in Kabul.  I am guessing the latter.

We quietly opened a creche for the children of our staff, as mandated under Afghan Employment Law.  This was an act one of our female Close Protection Operators describes as 'absurd'.  She was right, but I am a lover of absurdity, and doing the right thing, and this was a great combination of the two.  Unfortunately the uptake was poor, and after 3 months we had to close the creche down.  At least we had tried.


This man was our fixer in one of the outstations.  Good humored, he could come and go as he pleased in the local town, and so performed a valuable service obtaining the small necessities of life that could not be passed down through the civil or military supply chain.

He was the enabler of weekly BBQ's, at which our staff hosted the military in this particular base, giving them the opportunity to break away from military operations for a few hours, and our guys the opportunity to develop the relationships necessary to enable their work.

The relationship between our staff and the military at this base became so strong that our guys were invited to the USMC welcome home ball in the U.S. an opportunity they took up, attending with their wives.

We had ordinary people doing remarkable things, and they were a pleasure to work with.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Afghan Trader

This chap used to come to our base in Kabul with other traders every Friday, where they set up stalls outside our dining room to sell jewellery, art work, carpets and clothing.

I bought a silver and Lapis Lazuli necklace and ring.  'How much' I asked.  '$60' he said.  So I gave him $60 and he gave me the look.

He then went around his stall filling my bag with various trinkets to make up the value to $60.  Clearly I had not played his game, and he wanted to make it right.