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Six Months Without Sundays: The Scots Guards in Afghanistan

Last updated: 7 January 2014

Recorded on 9 May 2013

Having witnessed events in Helmand Province while embedded with the Scots Guards, writer and journalist Max Benitz presents two sides of the controversial conflict in Afghanistan: the successful counter-insurgency efforts led by British and Afghan troops; and the challenges of winning over a war-weary local population.

  Six Months Without Sundays: The Scots Guards in Afghanistan (video)

Transcript

Max Benitz:

The first thing to say, of course, is that I am a very poor guide to Afghanistan. I'm sure many of you in this room have served in the military and know a huge amount more than I do about what soldiering is about in this context, or in any other. But, while the conflict is ongoing in Afghanistan, our soldiers are essentially under a vow of silence from the Ministry of Defence, so I'm afraid you have to put up with me until the conflict ends.

What I want to talk about today is a little bit about what happened in 2010 when the Scots Guards were deployed and when I went to spend a couple of months with them to research this book. And try and put that in the context of this entire conflict that has now been going on for a very long dozen years.

And I want to really talk about counter-insurgency: this idea of how you conduct conflict amongst the people. And I want to show two sides of counter-insurgency. This being the military, they shortened counter-insurgency down to an acronym and it's inevitably called COIN. So I want to show you two sides of that COIN.

The first thing to say is obviously the Scots Guards were there in 2010 and that was a pretty seminal summer in this conflict. It was the apex of troop numbers, involvement, materiel. President Obama had kicked off his surge strategy trying to replicate what had happened in Iraq a few years previously. And there was a great feeling that if we can't get it right this year, then it's never really going to be something that we can ever get right. So those were the stakes.

But just to put that in a bit of context of what had happened previously, we all recall what the cause de guerre was in 2001, and how we got to 2010 is a sort of rather interesting story. Initially, the Americans went in with some NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] support. Article 5 was called upon in the NATO Charter, an attack on one being an attack on all. The conflict in 2001 was... the main sort of weapons really were shrink-wrapped bundles of $100 bills in sports bags being handed out by US Special Forces operatives to various political and military enemies of the Taleban regime who'd held Kabul since 1996, with the occasional sort of B2 bomber dropping heavy ordnance from 30,000 feet.

The political context was, and this was a quote from the White House administration at the time, 'We are not in the business of nation building.' And a dozen years later I think those words have slightly come back to haunt subsequent administrations.

The strategic imperative then shifted, as we all recall, towards the Euphrates and Tigris valleys and it was seen to be a more useful use of resources to try to topple Saddam Hussein. So the eye really fell away from Afghanistan. And NATO decided: well, if the Americans are shifting fire to Iraq, we can perhaps pick up some of the slack and maybe take care of Afghanistan a bit and maybe show that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a relevant organisation in the early 21st century.

So they devised a plan to essentially go counter-clockwise around Afghanistan, starting in Kabul and then moving to the north-east, the north, the north-west and then into the south. And they went initially where they knew they would be most welcome, in the north were the people are ethnically, tribally, sometimes religiously opposed to the Pashtun-dominated Taleban movement that had sprung out from the south during the civil wars of the 1990s.

Then there was the issue of what are we gong to do when we get to the south? Because here we shall be less welcome and we also know that the Taleban are re-infiltrating across from their safe haven in Pakistan. And we also know that the local population are producing a crop that it is our stated aim to eradicate, that being opium.

At this point the British administration of the time, led by Tony Blair, put up its hand and said, 'We'll do Helmand. We know it's going to be a tough'n but we'll take care of that.' We had, as a country, the lead role on counter-narcotics and it was seen as a good thing for us to be seen to be doing. This was never really put to Parliament and very likely discussed in Cabinet, from what we understand today.

So in 2006 a British force went in to Helmand. They had been warned by an advanced reconnaissance party that this was going to be a lot more difficult than was assumed. And when they got into Helmand their initial plan was to have a lozenge of security which would then expand out from the population centres slowly.

But like any plan, this did not survive first contact with a very numerous and well armed enemy that they found. And The Parachute Regiment, who were the infantry element of that brigade, were dragged out beyond where they'd wanted to be, to places like Sangin and Garmsir and Now Zad and Musa Qala, right through the Helmand Valley, and they were stretched far too thinly.

