Reflections on Afghanistan – an Article
My old school magazine recently ran an edition focussing on the experiences of former pupils in Afghanistan. This article was my contribution. It describes how the experience of fighting in Afghanistan shaped my wider perception of who I was as a soldier and reflects on the impact it may have had on my decision to subsequently leave the Army.
My interest in joining the Army began at a young age, but it was during my time at Stonyhurst, under the mentorship of the wonderful Major John Cobb and the indomitable RSM Bob Sanderson, that the idea firmly took root. I left the College in 1989, studied Philosophy at Nottingham University and then joined the Army in 1994, commissioning into the Royal Gurkha Rifles.
The start of my military career coincided with the beginning of an unprecedented period of operational deployments around the world for the British armed forces. For decades, the Army had been organised to face the Soviet threat on the North German plains; and for over 20 years, the only place a soldier could gain operational experience, with the notable exception of the Falklands War, was Northern Ireland. After an initial few years spent mainly in the Far East, I increasingly found myself involved in these deployments: Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone twice, Bosnia, Iraq. Each was very different and equally rewarding, but all fell into the categories of ‘peace keeping’ or ‘peace enforcement’ – except for Iraq, where I spent 8 months working as a planner in the UK headquarters in Basra.
In late 2006, rumours began to circulate that my battalion was to be sent to southern Afghanistan the following summer. After 13 years of soldiering, I was finally faced with the potential of going to war. And I’ll be honest – like virtually every other soldier I have ever met, I was excited by the prospect and very eager to go. It became my focal point for many months, both professionally but also emotionally. I began preparing myself for what I expected would be a life-changing experience.
The more recent generation of young officers and soldiers who have chosen to join a British infantry regiment have done so with the expectation of seeing combat. Indeed, the protracted campaigns in Iraq and especially Afghanistan made it almost inevitable. Not so for my generation. For us, experiencing real fighting was an ‘if’, not a ‘when’. We trained for many years, but I think it is fair to say that most of us did not expect to see combat. Yet fighting is ultimately a soldier’s ‘raison d’être’ – it is fundamentally what defines us and our profession. Thus, on a deeper personal level, going to war was an affirmation of my identity as a soldier; a matter of professional fulfilment, but more importantly a matter of personal validation.
Everyone who has served in Afghanistan has had a very different experience. Accounts and reflections will vary widely. For me, the 7 months I spent there was a deeply enriching experience, on both a professional and personal level. We were lucky, having what I have sometimes referred to as ‘the perfect tour’: we saw action, but were spared the horrors of war; the types of operations we conducted were always changing and we traveled widely across Southern Afghanistan; and the casualties sustained by our battle-group were thankfully low.
I commanded a group that varied between 120-200 men and women, based on my company of Gurkhas but routinely with attached soldiers from countries – Canadians, Americans, Dutchmen, and Afghans – as well as specialists such as engineers, dog handlers and forward air controllers from other British units. Our role was unique. The large majority of British units serving in Helmand were assigned a specific sector within which they operated for the duration of their tour. This ‘modus operandi’ did not apply to us. Our role was to deploy across the whole southern sector of Afghanistan, depending on where the general commanding this sector wanted to concentrate effort. We flew deep into the mountains by helicopter and subsequently lived out of our packs for weeks. We roamed the fringes of the desert in large groups of vehicles. And we patrolled the ‘Green Zone’ – the irrigated and heavily cultivated land beside the Helmand River where most of the population lived. Often we went to places where no coalition troops previously been.
Our time in Afghanistan spanned the winter, beginning in September and ending in April. The intense fighting traditionally occurs in the summer months. We therefore had a relatively quiet time, with long periods when we saw no fighting. It may sound paradoxical, but the absence of combat does not necessarily translate to less mental and emotional pressure. I found the anticipation more challenging than actually being under fire. Responsibility rests heavily on a commander’s shoulders when he knows the lives of his soldiers depends largely on his planning and decision-making. I remember one of my toughest moments of the tour, waiting to conduct a night time helicopter assault with my company into a Taliban stronghold. We expected the helicopters to be met with heavy fire from the ground, and prepared contingency plans for a helicopter being shot down. It turned out not to be the case, but that didn’t make the waiting any easier. After perhaps two months I was able to recalibrate this anticipation: I no longer expected an encounter with the Taliban every time we went out on patrol and thus I was more able to appreciate the wider experience of what we were doing in Afghanistan.
