Tag Archives: Afghanistan

How did the Taliban get close enough to Camp Bastion to mount an attack on Prince Harry?

An investigation is now underway to establish how almost twenty insurgents mounted an attack on the UK’s biggest military base in Helmand Province. Camp Bastion which has been the home to thousands of British Troops since 2006, had up until now been as its name suggests a bastion or stronghold for coalition troops.

When it was first occupied it was a small tented settlement surrounded by miles and miles of the Afghan Dasht-e (desert). This meant it was isolated and separated from the Afghan people and most importantly the insurgents, but over the years its size has grown and grown. Driving south from Highway One (Afghanistan’s one and only main road) visitors are now greeted by a vast sprawling city which is home to thousands of multinational troops (not to mention a Pizza Hut, a KFC and dozens of coffee shops). Where there was just one camp, there is are now Camp Bastion zero, one, two and three as well as Camp Leatherneck (U.S) and Camp Shorabak (ANA).

But how could a group of insurgents get close enough to mount an attack on this huge military garrison in the sand? Whilst its size makes it a daunting target it also makes it harder to defend, and where it was once surrounded by nothing but sand and rock, its wire fences and guard towers have now migrated out further towards the Afghan people. The base has also attracted groups of Afghans to move and live on its boundaries, to benefit from the security and the trade of living under the watch of its menacing guard towers. But this means that it is now normal to see people moving around its perimeter, allowing any potential attacker to get closer to the base by using the newly built settlements as cover.

This however isn’t the first time that there has been a security breach at Camp Bastion this year. In March a locally employed civilian (LEC) protested over the burning of copies of the Koran at Bagram Airbase. He drove around the camp allegedly attempting to run over members of the Armed Forces before attempting to drive his car onto the runway. It was there he was stopped, however not before he could set himself on fire.

The report below shows how the size of Camp Bastion has meant that its security is more challenging now than it has ever been, it was filmed in March 2012 on the same day as the security breach mentioned above
whilst I was working for British Forces News.

The evolution of armoured vehicles in Afghanistan

Armoured vehicles can be the difference between life or death for service personnel on the roads in Afghanistan. Acting Corporal Martin Wotjak died in Afghanistan in 2009 after the Vector he was travelling in hit an IED.  An inquest into his death was critical of the vehicle and it has been claimed that if he had been in a more heavily protected vehicle he may have survived the blast. Since then, vehicles used by our troops have developed. I looked at what has changed in Helmand since 2009 and spoke to one soldier who had recently tested his vehicle to the very limit.

US Marines expand the security bubble around Musa Qala

The US Marine Corps in Afghanistan is pushing out the security bubble around Musa Qala, as it prepares to hand over to the Afghan National Army.

Royal Engineers help to push the Taliban out of Loy Mandeh

Checkpoints built by the Royal Engineers have helped revive an area on the northern edge of Nad-e Ali. The bazaar in Loy Manday had been a thriving market until fighting forced shops to shut and buildings fell into disrepair. But troops from the nearby FOB WAHID have been pushing insurgents out of the area and new checkpoints have helped re-establish security. Improved safety means local Afghans are starting to use the bazaar again.

Has Wikileaks caused Red Faces in Whitehall?

The latest US Diplomatic cables to be released by whistle blowing website Wikileaks centre around criticism of UK forces deployed in Helmand Province.  The comments were made by both US and Afghan officials over the period 2007-2009.  They criticise the ability of UK forces to cope with the security within the district of Sangin, and their approach to anti-narctotics operations.

In mid 2007, General Dan McNeil Commander of NATO forces, criticised the British Forces failure to deal decisively with the drugs trade in Helmand.  He claimed that the British had made of a mess of things and that our tactics were wrong.

Then in January 2009.  Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province told the American Vice President, Joe Biden that American Forces were urgently needed as the British security in Sangin was inadequate.

“I do not have anything against them (the British) but they must leave their bases and engage with the people.” Gov Mangal

These new revelations are clearly a dent in the ego of the Ministry of Defence, but on reflection, are the really saying anything we didn’t already know?

At the beginning of 2007 the number of British Forces deployed on OP HERRICK consisted of around 6,500 troops.  Whose area of operations was the size of Wales and with a population similar to that of Liverpool and Birmingham combined (around 1.4 Million).  Over the next four years this increased to closer to 10,000.  Still not a particularly large force, not when you consider that this figure includes a large number of supporting troops that will not leave the main base, Camp Bastion.