But they did what members of The Parachute Regiment have been famous for since the Second World War and they fought with their backs to the wall and totally destroyed the opposition as it came in wave after wave after wave. And that was a very noble and brave thing to do at that time.

However, there was a price to be paid for that level of violence that was triggered. And the price that was paid was that you make a lot of enemies when you go to someone else's country and you start to kill a lot of people. This was always explained to me as something specific to Afghan and, even more specifically, Pashtun culture - that were you to go and kill someone, you wouldn't have destroyed one enemy, you would have created ten more. And I always knew this as total rubbish. That's not a Pashtun thing. I would say that's universal to all cultures and that if people come and kill your friends, neighbours, relatives, you're going to be pretty angry about it and you're going to want to do something about it.

Now here in this country we don't have access to a rusty old Kalashnikov in the back garden that we used to fight off the godless infidel Soviet invaders of the 1980s. But in Helmand Province they most certainly do have access to those firearms and they most certainly do have the wherewithal to use them. So suddenly something akin to a revolt had been initiated and the level of violence was really quite stunning, and violence met violence.

And this continued through 2007, 2008, 2009 until the realisation came that this problem was being looked at through the wrong prism. And the thinking that came for this was General Petraeus and his team who re-wrote the book on counter-insurgency. And they said: you must not focus on the enemy, you must focus on the people and improving their lives and making a credible offer to them for governance, for economic advancement, most importantly the security so that they can get on with their own lives under something akin to the rule of law that we all take so much for granted here.

So the British also did a lot of thinking, came up with a plan, re-wrote the books and by 2010 the thinking had evolved to a state where the Scots Guards went out to Afghanistan with this view that the imperative is the people, not the enemy. And part of the people are the Afghan National Security Forces, because the view then, as always, has been, we're not going to be here forever but we need to set the conditions whereby the security apparatus that we construct and leave behind us is viable in the eyes of the local population and will survive our departure.

So on a day like that day, you'll see the line of people I studied with - a couple of Glaswegians and then a couple of Tajiks or Uzbeks or Pashtuns who have joined the Afghan National Police. So you've got a guy speaking Jockanese and then you've got a guy speaking Dari and then you've got a guy speaking Pashtu, and the whole thing is very, very tricky indeed to try and bond together as a sort of coherent unit to go through and protect the population and defeat the enemy as a result of having won the population over. But this was the story of 2010. Two patrols a day, every patrol partnered with members of the Afghan forces.

And sometimes that side of the coin worked incredibly well. This was the aftermath of one particularly good operation. What the plan was was to get the Afghans to lead a sweep through a sparsely populated area west of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand where the Scots Guards were headquartered, go through, clear the area, search, look for baddies, speak to the goodies and try and demonstrate presence, demonstrate skills.

The Commanding Officer of the Scots Guards,who's the chap in the green uniform, Lincoln Jopp, used to say, 'It's a little bit like when you've got a kid and they're learning to ride a bike and your hand's just on their back, but they're pretty much able to do it on their own.' And one of his Guardsmen, trying to put this in a context that I would understand better being not a military man, just said, 'Think of an operation like this: as a big pheasant shoot.' So basically drive through and have a line of guns at the bottom to act as a drag net.

So we got up at 2:30 in the morning, which was a sort of, you know, ridiculous time to be waking up, but that's a sort of army way. We drove in our heavily protected wagons to the north and basically stepped back and allowed the Afghan National Police and Army that day to sweep through. It was a 5km [3 mile] patrol, which is hardly anything, but it took seven hours, because in 55 degree heat in the sun, with 55lb [25kg] on your back and essentially walking through a minefield and unable to go in a straight line because you know that the person who's laid the bombs thinks you're going to cross the river there or cross the field there, or go through that door first, you have to do the most unobvious thing all the time. So it takes a really very long time to cover any ground at all.

But at the end of the day, or actually by about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, we'd got to this Afghan National checkpoint at the southern end of this sweep clearance operation and everyone's really delighted, because what's just happened is a pick-up truck has driven through with a bunch of bomb makers on the back who've been captured by the Afghan National Police. A little cell of guys who make improvised explosive devices [IEDs] have been found. Thirteen of those devices have been found. Thirteen less bombs that are going to go in the ground and kill Afghan livestock, Afghan children, Afghan people, Afghan policeman, British soldiers. So it's a really good result for the day.

