Politically Unpopular Conflict


“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

It is a soldier’s job to fight wars, to close with and kill the enemy, to follow orders even though the consequence may be death or serious injury. It is the soldier who knows fear and faces hardship. Even if their endeavours are successful they are quickly forgotten. And if those endeavours are seen as ending in failure then abandonment follows faster still.

But if a soldier’s lot is to go to war it is the politician who sends them to war to stand by them. After all, it is often politicians’ failure to deal with global frictions that result in conflict and they are no less responsible for the fallout that follows.


Helmand 2010

Therefore, for soldiers like me, it is incredibly frustrating when politicians distance themselves from decisions they take individually and collectively, leaving it instead to the soldier to bear the blame.

The starkest example of this is surely the Iraq war. While I am proud of my actions and the actions of the men I commanded in Iraq, I fully understand how controversial the war was and still is. Yet I will never distance myself from that conflict; I will recount with pride the part that soldiers of my regiment played and I will do so without shame.

Yet I feel that some politicians are happy to pretend the Iraq conflict never happened; they find it inconvenient, embarrassing and calculate that it is potentially poisonous with the electorate.

David Simpson, an outgoing Member of Parliament and candidate in the 2017 General Election did not vote for the Iraq war – he was not an MP at the time. Though to his credit he did visit the troops in Iraq in 2008.

He could, quite rightly, have highlighted this show of solidarity as part of this campaign. But he has not.

Instead he airbrushes the episode from history, focussing instead on a visit made in 2010 to see serving men and women in Afghanistan.


Facebook Post Dec 2010

The tragedy for the politician – and for politicians in general, for episodes like this taint everyone seeking public trust and public office – is that Mr Simpson never actually made that journey.

His trip was cancelled a month before he was due to depart; a month before the photo he has used in his latest campaign literature was posted on Facebook in an album entitled ‘Afghanistan’.

Only he will know why he sought to create something out of nothing; fabricate an occasion that did not happen; ignore the valuable trip he actually did make to Iraq. But it is not just Mr Simpson who has to live with the consequences, so must we all. The trust between soldier and politician is eroded; already-fragile public respect for our elected representatives is chipped away further still; democracy is sullied just a little more. And for me there is a personal element.


General Election 2017 Literature

For back in 2010 when David Simpson was posting a picture on Facebook of him supposedly in Afghanistan and attracting comments such as “Well done, David, we’re proud of you” I was in Afghanistan, dealing with the death of a friend and colleague, killed on Remembrance Sunday.

The irony is that there are other members of the DUP – David Simpson’s party – who did visit the troops, notably Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who came to see my unit in Nad-e-Ali in January 2011.

He knows how important it is to hear first-hand the issues soldiers face, the real life and death challenges. He is also a man who will not distance himself from unpopular conflicts – not least because he, like me, has served in the armed forces.

Of course some will say this blog is political opportunism and I will allow them that indulgence, but I would have raised this issue had David Simpson been my political opponent or not. The truth being I am staggered others are attacking me for speaking out and challenging on this issue.

Andy A

Standing with Andy Allen at DCMH Thiepval Bks

This is not a matter of party politics. It is more fundamental than that. It is about personal integrity. It is about how anyone believes they can look voters in the eye knowing they have served up a falsehood; knowing they have stood on the shoulders of the brave men and women of our armed forces in order to promote themselves.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity” – but I will never hide or deny my part in it be that as a soldier or politician.

Note: Since this blog was posted David Simpson has withdrawn his election leaflet and removed the Facebook page in question. He has, however, not given an explanantion as to why he mislead the elctorate in the first place.

Garmsir – Maj Sher Wali

The weekend – Sunday to be precise – marked an anniversary few needed reminding of. 9/11. Fifteen years on from the attack on the Twin Towers, the moment that threw the West into the War on Terror. And by coincidence Sunday also marked ten years since I was ordered into battle as part of that war.

My mission should have been straightforward. To join a handful of other British soldiers – a motley assortment of regulars and reservists, from infantrymen to signallers to medics – whose job it was to help the Afghan army and police retake from the Taliban a non-descript, but strategically important kalay deep in the south of Helmand Province.image

Once secured we were to hold Garmsir for 24 hours until relieved by a larger force. Except things didn’t quite go to plan. After a bloody struggle we recaptured the outpost, but a week later we were still there, besieged.