Around the Forward Operating Bases such as FOB Jackson on the edge of Sangin, the local population tend to live in a maze of small streets and small settlements.  Soldiers regularly leave these bases to conduct security patrols, counter IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) operations and to re-assure the local community.  But we cannot have a soldier standing on each street corner for 24hours of the day.  When we return to the FOB we essentially lose direct control of the all of the ground except for that we dominate i.e. have eyes on.

More troops and more patrols gives us a greater chance of securing an area, but ultimately we can only achieve our goal through gaining the trust of the local community and this takes time.  Governor Mangal is quite right to request for more troops, if I was the Governor of Helmand then I too would want as many troops as possible in order to achieve stability.  Although the American Forces have now taken over Sangin District the British Forces did make huge progress despite Governor Mangal’s words and despite large British casualties.  When I was first in Afghanistan in 2007 driving though Sangin was like driving through a ghost town.  But when I returned to Helmand in 2009 it was clear to see that the town had made great progress and once again it had vibrant market and community.  Far from job done, but progress none the less.

As for comments concerning our counter-narcotics operations, the British have never focussed as heavily on this area as the Americans have.  Although whilst on our operations the British Forces will confiscate and destroy drugs that are found in large enough quantities.  We have never claimed to have the same approach as the US and as organisations such as the Poppy Eradication Force.

The one thing that all of the compromising cables have in common is that they are all conversational comments made in diplomatic circles, that were never intended to reach their subjects ears.  I’m in no doubt that the majority of international diplomats and politicians have at some point bent the truth or exposed another nations weaknesses, just to ensure their own countries best interests are maintained.  As for the men and women in Whitehall, I would hope that none of them would be naive enough to not realise this.  But what  I think it does bring home is that whilst I’m in no doubt that we have a fantastic and extremely capable Armed Forces.  We have once again been shown that we are not the force that we once were, and that we must not bite off more than we can chew in an attempt to prove otherwise.

Life Destroying Afflictions helped by Surf Action

CALL 08716 268133 TO VOTE FOR SURF ACTION

An organisation founded to support service personnel suffering from physical and psychological conditions has been shortlisted for a national award and they need your vote!

Surf Action, helps ex-forces, serving military and blue light services to deal with their ongoing physical and mental scars whilst enjoying themselves on the beach. 

They have been selected as one of the finalists for the Big Lottery People’s Millions Awards for 2010.  The winners of the competition, run by the Big Lottery Fund  in conjunction with ITV are awarded grants worth up to £50,000.

Surf Action was set up just over a year ago by Rich Emerson, a former member of the Armed Forces.  Rich suffered from PTSD following service in Iraq.  He found that surfing allowed him to focus his mind in a positive manner and helped him to  manage and live with his disorder.  He started the scheme after seeing a similar project in the United States and they have already helped servicemen and women suffering from both physical and psychological injuries. 

Listen to my interview with Rich Emerson
[Audio http://audioboo.fm/boos/223474-surf-action.mp3%5D

The vote will take place by phone on Thursday 25th November.  The number will be available from the Surf Action website but if you wish to register your support before hand then this can be done at the People’s Millions Website.

“Winning the vote will allow us to make a huge difference to the lives of people who have given all in the sacrifice of their country”

Rich Emerson, Director of Surf Action

As the dust settles, has the Accused damaged the reputation of the British Army

Last night the BBC aired a new drama entitled ‘Accused’.  The programme  portrayed the story of how a soldier is bullied to the point of suicide following his failure to return fire on operations in Afghanistan.

Within five minutes of the start of the programme it was clear that those producing the drama had taken little or no military advice.  My suspicions were first aroused when the one of the main characters was seen wearing his beret incorrectly.  Only a minor point, but one that started alarm bells ringing.  I’m afraid to say that things only got worse. 

The drama followed two new recruits on their first deployment to Afghanistan.  Whilst there, one of them becomes the focus of a brutal section commander played by Mackenzie Crook.  Following his failure to return fire on Taliban positions he is assaulted both verbally and physically and then ostracised by his comrades.  He then goes through numerous instances of abuse including being made to do press-ups in the midday sun and having excrement having thrown over him.

Again these scenes of abuse highlighted the lack of expertise when producing such a drama.  Whilst I am in no doubt that a small element of bullying does take place within the UK Armed Forces this programme only served to shock and outrage with little substance or truth.

But has it damaged the reputation of the UK Armed Forces and in particular that of the British Army?  The programme was clearly based on little factual truth and did not portray an accurate view of the modern and professional British Army.  The programme suggested a lack of camaraderie on operations and even painted a picture of soldiers drinking whilst deployed.  All of which is utterly fictional and insulting to the reputation of our Armed Forces.  The fact that the suicide is then covered up and his death attributed to enemy fire is equally insulting and far-fetched. 