And Colonel Lincoln is speaking to Colonel Kamaludin, the Deputy Chief of Police with the beard, and Lincoln's saying, 'Colonel, who found these men? Who found these bombs?' And Kamaludin is there going, 'Lincoln, I found them, you found them, we all found them together.' And this is a great message.

And in the back there with the backpack and the camera, you've even got some local media there who've been brought in specifically to be able to tell this story, to be able to show the local population that the policeman that they're interviewing in the back row are credible, are capable of doing what they're told to do by their own Afghan officers.

But the best thing about the day - not the bombs, not anything else - was the fact that no one got killed. No insurgents were killed. No Afghan civilians were killed, no British soldiers were killed. So that's a really good day in Afghanistan. No bombs have been dropped, no artillery shells have been fired. It's just a good, bread-and-butter, peaceful day working towards a pattern of stability that's going to make the local population think, 'This is good. The Afghan government are kind of capable of looking after me and mine, and I'm going to support them.' That's the good side. The other side of the coin is slightly less hopeful.

This was another day in Afghanistan, another very hot and bothersome day. And the business of that day was patrolling a road. This road leads east out of Lashkar Gah and connects with the main circle road of Afghanistan. So it's the main communication route for Helmand Province with the rest of Afghanistan.

And roads are incredibly important - the Romans knew it, everyone else knows it - because it's your main, of course, way of communicating. But especially in a country where the Afghan government aren't coming out to the people in these rural areas, the people need to be able to get to the Afghan government. They need to be able to get to the population centres for healthcare, in order to vote, but most crucially in order to bring their legitimate goods to market, rather than sitting at home and waiting for the narco lord to come back at the end of the growing season, collect his debt and buy any additional poppy that the farmer has managed to grow that year in this arid place.

So roads are incredibly important, and what you need for roads is you need constant patrols up and down, proving the route, demonstrating the fact that the road is safe. You also need policeman who aren't going to stand on the side of the road and rip off every truck driver who comes through for 40 melons, or 300 cigarettes, or whatever it is he reckons he can chance his arm with.

So this was another day going up and down the road, stopping, speaking to people. You'd run into the most extraordinary people along the road going about their business. One guy, Corporal Duncan, was on the road one day. A taxi pulls up next to him, a guy leans out - full Afghan dress with his wife next to him - leans out, he goes, 'Oi mate, where are you from?' Corporal Duncan goes, 'Glasgow pal, where are you from?' He goes, 'Er, London mate. I'm out here visiting relatives.' Corporal Duncan was like, 'Really?' And then he hears this sort of strangled voice from behind a burka, of the wife, who goes, 'Yeah, and I've got to wear all this bloody clobber.' So, you know, there were rather strange moments amidst the general day-to-day life.

This was a slightly different occasion. We were driving up the road to the next Scots Guards checkpoint along this road and we're overtaken by a patrol of Afghan National Policemen, led by this white Toyota Corolla. And they overtook us. We thought nothing more of it and then we pulled up because we heard small arms fire. Everyone's popping out of the top of their Mastiff - big armoured cars - going, 'What on earth's going on here?'

The white Toyota Corolla has had its back window and back bumper blown off in a very targeted assassination, or attempt, because the guy driving the car - or I should say being driven in the car - is the son of the local police commander and the boy's name is Lieutenant Mohammed. And he's gone for his traditional Thursday night bender in Lashkar Gah and, as always, is driving back to his dad's police headquarters on Friday morning in his very prestigious white Toyota Corolla, which is also very obvious to someone who wanted to get rid of Lieutenant Mohammed, be they a member of the insurgency or a rival drug lord or someone else. It's all slightly murky.

But the guy pulling the cord on the bomb had slightly misjudged it, as often is the case, and had only succeeded in splitting a couple of ear drums and doing superficial damage to the car. However, what he had succeeded in doing all too well was annoying the hell out of Lieutenant Mohammed's platoon of Afghan National Policemen, who had dismounted and, when we arrived on scene, were unilaterally moving through a field to the north of the road and firing indiscriminately at a village about 500m [550 yards] off the road. Firing from the hip with light and heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades sailing over everyone's head, but no fire coming back the other way.

Eventually they get into the tree line and into the village, the firing stops. We're standing there smoking cigarettes, drinking water, waiting for this to finish. The view being, you know, now we've pushed them slightly further along and they're cycling on their own, British soldiers should be slightly stepping back, letting these guys lead, seeing what they can do on their own.

