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War Art in Afghanistan – Part 3

December 30, 2011

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 four weeks now. 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.

In my last report I mentioned that after leaving B Squadron my 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.

From FOB  (Forward Operations Base) Shawquat, PB (Patrol Base) Samsor and PB Khamaar I got to carry out a number of foot patrols and meet and drink copious amounts of Chai, sweet black tea, with the men and commanders of the local ANA. The foot patrols, usually working with the ANA, meant another level of anxiety for me but by this time I knew I could trust the skills of the officers and men of the QDG. Getting out on foot and seeing the local nationals living their lives in the market places and compounds was an outstanding experience. It was good to see that in Nad ‘Ali the smiles, waves and thumbs up outweighed any animosity I witnessed.

The men of the QDG, and 20 Brigade as a whole, are busy preparing Nad ‘Ali for transition from ISAF control to Afghan control. Things have indeed improved impressively in the last 12 months or so. The fields in the area are well maintained and the compounds generally all showing healthy signs of life with smoking chimneys and children running and playing everywhere we went.  In the town just outside FOB Shawquat a giant old crane rises ominously above the canal. Where once were hanging the bodies of opposers to the Taleban now hangs an enormous Afghan flag. Soldiers on patrol stop to buy, rather out of season, pomegranates and local flat breads.

On one patrol we accompanied the new ANA area Commander and came across a group of local elders sharing chai on a neatly trimmed patch of grass. Whilst the ever watchful but relatively relaxed ISAF and ANA soldiers talked with local children Captain Jimmy Carrol QDG sat down with the Commander and the elders and an impromptu Shura was held. A Shura is the term given to meetings of leaders and elders in Afghanistan.  The area does appear to be ready for transition. The Commanders we spoke to all felt ready as long as during the next few years before withdrawal the insurgents could be all but eradicated.

This does appear to be the aim so after time well spent with A Squadron it was back to Bastion to link up with the BRF (Brigade Reconnaissance Force) and go out on an operation in the Green Zone (enemy occupied area) of notorious Yakchal to witness for myself this attempted eradication. After an interesting brief, which effectively meant we were going in by HAF (Helicopter Assault Force) and GAF (Ground Assault Force) to occupy a number of compounds and act as bait for the Insurgents so that ISTAR could watch and study their reaction and subsequent movements. 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.

I moved in on the first day as part of the GAF. As we moved in the helicopters of the HAF thundered over our column of vehicles. One Chinook firing it’s defensive flares which resulted in a moral boosting cheer. They HAF had gone in.

It took almost the whole day to clear routes into, and perhaps more importantly out of, the compounds selected for occupation. After the owners had been paid for their troubles and left the area we began building the TPB (Tactical Patrol Base). Apart from the intelligence provided to the BRF the immediate disappearance of local nationals when they set foot in an area is a sure sign that the insurgents have control. The locals know there is going to be trouble and so gather themselves up and move to safer ground.

It was during this initial setting up period that I was involved in my first experience of enemy contact. Suddenly automatic gun fire came from the north, a few shots whistling over the compound walls. The British and Afghan soldiers who were already in position on the roof of the compound immediately returned fire and it wasn’t long before the insurgents’ weapons were silenced. Two insurgents had been killed in a matter of minutes.

We spent a bitterly cold night and a day in the compound living with and caring for, I might add, the owners livestock. The compounds of rural Afghanistan resemble medieval farms, made from mud and straw walls and handmade bricks, with family and livestock living in close proximity to one another. There was no electricity apart from one solar powered bulb in one of the small rooms, and no running water.  Most of the time was spent filling sand bags to fortify the place and organizing and sending out patrols into the local village.

That night I joined the RSM and Staff Sergeant Dan Brown of 1st Troop on the roof of the compound for 2 hours to watch the insurgents movements through image intensifiers and infra-red scopes. Night times tend to be quiet apart from the incessant howling and barking of dogs. The insurgents are well aware of the night vision capabilities of ISAF forces. The night was particularly cold, well below zero, and I woke a number of times during my short spell trying to sleep in my bag under the clear starlit sky in the courtyard of the occupied compound. Apart from the dogs I could hear the reassuring hum of the ‘Green Eye’ flying above. Everyone had felt the cold that night but after a warming breakfast of boil in the bag rations we were ready for another busy day in the Green Zone.

The HAF had occupied a compound to the north of our position and during the second day, when the insurgents had rallied themselves, were involved in a fairly significant fire-fight in which an American soldier was tragically killed. From our compound mortars and illuminating rounds were fired to ensure our security as insurgents were spotted too close for comfort or attempting to lay IEDs.

During the night of the second day we emptied the sand bags and put the compound back to it’s original condition and made our way back the way we had come, crossing an irrigation channel and a river. Unfortunately a Coyote vehicle (similar to the Jackal but with 6 wheels) which had been supplying fire support got stuck crossing the river. As it was being recovered the RSM and I were offered two spare seats on the Helicopters that were due and so marched across the cold moonlit desert, surrounded by the nightly chorus of howling and barking dogs, with the 90 or so strong HAF to the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site). It was only the next day that we discovered that during the night one of the vehicles in the operation had struck an IED in the very same area we had walked across. Fortunately no one was injured and during the investigation that followed a further 3 IEDs were discovered and dealt with.

After the operation I spoke with the CO QDG, Lt. Col. JJ de Quincy Adams who said, “The pace of operations has remained high throughout the tour. Our training, and the commitment of the boys, has really paid off. Things have moved forward and the conditions are very firmly set for transition of Nad ‘Ali back to the Afghans in the very near future.”

Whilst praising the work of all Squadrons of the QDG he added, “C Squadron have already done more aviation assaults than the whole of Op Herrick 14 – a cracking achievement.”

During my time with the QDG I was drawing, painting and taking photos and videos. I was talking to the men on the ground and getting a feel for their lives in theatre. The purpose of my visit is to produce these sketches, live in the field, and to follow them up with more finished pieces and paintings when I return home. The outcome will be the first, as far as I am aware, visual diary of the Regiments time in theatre as well as the customary paintings and prints for the various messes. A finished hand bound book will be produced and added to the Regimental History. Hopefully some copies made and put up for sale when the tour is over.

As I prepare myself for the journey home my thoughts are with the soldiers I have spent my time with. Many of whom will spend Christmas here and all of whom have another four months or so here before their tour of Afghanistan is over. I feel sure they will achieve all their objectives before this tour is over and regardless of all the rights and wrongs of the imminent withdrawal the Welsh Cavalry will have done their utmost to make the handover work.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2011 9:48 pm

    Well done…real reportage…real reporting with art!

    The drawings are great…!

    I’ll read your reports while travelling tomorrow

    Dai Owen

    • December 31, 2011 12:28 am

      Thanks Dai. I’ll put more images up over the next few weeks.

      • January 4, 2012 4:01 pm

        Me again…..that will be good.

        I would be interested to know how the conditions affected your drawing – wearing all that heavy stuff, and how you set about drawing in general, what you used etc. It must have been seriously different from drawing here in so many ways.

        Have you seen the article in ‘Illustration’ issue 16 back in 2008? I came across it by accident and found it really interesting. It’s by Richard Johnson, a Canadian war artist . He describes how he worked in a war zone, and also interestingly went to see Howard Brody before going; Brody was a war artist in the WW2 and Korea, Vietnam etc. I think he was actually in the army…and he outlines the basics of how he worked and what materials he used. If he’s still around he must be in his mid-80’s by now.

        If you want a copy I could try to scan it and send it….or photo-copy it.

        You must have a lot to go over after your trip – but you will have learnt a lot.

        Dai

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