Whilst the BBC has not claimed that the story was based on truth, it did offer a help line at the end of the programme for anyone who had been affected by similar issues.  Which raises the question of where does drama end and reality begin?  If the BBC were adamant that this was simply a drama, was there a need for a help line?

The broadcast of such a drama whilst soldiers are still deployed is not only insensitive, but it serves only to lower morale and taint public support for our troops.  Who already doing a difficult and demanding job in controversial circumstances. 

If the BBC wished to broadcast a drama highlighting the problems of bullying then there are many other settings and backdrops that they could have used.  Clearly the choice of Afghanistan was in an attempt to produce a gritty and hard-hitting programme.  But with viewers such as the former head of the Army, General Lord Dannatt already condemning the broadcast.  I fear that the BBC may well have shot themselves in the foot, with this short-sighted and insensitive attempt to chase ratings. 




How common is bullying in the British Armed Forces?

The BBC tonight will broadcast a new controversial drama highlighting bullying amongst British Troops in Afghanistan.  The drama stars Mackenzie Crook as a Lance Corporal who bullies the men under his command.

Senior Officers in the British Army have criticized the BBC, claiming that the drama is ‘deeply offensive’ and ‘distasteful’ to serving soldiers.

Whilst the BBC has been quick to defend the new fictional drama, an Army spokesman said “There are fears that those watching it will believe this is what happened to their loved ones.  We asked the BBC to make clear that this is a fictitious programme, it is not accurate and that the Army has nothing to do with making it.”

But how far from the truth is it?  Have you ever been bullied whilst serving in the Armed Forces?  Please complete the anonymous poll below, and if you watch the programme tonight please let me know what you thought.

‘Accused’ is shown on Monday 22nd November 9pm BBC One.

A civilian reflects…

This year for the first time in my adult life I will be bowing my head in silence to reflect on the sacrifices made by our country as a civilian.  What difference will this make you may ask?  Well for the first time I won’t be wearing uniform, I won’t be surrounded by like minded people, colleagues who have shared my experiences and I’ll have to make my own time to reflect.

When I first arrived at University I was concerned and nervous of the reaction I would receive when I told my fellow students that I was a former member of the Armed Forces.  I was worried that when I told them that I was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan they would judge me for what I had done.  But instead I was bombarded with questions, queries and I’ve not had a negative word said about my previous career.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to meet many different people from all walks of life, from young students to veterans who fought in campaigns long before I was born.

These Gentlemen were as you would expect dressed in dark blazers.  Medals worn proudly on their left breast pocket and shoes polished to a standard that a Regimental Sergeant Major would be proud of.  I was humbled to hear of the respect that they had for our troops who are now fighting in Afghanistan and other recent conflicts.  But Remembrance Day is not about remembering those that have fallen in the current war or conflict.  It’s about joining together to remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country throughout modern history. 

Poppies grow in fields throughout the world, regardless if yours is to remember Flanders or the Somme, Sangin or Kajaki, today is about remembering the victims of war.  It is not a day for politics or spin, it’s a day for thinking of those who have fallen and those that have been left behind.

Danny Venter, Gus Millar (KIA 31/08/09), Willie Ewens, James Banks, Craig Hopson (KIA 25/07/09), Ross McBride, Jamie Steele

Wooly hats for the heroes who are spending this Christmas in Afghanistan



A woman from Penarth is fighting the latest defence cuts by knitting for our troops on the frontline.

The temperatures in southern Afghanistan during the summer months may regularly reach 50 Degrees.  But the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade who are currently on OP HERRICK 13 are experiencing the other extreme of the country’s weather.  To help keep our troops warm this winter Tina Selby and her army of knitters will be making wooly hats for our soldiers depolyed in Afghanistan.  

Tina got the idea after seeing similar schemes in the United States.  She always knew that she wanted to do her bit for the deployed soldiers and has in the past sent welfare parcels.  But when she stumbled on the idea of making wooly hats for them, she realised that this was a way of adding her own personal touch.

spoke to Tina and asked her how her campaign was evolving? She told me that she had recuited a small number of fellow knitters from her line dancing class but that she was looking for more willing volunteers.  She has also recieved gifts of money and wool after people saw the article in the local Penarth Times but she still keen for any more donations.

Anyone who thinks they can help Tina with her knitting campaign should get in touch via the email address below:

tinas.selby@ntlworld.com

She’s also looking for orders from Soldiers who are currently deployed.  So if you have a Son or Daughter whose away this Christmas, email Tina with their Operational Address and their favourite colour and she’ll see what she can do.