Parachuting In To Drive The Insurgency Out: Covering The Progress In Northern Helmand
Major Alastair Macartney is a Pashto speaker working hand-in-hand with the Afghan media.
A National level skydiver and Captain of The Royal British Legion’s Extreme Human Flight Team, Jump4Heroes, he has traded in his wings to work with Afghan Nationals to develop their independent media capability.
It started at 0700, stood at the front gate, waiting for the Afghan journalists to arrive. Flights were only confirmed at 2100 the night before and I had emailed the start time to Zahidi, the head of the Helmand Press Association and a journalist for Salam Watander Radio.
I had really wanted to talk to him but that wasn’t an option; the Taliban shut off the mobile phone towers at night. So I could only hope that the message had got through. It hadn’t.
At 0725 my phone started working again and, after some frantic calls, the journalists were speeding towards our camp and we boarded our Merlin helicopter just in time.
My role is a Communications Officer providing media support and mentoring to the Afghans. I spent the last 15 months learning to speak Pashto before deploying to the Provincial capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah.
Being able to speak the language is absolutely vital. My day to day role involves me speaking and liaising with local nationals and being able to do so in Pashto opens doors and really helps build and substantiate the important relationships that I have to create.
Unfortunately the Pashto that we were taught prior to deployment was very different to the local Helmandi language.
“It’s like being taught Shakespeare English and then being thrown into the thick of it in Newcastle. So the learning curve has been huge. But then the challenge keeps things exciting.”
I was heading to Washir, a district in the north of the Helmand, with Zahidi and his colleagues Rahimi, a TOLO TV reporter, and Watanyer from Reuters.
The 1st Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA) had recently conducted Op AFGHAN WARRIOR to clear the insurgents from the area and we were heading there to report on the development of the area. But we had little to compare it to- no journalist had been to Washir for a number of years.
We transferred from our Merlin and jumped on a US C130 to fly into Delaram- the home to 8 Regimental Combat Team from the US Marine Corps (USMC). The next morning we set off in a convoy of USMC MRAP vehicles with an ANA Route Clearance Company leading the way.
Having crossed back in to Helmand Province, the vigilant 1stSgt providing top cover in our vehicle noticed a suspected IED. It was off to the side and so we marked the position and reported it for further investigation and potential destruction.
We spent the next two and a half hours driving off-road. The heavily armoured vehicles provide reassurance but the suspension, bouncing across the bleak and hardened Afghan desert, struggles to cope.
“The result is a pretty traumatic experience strapped in the back of this randomly gyrating metal monster with 48 degree heat radiating down. Eventually we arrived at Washir Town, the capital of Washir Province, but not before Rahimi, the TOLO TV news reporter, had decorated the inside of his MRAP with vomit!”
Less than 20 days ago there was no ANA or coalition presence in Washir. They now have a small Patrol Base consisting of not much more than a secure perimeter and some tents.
Patrolling through the compound to the Governor’s office we remained vigilant; IEDs had been found within the compound on a number of occasions.
The journalists interviewed Governor Dawood Noorzai before he then accompanied us to the local bazaar, keen to illustrate that life goes on. Just 3 weeks previously the bazaar was completely deserted; a desolate collection of vacant ramshackle buildings.
But now it really highlighted district life. The insurgents had been driven from the area and it was here, talking to the local population, that we were able to really understand their desire to re-build their lives.
Despite lots of work still to be done there are clear signs that Op AFGHAN WARRIOR was a success. Now the security must be maintained, local forces must be mentored and development must begin.