Day in, day out, we fought for survival. I took my first life in Garmsir, and a few more after that, some at close quarters. This was not killing for killings sake nor was it something to boast about. It was war, and the men I killed where intent on killing me.
After a week I was one of just three British troops who remained in Garmsir. But we were not totally without help, our Afghan colleagues fighting at our shoulder including Sher-Wali, a Pashtun Afghan and Major in the National Police Force.

Sher-Wali had history. He’d fought with the Mujahideen against the Russians and had initially sided with the Taliban when they first took over his country. But growing disillusionment with his new masters meant he was now pitted against them as part of the Afghan Government’s campaign against the insurgency.

He was not an opportunist; simply someone who wanted the best for his family and his people and all too often found himself bitterly disappointed by those who promised the earth and delivered dust.

imageI formed a strong friendship with Sher-Wali. We shared our food, our stories. We fought side by side and on more than one occasion Sher-Wali saved my life, in one incident shielding me from the explosive yield of a rocket propelled grenade with his own body. He was and remains the bravest and most noble man I have ever known.

In the most difficult of circumstances he fought ferociously beside a man he knew little about who came from a culture he didn’t understand, but in whom he had placed his trust.

At the last it was he, not I, who paid the highest price of all. Sher-Wali died on the final day of the engagement, carrying out my orders. For me it was a body blow and when we departed back to base – our Royal Marine Commando relief having turned up a fortnight later than we expected – it was with a mood of melancholy not elation.

Driving into Camp Bastion the faces of those whose entire Afghan experience revolved around this sprawling encampment exhibited shock at the sight of us. Our single remaining unarmoured Land Rover had been peppered by shrapnel and with numerous entry and exit bullet holes, the ballistic matting long since torn off by Taliban firepower, a hole the size of a fist bored into the driver’s headrest evidence of a large-calibre round striking its mark.

Everything was covered with a fine film of Afghan desert dust, lending us humans a ghostly appearance, though not so much so that it disguised the dirt, blood and human waste that stained our uniforms. The strain of the experience showed in our eyes, framed as they were by furrowed brows, matted beards and crazy hair.

For my actions in Garmsir I was awarded the Military Cross. It still arouses in me conflicting senses of pride and shame. I was not alone in being decorated and our clutch of honours – two MCs, a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross and a Mention in Dispatches – made this patrol the most decorated since the ill-fated ‘Bravo Two Zero’ during the first Gulf War.

The sights, sounds and smells of ten years ago linger with me now. But the more intense memories are those of the people I served alongside. Most of all I remember Major Sher-Wali: his smile, his presence and his loyalty.

He died fighting on his own soil. I believe in what we did in Afghanistan, but it was only ever an interlude for me. I had a way out, an escape route, God willing I would return home after a six-month tour. Sher-Wali was at home. His fight was existential. Mine was a job. Yet because of people like Sher-Wali Garmsir has stayed with me and I returned to Afghanistan to fight on two more occasions.

Physically I have never returned to Garmsir. Mentally I have never really left.



Doug Beattie MC joined the Army as a sixteen year old junior soldier. He served for thirty-four years rising through the ranks from Ranger to Captain while serving in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Queens Commendation for Bravery during the invasion of Iraq and the Military Cross for his first of three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He is now a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.



You turn on the TV news and there, somewhere after a report on the credit crunch and before the footie, you get the other stuff, events in brief, the stories they haven’t got pictures for or don’t think are important enough to warrant two minutes all to themselves.  Amongst these fillers you hear the presenter say, ‘A British soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan after being hit by a roadside bomb’.  Killed in action.  KIA.  It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical.  But its’ not.  It is usually brutal and bloody and painful.  So here it comes, the wretched truth about KIA, a truth you’ll never hear, let alone see, on News at Ten.  This is what KIA is all about.


This was the time a British soldier stood on an IED, an improvised explosive device, a roadside bomb.  It wasn’t clear whether it was the heal of his boot that made contact first, or the sole, or perhaps he was already springing off his toes and well into his next stride when the weapon that he trod on killed him.  It doesn’t matter, for any of these scenarios would have set off the same catastrophic chain of events.