Five minutes passes. They start to filter back through the fields. Another few minutes pass. One of the Afghan policemen emerges carrying a bundle. My father had very kindly given me a pair of binoculars before I went to Afghanistan, with which I focused on what this man was carrying. And what he was carrying was a blanket, and in that blanket was very clearly a very horribly wounded child. I'll always remember the fact that he walked with the child rather than ran the 500m to where he knew there would be medical care.

But when he eventually arrived he placed this package on the tarmac and, fortunately, we had a great medic with us that day - a little 19-year-old girl from Accrington called Stacey French. Private French dismounted and with her slightly rudimentary medical kit, addressed the situation, which was a girl of no more than three who had been essentially disembowelled and lost half of her left arm due to the fragmentation of a rocket-propelled grenade fired blind and fired in anger.

Stacey got to work, at which point Taj, as we now know her name was, her father arrived. His name was Kadar and Kadar begged the British officer present to be allowed to take Taj back to the compound where she could die in dignity with her family around her. But the British officer made a promise and said, 'We can save your daughter's life if we can get her to a hospital quickly.'

So, sure enough, smoke grenades were popped on the road, the call was made to the Black Hawk Pedro helicopter flown by some American pilots. They swooped in. Kadar, who'd just been searched to ensure that he wasn't a suicide bomber, picked up his daughter who'd remained silent throughout her ordeal, and carried her to the waiting helicopter. And about eight minutes later she was in the best casualty hospital in the world bar none, in Camp Bastion, which is staffed by our NHS [National Health Service] doctors and nurses who take some time out of their careers here in order to look after matters such as these.

And Kadar [sic] lived, she survived. What sort of a life she'll go back to - a mutilated girl, another war casualty in a society where dowry is king - is uncertain. But the British officer's promise to Kadar that her life would be saved was kept. And this draws out the slight question of the other side of the coin. What happens when the troops, that our troops are trying to train, behave like that and show total indifference after the fact? Because to them this is merely another day in a 30-year civil war for which, I fear, we're gearing up to Act 5 after 2014.

But none of that detracts from the professionalism of British soldiers that I witnessed every day in my time in Afghanistan. Nor should it subtract from the overall positive picture I had of what they were trying to do in very difficult circumstances, and that included training some really excellent Afghan soldiers and policemen. Some of them were very good at their jobs. But then there were clowns like this who behave appallingly and rather defeat the whole offer that the British are trying to make, this offer of: the Afghan government is a legitimate thing, support it when we are gone. So that rather does leave the question of what will happen after 2014 when our troops and all their sacrifices are behind us as a society and Afghanistan faces its future.

Don't buy the book because I'm about to spoil the ending, so I'm saving you that. This is the postscript and this is from St Andrews Day 2010. The guys got back in October 2010 after a very long and arduous tour. Some of them didn't come back alive, some of them didn't come back in one piece. And I think this is... hopefully this reading focuses more on the British soldiers and less on the theory that we've talked about so far.

St Andrews Day 2010:

'Morning, Ballbag,' said Company Sergeant Major Tam McEwan. Of all the ways to be woken up as a Scots Guardsman, still pissed from the night before with McEwan inches from your face is possibly the worst. The Guardsman's eyes rolled back and to the side, focused and snapped open.

'Have a drink,' ordered McEwan, pushing a mug of gunfire - tea and whisky - into the young man's hand. 'Happy St Andrews Day, wee man. Muster at 08:00, church parade for 10:00, then medals.'

Across the Scots Guards lines in Catterick, before first light that morning, officers, warrant officers and bagpipers were going door to door rousing their men. The snow in North Yorkshire had been falling for nearly a week. There had been talk of doing the medal parade in the gym. The Commanding Officer had vetoed this.

Before muster, Warrior armoured personnel carriers were doing circuits through a blizzard on the parade square, furiously ploughing the snow. In the officers mess Captain Jimmy Murlo-Gotto hobbled down to breakfast. His right leg was still entombed in a plaster-and-metal frame nearly a year after a dark night in Helmand when he'd been shot in a friendly-fire incident.

