Column Part 18 I was planning to write this last epistle from the turquoise shores of Cyprus, but due to ‘circumstances beyond our control’ it is not to be. There are two things certain in this life; that some poor sap is going to hand in their ticket if they are a guest at a country house-party in an Agatha Christie yarn and that those magnificent men and their (not so frequently) flying machines will throw the odd spanner in the works. These same spanners may have been better utilised on repairing the aircraft, and the upshot being we never reached Cyprus. On the plus side I was able to spend a day in an aircraft hangar in Muscat. And so it is with a Scotch within easy lifting distance and the welcoming Yorkshire drizzle outside, that this attempt at closure takes place.

Twenty nine weeks have elapsed since I first departed for Afghanistan and much and little has changed. I find myself with an increasingly bipolar stance on our time in Afghanistan, ranging wildly from the positive; driven by the improvements I have witnessed over this short time, to the negative; at the heart of which is the concern for the safety of our servicemen and women. There is little doubt of the development of indigenous security and governance, both in Kandahar province where we have operated and indeed over the wider country. There is a continuous and evolving improvement, both in quantity and quality, of the education and medical programmes and facilities and, in my opinion, the population are practically demonstrating genuine and active desire to be rid of localised oppression and violence inflicted by insurgent groups. All of these factors are extremely positive.

But the cost is there for all to see. This year has seen the largest numbers of ISAF casualties and killed-in-actions since the deposition of the Taleban regime in 2001. The number of Afghan security forces, politicians, civil servants and those in their employ that have been murdered is staggering. I do not know what the acceptable loses for such things are. Clearly there have been many, many more deaths in most wars and campaigns since the advent of combat, but I sense that in this age of real-time reportage and global scrutiny that even a small number of casualties has become unacceptable to many. I do not know if this is right or not, nor I suspect, shall I ever. One inherent problem with the CNN/News 24 generation is that the media is bestowed with an omniscient Olympian power. A short piece, entirely without context, broadcast to millions can change public perception, and influence or even decide opinion instantaneously. As a result we have a society of ‘experts’ ready to denounce/support/ignore/vilify on minimal evidence and little understanding, taking all that appears through the various mediums as unquestionable truth. It would appear that many of the public have little stomach for the violence that is being recorded and reported, but almost all have a healthy appetite for the grotesque detail divulged, a contradiction that I am not sure I am comfortable with.

Another element that makes for unsettling understanding is the continuance of certain cultural occurrences that are indulged in that country. I would urge anyone to read on the subject of the ‘Bacha Bazi’ phenomenon of ‘dancing’ boys (internet archives can be very elucidating). It is disturbing in the extreme, yet is largely ignored by the moralising global media and public.

In contrast to this there is gradual improvement in the treatment and rights of women, and more opportunities are starting to become available to them. I sense that this is more apparent in the cities than rurally, but this is a change that may well take a couple of generations to manifest completely. Little by little is the mantra here.

My soldiers and I have returned unscathed, we have endured the rocket attacks, the small arms fire and the bomb threat and delivered what was required of us. Both in vehicles and dismounted we have patrolled the streets of the city and the rural locales. We have worked with a plethora of different nations without causing diplomatic incident, and have undoubtedly had our views on any number of these foreign fellows altered, many for the better and some for worse. In essence we have operated on the interface of the mundane and the extraordinary and everyone has lived to tell the tale. That for me is success enough.

Has the experience changed me? I don’t think so, but perhaps it is too early to tell. My hair has thinned and my eyebrows have started to grow inordinately long, though my feet are no worse than they were in spring (utterly woeful), and outwardly little else is different.

It would be hard to argue that culturally my horizons have not been broadened. I have witnessed that the Pashtun code is probably a greater influence to the Afghans than Islam, although perhaps only just. That this society holds onto and lives its customs and traditions daily, something in the United Kingdom we sadly appear to be in all haste to forget and erase.

I have no idea if I will return, and in what capacity, and in what state I shall find Afghanistan and its people. For now my focus returns to loved ones and spending time with those dear to me. It has been an enriching experience, but we should not lose sight of the fact that that is not the reason for sending soldiers to such places and never will be.

Quis Seperabit

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