As the weight – several stone of the soldier, and a few more of his equipment – came to bear on the track, it also fell on the part of the bomb that would trigger the explosion.  Just below the surface, encased in a motorcycle inner tube to keep them free of dirt and moisture, were a pair of old saw blades: one connected by wire to an electrical power source, a pack of six domestic batteries; the other attached by a different wire to a Russian mortar shell. The blades were wedged apart at each end by a piece of wood.  In this configuration the blocks acted like a circuit breaker, preventing the flow of electricity, keeping the system inert.  With the soldier’s full weight now coming down inexorably on the top blade, it buckled and bowed in the middle, then made contact with its twin beneath.  And that was that.  The circuit was complete and a current started to flow, at the speed of light, from battery, via the saw blades to a detonator.  In turn the detonator was connected to a booster charge, which in itself was hooked up to the mortar shell.

The weapon could have lain there for days, a week, a month.  It might have been there for a year or more.  Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to the bomb how long it had gone undiscovered.  It had no feelings, no sense of time, no memory, only and endless patience it wasn’t aware of.  But now its moment had come.  It was about to do the one and only thing it had been created for.  Wreak death on the enemy of those who had first dug the hole for the weapon to sit in and then carefully buried it, hiding all signs of the earth having ever been disturbed.

In that most routine and instinctive of movements, walking, the British soldier had sealed his fate, self-selected himself as a victim.  And the life for his family was about to be irrevocably altered.  Shattered beyond recognition.  Not that they knew it yet.  Though, it seems, he probably did.

Because even as he was completing his step, as events were about to unfold beneath him out of sight, he suddenly stopped as if he suspected something.  Had he already seen something, felt something not quite right through the rubber sole of his boot?  It was as if he already had an inkling of what he’d just done.

But by now it was way to late to alter the course of history.

The chemical reaction going on inside the mortar shell was rapidly generating an extreme amount of pressure and heat – as much as several hundred tones per square inch of the former and anything between 1,500 and 2,500 degrees Celsius of the latter.  It was all happening so fast – unimaginably fast – and it had become impossible to turn the clock back; things had already gone far beyond the point of no return.  Yet for a few more milliseconds there was still no outward sign of the impending disaster.  Because at that precise moment the destructive power was still, just about, being contained within the shell.  The original makers of the shell had been ruthlessly exact in their calculations.  They hadn’t wanted all the heat and pressure to burst out too son.  No, they’d designed the casing to be strong enough to resist its own demise for as long as possible – long enough for the force of the imminent explosion to have reached its absolute zenith.  And only then did it break free.

The mortar disintegrated into a million pieces of metal that hurtled away from the seat of the blast.  There would be no dodging them.  Not at the immense speed they were travelling – as much as several thousand meters per second.  The fragments were followed by the blast wave.  It radiated from the epicenter of the explosion even faster than the splinters of the bomb casing, at a velocity many times the speed of sound.  For good measure there was a heat wave too.  And a hell of a lot of noise.

Because the mortar had been buried only just below the surface of the track the soldier had been walking on, most of the energy was funneled skywards, following the path of least resistance, up through the thin veneer of the Afghan desert.  It took with it bucket loads of dirt and grit.

In the moment the explosion mushroomed clear of the ground, both the soldiers’ legs were shredded.  It was as if someone had furiously rubbed them up an down a giant cheese grater, not stopping until the white of the bone was clearly visible through the bloody, ragged remains of human tissue.  If the soldier had had the chance to take in what was happening to him, then he might have been tempted to count his blessings, pleased at least that both his lower limbs remained anchored to the rest of his body.  But he would have been wrong to do so.  Already they were useless to him; indeed they were hardly recognisable as legs.  There was little or no skin left to speak of, and much of the mass and most of the definition of the muscle had gone too, hacked off by supersonic, super-sharp pieces of twisted metal.  That which remained had become blackened in places – charred, seared by the extreme temperature that accompanied the blast.  The torn remnants of skin and uniform had been similarly singed.

As the cuts of human meat, some minuscule, others the size of a hand, were hacked off the bone, other fragments of the bomb now buried themselves deep inside the ragged flesh that remained.  They also tunneled into the man’s thighs and groin, peppering the muscle.  For good measure the billowing cloud of dust then further contaminated the wounds.

The blast wave continued running up the length of the victims torso, forcing its way under the body armour, eventually tearing it off.  The two removable, protective ceramic plates worn to protect the front and back of the armour had already been blown from their pouches, and now, as projectiles, they had become part of the problem rather than the cure.

By this stage the soldiers weapons had been ripped from his right hand, then the hand and the arm were flayed as the legs had been.