He'd driven up from London the day before in the specially adapted automatic car the Ministry of Defence had brought him. He'd arrived after dark and found no trace of his former existence in this place that had once been his home. His pigeon hole was gone, a new subaltern he had never met occupied his room. But then perhaps it never is your pigeon hole, or your room, or even your platoon. It's the Army's and you merely look after it for a set period of time. Perhaps the only thing that truly is yours is the regiment you joined and fought with.

Like everyone else Murlo-Gotto was back in desert boots and camouflage for the parade. The regimental master tailor had stitched two right legs together so that Murlo-Gotto's leg would fit into a pair of combats, a dress he'd not worn since that night in February, and never would again.

By 10:00 the battalion was in the gym ready for the church parade to begin. Joining them was Sergeant Davey Walker's extended family. He had been shot dead by a sniper in February. At 10:30 the battalion stood to attention as the Regimental Colours were marched in by two subalterns and an escort found by two sergeants. Lance Sergeant Jameson, who had lost three limbs, struggled out of his wheelchair and then stood unaided as the Colours went past.

We sang 'Thine Be The Glory'. The padre spoke his sermon: 'These Colours before you tell a story, to which all of you have added this year.' The Commanding Officer then stood at the lectern and read out the names of the Scots Guardsmen who had died under him. Each name stuck in his throat.

The pipes and drums played a tune they had written. It began with a deep beat from the bass drum, which sounded like distantly heard explosions in Helmand. When the pipes kicked in, it seemed the chairs in the gym had been charged with electrical current.

Everyone filed out of the gym and into a blizzard. 'Drill Sergeant, make that snow disappear,' said the Regimental Sergeant Major.

'Aye, sir,' said the Drill Sergeant, who turned right, stamped his foot smartly, and marched off, his pace stick swinging through the snow. Twenty minutes later the blizzard stopped. There was even a threat of sunshine. Further proof of the divinity of a Guards Sergeant Major is hardly required.

The Regimental Colonel, His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent, had been grounded by the weather in London, so instead, the Major General of the Household Division had zoomed up on the first train from London and made the parade in time to hand out medals to the Guardsmen. With the Commanding Officer, he went from man to man as the regimental band, in bearskins and great coats, played along with the pipes and drums. The men's families stood shivering in tents.

A languid roll of the snare drum announced Highlands Cathedral from the musicians as the Major General got to the platoon of wounded men at the end the line. Sergeant Jameson again struggled from his wheelchair, but he overbalanced forward. The Major General put out his arms and caught him.

'That's right, Sergeant Jameson, lean on me. It's what generals are here for,' he said, and then placed the medal in the man's one remaining hand.

After lunch the men piled back into the gym for the tug-of-war. They'd painted their faces blue and white and scrounged tartan from the company lines. The 'Rabbits' of C Company went out first, followed by Right Flank. The bruisers from the Motor Transport Platoon then put Headquarter Company into the final ahead of B Company. Left Flank took their positions on the rope. At the front stood their commander Major Rupert Kitching and Guardsman Maciu Kabunicaucau from Fiji was the anchor.

'Last time I saw that Guardsman I was giving him first aid in Afghanistan and half his face was shot off,' said a startled Captain Rowe.

'Look at that,' said the Pipe Major. 'Someone's going to win as the clock strikes 16:42!' - the year the Scots Guards were founded.

'Aye, shame the clock's an hour fast,' said the Sergeant Major.

Left Flank crowded round their team, shouting 'Easy! Easy! Easy!' as their boys pulled on the rope, and they won.

The Commanding Officer called his men into a three-sided square rounded and handed out cups to the best three teams. 'Well, I think it's been a fantastic day,' he said, and walked over to a wheelchair. 'Guardsman Watson, do you think it's been a fantastic day?'

'Oh aye, sir,' said Guardsman Watson. 'But I reckon we should have a 10 o'clock start in the morning.' The whole battalion cheered.

The next morning I drove out of the barracks for the last time, suitably hungover. I thought of the men left behind and the 10,000 British ambassadors still in Helmand Province, and of those that would follow them, still looking for their war, and of the system that sends them.

[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge's words played over in my head:

The many men so beautiful,
And they all dead did lie.
And a thousand, thousand slimy things
Lived on, and so did I.

1 comment

James Geddes
10 October 2013, 2.56pm

As a former Scots Guardsman

As a former Scots Guardsman enjoyed the book and still read different chapters now and then as a pick-me-up when I feel low. Well done Max and 1SG. Superb. James Geddes 1968-1977 2SG

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