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War Art in Afghanistan – Part 2

December 30, 2011

WAR ARTIST in Afghanistan

I’ve been here, in Afghanistan, with 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (QDG), who are proud to be known as The Welsh Cavalry, for over two weeks now. The Regimental Sergeant Major, Paul Jones, and I have flown to all the areas of Helmand where the QDG are currently working. From the enormous operations base that is Camp Bastion to the Main Operations Bases (MOBs), Forward Operations Bases (FOBs) and Patrol Bases (PBs). Each base suitably sized and provisioned for it’s particular role in theatre. Some, like Bastion, with air conditioned rigid tents and solid permanent canteens serving food to thousands. Others, like MOB Price, where you can still get a decent shower in a converted ISO container. At Patrol Bases, such as Shawquat, however,  you are reduced to water heated in a ‘Puffing Billy’, an oil powered boiler that heats an open container filled with water, a big bowl to stand in plus a small bowl to tip the water over yourself. And then there’s the ‘John Bag’, a foil and plastic bag that comes with it’s own packet of toilet paper and an alcohol wipe. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Before I go any further, I should explain what I’m doing here in the first place. I’ve been asked by the QDG to produce sketches and paintings to commemorate their six month tour on Operation Herrick 15. The Regiment felt that a War Artist could help them capture the feelings and experiences of their time in a way that photographs could not. So after months of preparation, form filling, phone calls, Visa requests and Hostile Environment Training I found myself on a Cyprus Airways flight out of Brize Norton. Many hours later and after a lengthy stop at a place called Minhad, near Dubai UAE, I climbed onboard a C130 Hercules aircraft and flew in darkness into Camp Bastion where I was met in the early hours by the Media Ops team. Later that day they put myself and other members of the media through a Combat First Aid refresher course and a lesson in IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) ground sign recognition. Recognising the signs left by Insurgents on the ground when they lay IEDs is a vital skill that the Army spends many days teaching newly arrived personnel. To do this they have had local nationals build an entire Afghan Village within the perimeter of Bastion. They’ve covered the area with replica IEDs and when the soldiers conduct training patrols through the village it is populated with local Afghans so that they will get the most accurate training experience the army can give them before they actually hit the ground on operations. Later that day I met the QDG Regimental Sergeant Major, Paul Jones, who escorted me to the QDG’s quarters and showed me my bed space. Not that I’d spend much time there as the very next day we were scheduled to fly to Task Force Helmand Head Quarters (TFH HQ)in Lashkah  Gar  to meet with the CO QDG, Colonel  JJ de Quincey Adams.

Lashkah Gah is south east of Bastion in the Southern part of Helmand Province and the TFH HQ is where all operations conducted by the British are coordinated. The Colonel himself is responsible for coordinating the activities of ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance). The system the military uses to watch operations as they unfold and to keep up surveillance on the activities of the Insurgents on a daily basis. With remote aerial reconnaissance craft such as Hermes 450, T-Hawk and Dessert Hawk 3, flown by 10 Assaye Battery out of Bastion, the ISTAR team can watch in detail every move their forces and, perhaps more importantly, the Insurgency forces make. To the men on the ground it’s known as Green Eye. In the two months QDG have been in control ISTAR has flown more operations than the previous two Herrick Operations added together.

“We have certainly taken the ISTAR Group to the next stage of its evolution and virtually the entire Regiment is currently deploying in Support of the largest Afghan National Army operation so far.”, said Lt. Col. JJ De Quincy Adams, Commanding Officer of both TFH ISTAR Group and The QDG.

This approach along with a more aggressive clearance approach within known Insurgent strongholds has had great success and produced impressive results so far. Whilst at TFH HQ I was lucky enough to witness ISTAR in action providing surveillance for the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) on operation. During that operation alone the BRF recovered 10 IEDs and associated manufacturing equipment and rescued a captured ANA soldier (Afghan National Army). I also got my first look at the local Afghans themselves, albeit from the security of a base Sanger or watch tower. Wales Sanger appropriately enough.

After a day or so in Lashkah Gah  it was back into full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – body armour that protects all your vital parts, from your head with a Kevlar helmet, your eyes with ballistic glasses, your hands with ballistic gloves, your torso with 50lbs of Osprey body armour, plated on all sides and even your vital parts with issued underwear made of five layers of ballistic protective silk and a wrap around padded cod-piece commonly referred to as the ‘nappy’. With ear defenders securely in place you can climb on board either a Merlin or Chinook that will carry you from one base to another in Helmand with an efficiency that would make British Airways break into a sweat. And you only have to book in an hour before the flight! This flight took us first to Bastion and then another took us on to MOB Price in the middle of Helmand and where I would meet QDG troops on the ground in the form of B Squadron.