As the blast reached his head, it got beneath the rim of his helmet and forced it off, the chinstrap offering only limited resistance before giving way.  There was also massive damage inflicted on the mans throat and jaw.  A large piece of shrapnel – or maybe it was the plate off the body armour – had torn out his voice box and smashed his chin.  A fold in the skin now hung limply from his cheek.  Even if he had wanted to call out for help, to scream in pain, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.

There was also the damage done that you’d struggle to see.  The force of the explosion had caused serious internal injuries.  The soldier’s eardrums burst.  So too did the blood vessels in his eyes.  His lungs probably collapsed as the blast wave rippled through his body.  By now he was no longer in contact with the ground.  Instead, he and his barely attached limbs were sailing through the air, tumbling, turning, before crashing back to earth.  He was flung a good ten meters from the point of detonation.

The very worst thing of all was that – despite everything – he was still alive.

Eyes rolling; trickles of blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth; torrents of thick red blood pumping from at least three severed arteries; he was still alive.

And conscious.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the medic did a heroic job trying to treat the soldier, applying tourniquets, inserting a drip, giving morphine.  And then it was a case of clock watching, waiting for the MERT helicopter to arrive.  Knelt down alongside the casualty, the medic held on to the soldiers remaining good hand, offering what comfort he could, reassuring him everything would be alright.  Except it wouldn’t.

Because twenty minutes after he had detonated the bomb, the soldier succumbed to his horrendous injuries, the lifeblood finally drained out of him into the dust.

The brutally dispassionate message went out over the radio ‘UK Bravo now KIA’

That’s is the reality of Killed in Action.  For some, death comes mercifully quickly. But for others dying is an agonizing, lingering, terrifying experience.  Their last on earth.

Now, where were we? Ah yes.  How did Chelsea get on against Man Utd.


The Olympic struggle, every day of every year for the rest of their lives.

If the roots of the Olympic Games can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, then the Paralympics is of rather more recent vintage and its origins lie rather closer to home; in Buckinghamshire, to be precise.

For it was in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital that Dr Ludwig Guttmann, an expert in helping rehabilitate injured service personnel, especially those with spinal injuries, organised an event for those hurt during World War II. The first International Wheelchair Games coincided with the start of the now last-but-one Olympics to be held in London. The rest as they say is history and by 1960 in Rome Dr Guttmann’s vision had evolved into the inaugural Paralympics. The 400 disabled participants came from all walks of life and were not just injured servicemen.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

But here’s the irony. Given the genesis of the Paralympics it will surprise many, and shock some, to learn that just six members – two per cent – of the current Great British team are from the armed forces.

To be blunt, it isn’t as if there isn’t a deep pool of prospective talent. Since the start of 2006, 281 UK personnel have been categorised as being very seriously injured in Afghanistan. 289 others seriously injured. Before ‘Afghan’, was Iraq. For Operation Telic the figures were 73 and 149 respectively.

Most of these people will have been young, extremely fit, immensely courageous and steely-willed. And as an organisation the military puts sport very much at the heart of their activities and they support all abled and disabled service personnel achieve the highest levels possible in numerous sporting activities.

So why will so few of them be competing in 2012? Is the MOD disinterested and failing to carry the flame for an institution it itself helped bear and nurture? Or is there something else that precludes participation of the very people one would want on the team sheet?

Despite first sight of the evidence it is probably the latter.

The numbers demonstrate the balance of casualties have occurred in the last half decade or so. Advances in equipment and battlefield medical provision mean that many of these troops survived injuries which in previous conflicts they would not. Yet it also means more soldiers, sailors and airmen than ever before are left facing the future with life changing injuries, a euphemism for terrible wounds which require years of treatment. Many have lost one or two limbs, brain damage, loss of sight and groin injuries are also common. The road to some degree of adequate recovery is long and arduous.

Occasionally it is all but impossible. Demonstrating the difficulties a good friend and close colleague was seriously wounded in 2008 when his vehicle went over an IED, this would have been as the last Paralympics was coming to an end. Four years later he still wears a cage around his left leg, shattered by the blast. Even now there is no guarantee that he will not lose the limb but his fight is no less a fight than those chasing Olympic glory.

Clearly there are wounded colleagues who notably and publicly achieve immense feats of endurance: reaching the poles, trekking to Everest, learning to ski, sail and cycle. They are truly inspirational role models, but for the majority of those who have been hurt the challenge is not to travel to the ends of the earth or to climb mountains, but simply to get to the end of the road under their own steam or ascend the stairs in a home designed for the unimpeded. Their lives are not moulded by four-year training cycles but constant hurdles over which they must leap merely to reach the end of each day.

