Tag Archives: Kabul

Spare a thought for Kabul students

As students in the United Kingdom wake up to their GCSE grades this morning spare a thought for their counterparts at Kabul’s American University who have been caught up in an overnight gun-battle between insurgents and the security forces.

Following a suicide car bombing at the university’s entrance, Canada’s CBC News reports that at least 12 have been killed and dozens wounded as the gun battle raged around the sprawling campus.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

In a new low for the Afghan conflict, UN figures reveal civilian casualties reach record high.

Linear Regression

In July 2012, using data unwittingly supplied by Regional Command South West (RCSW), I forecast that public perception of the Afghan Government would fall below that of the Taliban. My report was deemed “off-message” and suppressed. General Gurganus, the US Marine Corps General who commanded RCSW insisted ‘We are winning and the Taliban are losing.’

Yesterday’s report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) sadly confirms my analysis. Not only have civilian casualties reached record levels, not only has the Afghan government largely abandoned the population it is mandated to protect but its own troops are responsible for 23% of those casualties.

UNAMA report 1

“Every single casualty documented in this report, every woman, girl, or boy denied access to education or adequate healthcare and every man or woman deprived of their livelihood, represents a failure of commitment and should be a call to action for parties to the conflict to take meaningful, concrete steps to reduce civilian suffering and increase protection. Platitudes not backed by meaningful action ring hollow over time. History and the long memory of the Afghan people will judge leaders of all parties to this conflict not by their well-meaning words, but by their conduct.” Tadamichi Yamamoto, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan, Kabul July 2016

Children Bear Brunt of War

Reuters: Civilian Casualties increase as Afghan Troops Battle Taliban.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports that 1,601 civilians were killed in the first half of the year with a further 3,565 wounded. These figures do not include the more than 80 killed in Saturday’s suicide attack in Kabul.

The report describes the figures as “alarming and shameful” and identifies that 24% of those killed were children.

In March 2015, in an interview with the BBC Tony Blair claimed “It’s important to understand that for all the challenges in Afghanistan there have been huge gains.” I wonder whether he still clings to that fallacy today?

From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World

Farewell Kabul
I’ve just finished reading Christina Lamb’s latest book ‘FAREWELL KABUL. From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World’ and discovered that I unknowingly walked in her footsteps into Zumbalay – with much the same outcome.

The book asks just how the might of NATO, with 48 countries and 140,000 troops on the ground, failed to defeat a group of religious students and farmers? How did it go so wrong?

FAREWELL KABUL tells how the West turned success into defeat in the longest war fought by the United States in its history and by Britain since the Hundred Years War. It is the story of well-intentioned men and women going into a place they did not understand at all. And how, what had once been the right thing to do had become a conflict that everyone wanted to exit.

During my own FFUI (Find, Feel, Understand, Inform) patrols the locals I spoke with would often exasperatedly and painstakingly explain to me that the Taliban were funded by the US via Pakistan. Although this view was widespread and heartfelt I dismissed it as a distortion of the truth. Christina Lamb has forced me to re-appraise this view.

It is less a question of whether or not the US funded the Taliban via Pakistan but whether they did so knowingly, negligently or naively. Christina Lamb’s credentials as a war reporter are impeccable but Farewell Kabul is likely to spawn a number of conspiracy theories and, sadly, some of them will be true.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.


Radio-in-a-box (RIAB)

Steve Yabsley

I’m joining Steve Yabsley’s lunchtime show tomorrow on BBC Radio Bristol. I have some prior radio experience but it’s not very positive:

“The radio‑in‑a‑box was exactly that. A rather large and cumbersome box which contained ruggedised tape and CD decks, together with sophisticated recording and broadcasting equipment. Requiring only the addition of electrical power, an antenna and a willing DJ, it contained all that was needed to set up a new radio station.

I’d been introduced to the RIAB on the PsyOps course I’d attended at the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre in Chicksands, Bedfordshire. Due to the very high rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan, or perhaps due to the very low number of Pashtu speakers amongst ISAF soldiers, radio was considered an essential communications tool by both British and American forces.

RIABs had first been used in Afghanistan in 2005 at a time when the Taliban were assessed to be winning the public relations battle. At the time ISAF had no means to counter Taliban propaganda or to communicate anti‑Taliban and anti‑al‑Qaeda messages of its own. The RIAB was the answer, enabling ISAF to broadcast its version of events to a large, often remote audience.

By the time I arrived in Helmand the RIAB was the psyopers¹ weapon of choice and a network of radio transmitters had been set up across the province using local Afghan DJs to broadcast information and host call‑in shows. The psyopers liked to call their creation ‘Radio Tamadoon’, but all the Afghans I ever met called it what it was, Radio ISAF. To complement the transmitters, wind‑up radios had been handed out to local nationals. Although I was not prepared to vouch for the reliability of the statistics, it was alleged that 92% of Helmand Province’s 1.5 million inhabitants listened to the radio every day.

Certainly thousands of radios had already been distributed and I gave away hundreds more on my FFUI² patrols, but I never saw any of the locals actually using the radios or listening to Radio ISAF. All those who eagerly accepted the free radios I handed out assured me that they tuned in every day, but I was sceptical. I’d grown used to locals telling me what they thought I wanted to hear so I took to carrying one of the wind‑ups in my pack and attempting to tune into the RIAB on my patrols. To my surprise, despite maps of the province produced by the PsyOps Group which outlined antenna reach and indicated almost total coverage in our AO, I discovered that reception outside Gereshk was patchy at best and non‑existent in many areas.

