Tag Archives: Spin Zhira

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.

The Queen’s bodyguard

Queen and Grenadiers

As the Queen’s turns 90 today I recall the first time I met her bodyguard.

“As we walked along Petty France, James gave me a potted history of the men I was about to meet. The Grenadier Guards is the most senior of the five regiments of Foot Guards and one of the oldest regiments in the British Army. Formed in Bruges in 1656 as the Royal Regiment of Guards to protect the exiled King Charles II, it has gone on to serve ten kings and four queens, including the current Queen Elizabeth II.

The Regiment was renamed the “First Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards” in 1815, in recognition of its part in the defeat of the French Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo, and has been so named ever since.

For the last decade or more my lunch had been a sandwich and a bag of cheese and onion, hastily eaten at my desk while simultaneously trying to stay on top of my email inbox. As James explained, this is not how the officers of the Queen’s bodyguard choose to conduct themselves. As befits one of the most esteemed regiments in the British Army, officers assemble in the anteroom from 12.30pm and then at 1pm sharp process through to the dining room where they are served a three course lunch by the Officers’ Mess Colour Sergeant and his staff. Once lunch is complete they take coffee in the anteroom before resuming their work schedule at 2pm on the dot.

I suspect it’s a routine that has changed little since those early days in Bruges when Henry Wilmot, First Earl of Rochester commanded the battalion, except perhaps in one regard. Henry Wilmot was a popular commander who liked a drink and according to contemporary commentators ‘drank hard, and had a great power over all who did so, which was a great people’. The modern Grenadiers may not have succumbed to the vulgarity of a sandwich lunch, but in a concession to progress, there was no hard drink to be had.

James and I presented our MoD 90’s – our British Army photo identity cards – at the barracks guardroom and were duly escorted through a maze of subterranean passageways to the mess. Despite its historic location in the heart of London, it’s an ugly concrete building of little, if any, architectural merit that conceals a rich history. Within the drab exterior the Grenadiers have decorated the walls with paintings and portraits chronicling their glorious past. Severe looking senior officers dressed in black frock coats lined the walls, alongside enormous oil paintings recording magnificent, hard-won victories from a bygone age.

One such painting struck my eye.

A little smaller than the rest it seemed oddly out of place, although like so many others it depicted a fierce and violent battle. A small group of about eight or ten Grenadiers can be seen taking cover behind a low wall. As those in the background fix bayonets, perhaps preparing to fend off an imminent assault, those in the foreground are engaged in a furious firefight. Men can be seen standing dangerously exposed above the parapet firing their belt-fed machine guns at an unseen enemy, while their comrades work furiously to keep them resupplied with ammunition. The air is thick with cordite and dust, their situation looks pretty desperate. I can feel the heat of the battle, hear the crack and thump of rounds passing perilously close, smell the sweat and blood of these men as they stand firm on their position, fighting for their lives.

What made this picture so different from the others was that the paint was hardly dry. The scene it depicted was a battle, not from a previous century, but from the Grenadiers’ last tour of duty less than 12 months before. Standing transfixed by the painting I was once more reminded of the dangerous business I was getting myself into. I was about to sit down to lunch with veterans of this scene, or ones just like it, and wondered if I had what it took to stand shoulder to shoulder with them on the field of battle, as James had done. I didn’t know the answer to that one but I did know that, if this picture was anything to go by, they’d earned the right to their anachronistic lunches.”

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.

Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Call me, maybe

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins caused quite a stir in Afghanistan when their cheerleaders appeared in music video ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae. In a predominantly male, heterosexual community sex, or the lack of it, was a constant preoccupation and the bikini clad cheerleaders did nothing to improve the situation.

“DURING THE FEW days I’d been away at Clifton, I discovered that in my absence someone had ‘cocked’ the notepad I’d been foolish enough to leave in plain sight on my desk.

Cocking was an obsession in the Headquarters, a symptom of the sexual repression under which we all laboured. Both British and Danish commands imposed a strict no-sex rule in MOB Price, which for the most part was observed. This sexual abstinence was not the result of a commendable adherence to military discipline. Had an opportunity to engage in sexual congress presented itself I’m pretty certain that most of my colleagues, like me, would have set aside all considerations of military discipline and good order – but opportunity did not present. Price was a predominantly male, heterosexual community most of whom had wives or girlfriends waiting for them back home.