This was when things got more interesting for me on a personal level as the next day I would be joining B Squadron on a vehicle patrol. I can’t lie and say the thought of this didn’t make me a little nervous especially considering the dangers of IEDs and suicide bombers highlighted during the pre-mission brief given by Lieutenant Bryn Williams. Only days before ANA soldiers had died when their vehicle was hit by an IED in the area. However, as I got to know the men of the QDG and witnessed for myself their commitment and professionalism I realised that I was as safe as I could be. It was in fact a simple task of transporting two Advisors to an ANA check point on the other side of the town of Gareshk.

As we drove through the notorious town of Gareshk in open top armoured vehicles called Jackals, each with a top gunner armed with either a 50 cal machine gun or a 40mm cannon I kept my eyes peeled (when I wasn’t clicking away with my camera) for the grenades that have, in the past, been thrown into the vehicle from within the crowds that throng in the busy market places. Gareshk itself was like a bizarre medieval bazaar with fruit and veg stalls right next to blackened oily motorbike garages. The people walk the litter strewn dirt tracks and pathways often burdened with great bundles of goods, from sticks and reeds to dirty yellow plastic containers, oily spare parts and scrap. In a way, the whole place appeared to be a giant recycling depot.

In some cases we were greeted with suspicious stares and thumbs down as well as other gestures. In some instances there was spitting and stone throwing. However, these reactions were almost certainly outweighed by the number of broad smiles and waves we got. This being the case though the negative personas of some reminded me that the danger we were warned about in the briefing could come from anywhere. This is, as the soldiers have told me, a 360 degree war.

The operation went well. The drop off was made and the return journey back through Gareshk was that little bit less disconcerting than the first. The 6.5 litre engines of the Jackals were turned off for the night and I even found some time to work out in the open sided tent that the troops had set up as a gym to make sure they keep their fitness levels up during the long tour.

Another day and another patrol. This time to provide fire support for a local ANA search patrol through nearby compounds. In rural areas of Afghanistan the people generally live in compounds. Walled usually single story buildings constructed from mud and straw. As we pulled into the local ANA Check Point (CP) just off Highway 1, the main supply route running East to West across Afghanistan, one of the many motorcycles the Afghans use, in some cases carrying whole families precariously balanced on them, appeared to break down. The loan rider was dressed in typical Afghan Dish Dash and black turban with long black scarf wrapped around his face and draped over the woven brown blanket like cloak to keep out the increasingly cold air of the Afghan autumn. He took a cursory look at the engine and then a long, too long, look at us and the ANA CP, with its razor wire, sand bags and Hesco walls. Big brown wire framed bags filled with stones and earth that go to make up the barricade walls of all the military compounds. He turned his bike around and rode back towards Gareshk only to appear again ten minutes later. Both myself and the troopers of B Squadron had spotted him. They told me he was a ‘Dicker’, the name given to Insurgent informants that observe and pass on information about military movements and even direct insurgent fire and advise on IED placement.

The ANA patrol scheduled for that day did not take place so we turned round and drove back along highway one, pulling in and out of the over laden trucks and pick ups that drive endlessly up and down the highway and avoiding almost certain death collisions with the continuous stream of motor cycles and  three wheeled rickshaw style motor cycles the Afghans use to transport everything from unfeasible numbers of people to wide and precariously tall loads. Every other truck appears to have a car strapped to the top of it and I even saw one car with a sofa with four people sitting in it tied to the roof. The highway code of Afghanistan is not the same as back home.

The next day we drove out again to provide support to another ANA patrol, this time into Yakchal, a well known Insurgent safe haven. We arrived late for the patrol, much to the annoyance of the ANA soldiers, after having to control a cordon around a suspect vehicle for a few hours. However, it went ahead anyway and we manoeuvred around the compounds providing fire support as the Afghans searched them for signs of Insurgent activity. With just a small amount of automatic weapon fire at one point during the search the ANA soldiers, or warriors as they are known, returned with smiles on their faces. An uneventful and therefore successful days work for them, especially considering the dangers associated with the area of Yakchal in which we were operating.

Apart from one small spell in a ‘Sand Box’ – a square formation of Scimitars and Spartans, tracked armoured fighting vehicles and personnel carriers, parked up in the desert – where I had an excellent cup of tea provided by 3rd Troop, my time in the company of B Squadron was over. Next stop was to be with A Squadron in the Nad ‘Ali district, a place where less than 12 months ago a patrol could not go out without getting into some form of ‘contact’ with the insurgents. What progress had the ISAF Forces made in such a place in such a short time and what were the QDG facing there now? I would find out soon enough as it was here that I would be making my first foot patrol and meeting face to face with the men of the Afghan National Army.

A last and important note from the CO – “The level of support from back home has been amazing. Every soldier has received a parcel. The link to the communities of our recruiting areas is critical to maintain Regimental identity. Enormous thanks go out to all our valued supporters in Wales. We are particularly pleased with the Wristband Appeal which has gone from strength to strength and is an excellent way for people to show their support for The Welsh Cavalry.”

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