War has been popularly defined largely by people who have not experienced it, through fiction as much as fact. It is not all about the fighting, as so often portrayed. War is a fundamentally human experience – and this is why I found it such an enriching experience. Facing adversity, and ultimately situations where your life may depend on those around you, generates very strong and intimate bonds with those people; the much used cliché, ‘a band of brothers’, is entirely apt. When danger is ever-present, all your senses are sharpened – and this extends into the relationships with your companions. Simple acts such as sharing a meal taking on a richer significance. You feel the human bond much more acutely. Furthermore, I had professionally grown up with some of the men I commanded. I knew them well and considered them friends. For example my sergeant major and confidante, Suresh Thapa, had been a young rifleman in my platoon when I had first joined the battalion in 1995 as a second lieutenant. I do not have children, but I suspect the paternal bond between a father and a son is akin to that which I felt for my soldiers.
Whenever I reflect on my time in Afghanistan, my fondest memories are those which reflect that special bond with my soldiers. One afternoon, when patrolling by foot in the mountains during a very cold period, a heavy snow storm enveloped us. As darkness fell, we packed ourselves into some small derelict huts – the only shelter we could find. After orders for the following day had been received and briefings complete, we settled in sharing tea and banter before bedding down literally shoulder to shoulder for the night. Under such situations, personal boundaries come down. Not since I was a child have I shared such intimate spaces as this. We felt like a big family.
Perhaps my most poignant memory is that of the last night of our final operation. That day we had been patrolling on the desert fringe in about 20 vehicles and we were ‘leaguered up’ for the night, the vehicles parked in a protective square with sentries posted on each corner. Under a silent, star-lit sky, as all but the sentries slept around me, I stood in the middle of the leaguer and reflected on what a privilege it had been to lead these unique and special men and to have their trust. In that quiet and personal moment, that intimate bond that I talk of was so tangible. I am not ashamed to say I shed a quiet tear.
The local Afghans were also very much part of the human experience. In a counter-insurgency, which the war in Afghanistan is, the local population is your primary focus, not the enemy. At the time I was there, I cared not for the political justifications and objectives for deploying troops to Afghanistan. My concerns each morning were my soldiers and the local Afghans I would encounter that day. Our endeavour was to make the lives of those Afghans better in some small way. Sometimes that wasn’t possible, and on occasions our best intentions may have inadvertently made things worse, perhaps encouraging the Taliban to reassert themselves after we left. But there were times when you could feel that human connection, see it in someone’s eyes, and know we had made a difference no matter how small – even if that was simply showing the villagers that someone else cared about them.
Beyond the human dimension, there was so much else that added to the richness of the experience. It may shock some to hear it, but war is often exhilarating. Being shot at makes you feel very, very alive. Successfully pulling off a plan against a wily and tenacious enemy (and some of the Taliban were), in difficult and unfamiliar terrain, is very satisfying. Flying in helicopters in the dead of night, driving vehicles through remote mountains in deep snow, or undertaking long night marches with a hundred heavily armed Gurkhas is part of the reason we want to be soldiers. And all this against the backdrop of stunning landscapes. We were lucky to be there in the early part of the UK’s involvement in Southern Afghanistan. Things were still new, we didn’t have the bespoke equipment or the formalised operating procedures that came later, and frankly we didn’t have a good understanding of certain aspects of the operation at that stage. We had to learn and make things up as we went along, use our initiative and intuition – it was an adventure.
So was my time in Afghanistan the life-changing experience I expected it to be? Yes, I think so, but not in the way I and others had perhaps expected. As far as I could tell, I did not return a noticeably changed person. However, I did decide to leave the Army three years later, despite being selected to return to command my battalion – a decision that surprised everyone, including me. My time in Afghanistan was unquestionably the centre piece of my career in the Army, and looking back now I realise that it was also the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The picture was now complete. There was nothing more I needed to do as a soldier; I had achieved that personal validation. There were other reasons I decided to leave the Army, but I suspect that had I not gone to fight in Afghanistan I may not have felt as free to leave; still not fully satiated, I may have chosen to serve on in hope of that elusive war. Leaving the Army was a very challenging personal transition, but I am at peace with myself knowing I did all that could be asked of a soldier. I can now move on to something new.