Sex, or the lack of it, was a constant preoccupation. So much so that at one of our decompression briefings in Cyprus at the end of our tour a female officer from the Royal Army Chaplains Department felt it necessary to remind us that sex involves two (or possibly more) people. By then I could hardly wait.

For the dozen or so women in Price, mostly medics and dog handlers, life in this sexually charged, testosterone fuelled environment must have been a minefield. On one occasion a female reserve officer was admonished for running wearing running shorts. This came to the attention of the chain of command who deemed it dangerously erotic. She was ordered to cease and desist immediately. In her case I had to admit they had a reasonable point, but the officer in question was incensed. When she came to seek my counsel it seemed inappropriate to compliment her on the comeliness of her gluteus maximus, so instead I offered a sympathetic ear, and tried to impress upon her the uncertain benefits of voluminous army issue shorts.

For men at their sexual peak – and even for those of us who had already passed that particular milestone – this enforced abstinence inevitably had its frustrations which were expressed in a number of ways. Cocking was one of them.

As far as I am aware this is an exclusively male obsession and involves the covert drawing of phallic imagery. This is nothing new of course. Such representations have been found dating back to the Ice Age around 28,000 years ago, and appear in many ancient cultures and religions. But the art reached new heights in MOB Price. Penis imagery would mysteriously appear on notebooks, notice boards, signage, PowerPoint presentations and operational staff work. An unusual geographical feature to the north east of PB Clifton was even referred to on our maps as ‘cock and balls’.

On one occasion I attended a packed briefing session in which a senior officer scribbled a note intended for Colonel James, who was sitting across the room, and handed it to the man next to him to pass down the table. By the time it reached its destination it had passed through the hands of a dozen or so officers and warrant officers, many of whom had surreptitiously cocked it. Although it was impossible to overlook the images with which it was now adorned, Colonel James accepted the note without so much as a raised eyebrow.

The towering penis that had been drawn on the front cover of my notebook was magnificent. It was a detailed and anatomically precise representation depicting an erection I’d have been justifiably proud of in my twenties and could only dream about in my forties. Phallic imagery varied considerably according to the imagination of the artist. I noticed, for example that Tom’s notebook had been illustrated with a lovingly drawn image of Winnie the Pooh being improbably penetrated by his diminutive sidekick, Piglet.

Judging from their absurdly oversized erections, which more closely resembled ancient Greek and Roman depictions of the deity Priapus than the sketches of AA Milne, they were both clearly enjoying the experience in a way that their creator had never intended.

Oh, D-D-Dear! said Piglet.

Back in civvy street, probably even back in barracks in the UK, Victorian prudishness and political correctness would not have tolerated phallic observance of this nature. HR departments would be called in, enquiries held, perpetrators reprimanded or even sacked. But in MOB Price phallophoric celebration of the Lingam, and to a lesser extent the Yoni, went unchecked.

The sexual health nurse who briefed us on RSOI had been right. None of our mucky lot was getting any and it was clearly preying on our minds.”

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.

Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Pathetic and worthless

Fellhorn Off Piste

The 15/16 ski season is almost over. I’ve spent it working as a ski instructor. My ex-wife’s divorce lawyer would not be impressed.

“On leaving the army in 1996, I’d worked hard to climb the corporate ladder, achieving a degree of success which had brought wealth but not happiness. I felt trapped on a treadmill. My employers kept paying me ever larger salaries but demanded more and more of my time in return. My beautiful wife, Jane also enjoyed the trappings of success and required a seemingly inexhaustible supply of designer clothes, beauty treatments and visits to the hair salon, all of which required funding. Not to mention the trophy house with it’s prestigious SE21 post-code in Dulwich Village. This we filled with expensive designer furnishings so that we might employ a housekeeper to keep it all clean. Then there were the exotic but tediously sanitised holidays which we bragged about to our friends and neighbours.

I yearned for something more meaningful than this life of comfortable consumerism. Ironically, as a marketing specialist it was my job to encourage others to buy more and more goods and services for which I personally cared less and less. Skiing had become my escape valve. But it was also a source of constant friction between Jane and me as I sought to spend more and more time in the mountains.