In contrast it was easy enough to tune into BFBS Radio, the English language station for UK troops, almost everywhere I travelled. BFBS was of course staffed by civilians, all of whom were professionals in the broadcasting industry, while the RIAB was staffed by soldiers, like me, with little if any prior experience.

Nonetheless, Thor and I invested a lot of time trying to improve the station programming and make it less blatantly an ISAF propaganda tool by inviting GIRoA officials, ANA commanders, Mullahs and other local dignitaries to conduct radio shows. We even had a go at healthcare and agricultural advice programming, but neither of us had any experience in running a radio station and there was no budget to produce these shows. Our efforts, while initially enthusiastic and well intentioned, were amateurish at best and we quickly ran out of goodwill and content to fill our ambitious schedule.

It was claimed that some RIAB DJs had as many as 50,000 listeners, but I guessed that poor reception and dodgy scheduling was having a negative impact on our figures and I started scanning the phone‑in reports produced after each show. Despite the statistics being bandied about by the PsyOps Group, I discovered that most of the calls we received came from the same half dozen callers. Even Sultaan, the irrepressibly optimistic District Communications Advisor became disillusioned with the RIAB and stopped turning up to host the weekly live phone‑in show that Thor and I had given him.

When I discussed my reservations with Owen, our Royal Marines Cultural Advisor and one of only a handful of fluent Pashtu speakers in Task Force Helmand, he helpfully pointed out that one of my supposedly local DJs was in fact from another part of Afghanistan where they spoke a different dialect from the Helmandis. This embarrassing oversight may have had something to do with our rather poor performance.

But there was another even more compelling reason. I’d read in an intelligence report that ownership of an ISAF radio could be injurious to human health. In the contested area in which we operated locals risked a severe beating from the Taliban if they were found to be in possession of one of the free wind‑ups we were handing out, although I’d observed that these were still eagerly accepted in all but the most hard‑line areas. All my evidence may have been circumstantial but it still pointed to an obvious conclusion. Our woeful reception and lamentable programming were quite simply not worth a beating. Although I couldn’t prove it, I rather suspected that the majority of the radios I handed out ended up, still in their original packaging, in the markets and bazaars of other more permissive districts.

Perhaps the RIAB was not quite as effective a weapon in the communications war as the PsyOps Group were claiming. It seemed perfectly possible to me that the POG were psyoping the home team by overstating the role and value of the RIAB to the counter‑insurgency.”


SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

¹Psyoper: A psychological operations practitioner

²FFUI: Find, Feel, Understand, Inform. In January 2010, Major General Michael T. Flynn USA wrote an influential paper titled Fixing Intel: A blueprint for making intelligence relevant in Afghanistan. His paper recommended sweeping changes to the way the intelligence community thinks about itself – from a focus on the enemy to a focus on the people of Afghanistan. This involved modifying the five components of the kinetic targeting approach: find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze into a non-kinetic social engineering construct: find, feel, understand, inform.

Old Man in Helmand

John Reid

On this day ten years ago, during a visit to Kabul, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Defence, committed British troops to Helmand Province for the first time. He declared: “We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.”

However earnestly he might have held this aspiration it has always struck me as a forlorn hope. If you send men with guns to do a job, the solution to the problem facing them is likely to involve using the tools of their trade. With the benefit of hindsight, I can be fairly certain that John Reid has regretted these words. Three years later in July 2009, with no clear exit strategy and the death toll mounting, he was forced to state in the House of Commons: “I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot.”

A month later the Daily Telegraph produced a report which contained the calculation that, in the three year period between Reid’s first statement and his subsequent clarification to the House of Commons, the British Army had in fact fired 12,282,300 ‘shots’ in Afghanistan. At a rate of more than 12,000 rounds every day, if this estimate was accurate, it didn’t sound to me like there was a lot of time left over for reconstructing the Afghan economy or democracy.

By 2012 I don’t believe we were expending ammunition at anything like this rate, but this is not to underestimate the scale and ferocity of the fighting. We still experienced skirmishes, or contacts, on a daily basis. My own introduction to Afghan combat came just a few days into our tour when a routine patrol to visit an outlying base in the very north of our area of operations came under attack from multiple firing points. Outnumbered and outgunned the patrol commander coolly requested fire support from the mortars in nearby Khar-Nikar, a base which housed a company strength group from the Royal Ghurkha Rifles. In a 20‑minute period, under direction from the patrol commander, the mortars fired over 200 high explosive rounds before the enemy finally broke contact, allowing the patrol to continue on its task.

Although I’d been in contacts before, I’d never personally experienced anything like this intensity of combat. Listening to the reports coming in from the safety of the operations room, I was struck by the relative calm not only of those involved on the ground but also of the men and women in the ops room coordinating our response. I was the oldest man there by some margin, but I was surrounded by veterans of over ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq for whom this was a routine occurrence.

I was in awe at their professionalism, and more than a little anxious at the prospect of going on the ground myself. How would I react in a similar situation? With four previous operational tours under my belt, and an award for service in Bosnia in 1996, I’d always considered myself a seasoned soldier. As I watched the drama of the contact unfold the realisation dawned that, despite my advanced years and prior service, I was merely a novice. It was now clear to me why one of my instructors back in the UK had described the Upper Gereshk Valley as the University of Close Quarter Combat.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Available today on Amazon Kindle for the special introductory price of £3.99.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand. A true story.