Nor is youth, for those who possess it, a single-edged sword, for their bodies continue to mature. Cleaved bones keep on growing.

Recovering from catastrophic injuries

None of which is to say that future Paralympics teams will not be packed with service people. But first, almost to a man, those with injuries want to stand on their own two feet. The great depths of pride and courage they possess drive them on to try and regain their independence and, crucially, to regain their place in the military family as equals.

Winning a gold medal is one thing, retaining the admiration and respect of colleagues is quite another. And it is these things which the professionals at the MOD rehabilitation centre at Headly Court focus on, helped on by the immeasurable contributions from charities like Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and the Army Benevolent fund just to name a few.

For once a soldier, always a soldier and nowhere is this best demonstrated than with Lance Corporal Ben Parkinson.

Horrifically maimed in 2006, Ben carried the torch through his home town of Doncaster ahead of the able-bodied games, not from a wheelchair, but walking tall as a soldier who serves in the British Army. And he is not alone; the number of soldiers who return from operation in Afghanistan without limbs yet fight to stand with their colleagues to receive their operational medals is also inspirational.


The motto of the Paralympics is ‘Spirit in Motion’. It could be said that Ben and his colleagues exemplify this sentiment day in day out, not just every four years.



Breathing hard, my back against the dusty wall of a mud compound, its metal doors forced open to reveal a small shop, the coolness of its shade washing over me, I stared hard at the Taliban fighter at my feet.

All smiles after the patrol when all my men are safe

He stared back.

Just moments earlier he had been intent on killing me and my men. What his motivation was – ideology, money, excitement – I didn’t know and would never find out. For the man’s deep, dark eyes were unseeing.

They were those of a man who had breathed his last, another casualty of war.

Where he lay, a small pool of blood had formed behind his head, his loose fitting robes twisted around him, the feet bare, the long hair matted with dirt, his beard matted with blood.

Around him was strewn the detritus of a medical emergency; tubes, bandages, a syringe, signs that immediately after he had been shot the soldiers then proceeded to try and save his life. It was not to be.

Death had triumphed over life. When we could, we would take a DNA sample and a photo, and then leave his body to be buried by the local population whose hospitality he had forced himself upon, taking advantage of the Pashtun-Wali code, the ancient custom of kindness to strangers adhered to as much today by the local population as it was during the time of Alexander the Great.

Afghan Market Stall.

But procedure would have to wait a bit longer, for the sounds of combat had not died with the young insurgent.

Even as my soldiers had tried to staunch his flow of blood and that of one of his wounded colleague, their comrades renewed the attack, trying to force us from the ground we had so recently taken, hoping we would abandon not just the territory but also the wounded fighter and the weapons and radios we had captured.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the situation. Using military mission verbs, we had been in the area to Find, Feel and Understand, in other words learn about the area.

Our patrol had been working on a road between Kalang, our main Patrol Base in Saidabad, Nad-e-Ali, Helmand Province and the rather smaller and more isolated checkpoint Tanoor. The result was predictable.

The insurgents had been first to engage, the 7.62mm short rounds from their AK47s, and 7.62mm long rounds from the PKMs, splitting the air above our heads, ripping up the earth at our feet and slamming into the compound walls the young rangers were using for cover.

But this wasn’t a day to absorb the enemy fire and merely trade a few rounds of our own. Today was a day to take the fight to them. Fast, aggressive movement, charging in depth, clearing insurgent positions and cutting off withdrawal routes.

The dead insurgent had tried to use children to mask his retreat, the same terrified youngsters he had hidden behind when he first opened up at us.

Not that his tactics were any match for the skill of my ranger sniper. He fired without hesitation, but not without thought. Because the highly trained Royal Irish soldier had many things going through his head as he focused on the insurgent.

He had been trained to ask himself three simple questions, Can I? Could I? And finally should I? The first two questions relating to his rules of engagement the last question relating to the impact of firing, what effect would it have not just on the insurgent but on the local population. In the end he had no choice, his skill matching his training.

It was then that the insurgent’s comrade moved from the shadows, rifle in hand as he fired wildly down the track. It was the next .338 calibre bullet from the sniper’s weapon that

A Force Multiplier in Combat

smashed through his groin exiting his buttock and sent him spinning to the ground.