When we finally divorced in 2013 she cited my excessive skiing as ‘a cause of upset and unreasonable behaviour’. Her advocate, whom it would have given me great pleasure to meet in a dark alley, sneered in court sessions at my ambition to become a ski instructor, as if this was somehow a pathetic and worthless aspiration.”

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 on the basis that all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart. Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Linear Regression


Linear Regression

Ten years after John Reid committed British troops to Helmand, news from the province is not encouraging. Reports indicate yet more violence and instability. I’m not surprised – as early as July 2012 there was evidence to suggest that this was the most probable outcome but this was deemed “off-message” and quietly suppressed.

About this time, the boffins in Regional Command South West, Task Force Helmand’s US Higher Headquarters produced a perception trend report based on aggregated monthly surveys conducted over the previous 12 months. After my experience with the PsyOps dodgy data I was more than a little sceptical of these kinds of reports. This one, at first glance, appeared to conform to the standard pattern of self-deception with which I had by now become familiar. According to this report, dubbed The AP-A Atmospherics Word on the Street, everything in Helmand Province was coming up roses.

The data had been presented in a graph that plotted Atmospheric Values – whatever they were – over time. According to the graph, public perception of the Taliban was very low, represented by a red line knocking along the bottom of the horizontal axis. Perceptions of GIRoA, a bold green line, were several points higher somewhere in the centre of the graph. Naturally, given this was a US report, perceptions of ISAF were highest of all, a striking cobalt blue line running along the top of the chart.

I was pretty certain that none of the respondents in the survey had been canvassed on the streets of Kakoran, or any of the other places I’d visited recently. But, this aside, something else about the slide caught my eye.

The Regional Command egg heads had applied some linear regression to their data points to smooth the red, green and blue lines running across their chart. While this helped to illustrate their point that perceptions of GIRoA were significantly higher than those of the Taliban, I also observed that there was a slight downward trend to the GIRoA data set.

I decided to redraw the graph, extending the timeline out to December 2014, when British forces were due to depart Afghanistan. I then extrapolated the Taliban, GIRoA and ISAF trend lines based on the Regional Command linear regression and discovered that while perceptions of the Taliban continued to bump along the bottom of the graph, at some point around June or July 2014, assuming current trends remained constant, perceptions of GIRoA would be as low, if not lower, than those of the Taliban.

This did not augur particularly well for successful transition. But it did, perhaps, provide the insight we required to un-fuck the goat in 2012 as Colonel James had directed.

My analysis was admittedly rather crude but necessarily so. Since I didn’t have the original data set to work from I’d simply extrapolated from the Regional Command graph, but I felt certain I’d done enough to warrant further investigation.

I showed my redrawn chart to Colonel James who dismissed it with a wry smile. It wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t intuitively know already. I then fired it back to the Regional Command boffins for their comment. I didn’t have to wait long. First came an anonymous reply from a shared email address which, in not so many words, told me that I was a dumbass infantryman and couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of applied mathematics and statistical analysis. I should leave the number crunching to the number crunching experts and get back out there and kill more bad guys.

As a parting shot the anonymous boffin smugly informed me that it was not possible to use the data for forecasting purposes as I had done. Spotting an obvious flaw in his intellectual superiority line of reasoning, I replied by pointing out that the linear regression he’d originally applied to the data was generally used for exactly this purpose. He retorted by stating that 12 months data was not enough to produce an accurate forecast. I agreed, and asked him to send me all the data for the previous five years.

At this point email communication ceased.

I took to the telephone and tried to track down the mystery boffin in his ivory tower a long, long way away from anywhere hostile and dangerous but no one wanted to take my calls. My several messages were not returned. A short while later I received a call from a British Colonel in Task Force Helmand who discreetly informed me that I was not on message and, while he conceded that I might have a point, this was not helping Anglo-American relations. He was utterly charming but equally adamant that I was to stop by-passing the chain of command and harassing the Regional Command boffins. He also made it very clear that I was not going to receive the data I’d requested and I was to drop any further attempts at linear regression analysis.

It seemed that my off message forecasting of GIRoA perception trends was being buried by the falsehoods which interest dictates. Although this was a much more genteel and civilised dressing down than the one I’d received from TF196 it was a bollocking nonetheless.