This was not the movies. There was no spray of blood, no arms thrown theatrically into the air, just the sickly sound of the impact; lead boring through flesh and bone.

For the enemy the relief of being alive would quickly have been tempered by knowledge that his body had been seriously if not fatally damaged, physically unable to respond to the commands sent from the brain.

I am no stranger to violent death. Bosnia, Kosovo, the war in Iraq and now three tours of Afghanistan, have ensured that. But that does not mean I am immune to it, whether the loss of life has been suffered by friend or foe. I feel both keenly. The immediate euphoria of overcoming an enemy tarnished by the sense of waste.

Death on the battlefield is at least followed by a full stop. It is the fate of the wounded that raises the questions and introduces the thorny matter of compassion.

After the sniper struck there were quick decisions to be made. Do I send my men 400 metres forward to recover the wounded, give them medical treatment, arrest them and send them back to Camp Bastion?

Or do I leave them writhing in pain and misery, hopelessly willing their shattered limbs to carry them beyond our reach? It’s is a question of risk versus gain, but it is also a question of compassion on the battlefield.

I decided to exercise the compassion only available to the victor. The surviving insurgent is treated as if he is one of us. With a dressing on the wound, and morphine for the pain, a MIST report is sent back to HQ classifying him as a CAT A casualty.

Soon a helicopter will arrive to whisk him away to the same facility that would have treated a British casualty if the roles had been reversed, no medical distinction being made, it is the Law of Armed Conflict and it governs all our actions on the battlefield.

Meanwhile his dead colleague is shown the dignity in death I suppose we all deserve. His clothes are rearranged, his arms straightened by his sides.

Nowhere in the rules and regulations does it say this needs to be done. For what the young soldiers of 1 R IRISH do is a human thing, not a military action, there is a gentleness in the mayhem that makes me proud to command these young soldiers.

THE THREAT – Every minute of every day for combat troops.


The rifle sat easily in the firers hand as he lay in the rushes beside the irrigation ditch – his body hidden from view. Only the tip of the weapon protruding, the only part visible.

The rifle sight settled on the enemy fighter as the firer began to settle his breathing, ready to begin the firing cycle and take the shot.

He was confident that a combination of the sun setting behind him, the reeds from the ditch concealing his position would offer protection from the retaliation that would inevitably follow.

Returning Fire

To his left lay his number two, also comfortable amongst the vegetation, scanning the open ground, watching not just for the enemy but also civilians who might stray into the line of fire. Next to him was his own automatic rifle. There was nothing said between the pair.

Gently the firer squeezed the trigger and the bullet was gone.

The 7.62mm round flew through the air at around 750 metres a second. With nothing to deviate it, the only thing that would prevent it from hitting the target was the accuracy of the firer.

Today the Taliban marksman was off his game for the bullet landed short, at the feet of the young soldier it was meant to strike, meant to kill.

Immediately he hit the ground, his patrol colleagues joining him in the Afghan dirt.

In unison they peered through their x6 ACOG sights, as Corporal ‘Lofty’ McDowell called in the action:

“Contact, single round, graded red from the west. Firing point not identified, wait-out”, he screams into the mouthpiece of his Bowman 354 radio.

Doug Beattie: reutrn to Afghanistan

On his third tour of Afghanistan, Lofty is newly promoted but vastly experienced for someone so young. He is already used to the Taliban’s ongoing tactic; the single round engagement.

As his men continue their hunt for the firing point, from 700 metres away another round is fired, narrowly missing a second soldier.

In official military circles the enemy firer would be known as a marksman, trained shot or sharpshooter, to call him anything else would imply the enemy had a capability they do not. It would lead to a perception of a highly sophisticated, highly skilled, operator able to engage us from extreme long distances.

But the reality is that it makes no difference what you call the firer. When you are pinned down by accurate fire and you cannot identify the firing point terminology becomes unimportant, a talking point for those not there.

What is important is how you deal with this threat.

For soldiers fighting in Helmand this is just one of many enemy tactics they have to deal with. They are well trained and know how to counter whatever the enemy throws at them, today it is small arms fire, tomorrow it will be an IED, they get on with the job while others talk about it.

As I lift my head from the dirt I see Lofty going about his work, supremely confident with his own ability and that of his men.


“A giant of a man.”

These are the words used by Colonel Bob Seddon, the former commanding officer of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid, to describe the bomb disposal expert killed in Sangin whose inquest was held in 2010.

It is a fitting tribute to a fiercely brave man.

But for every one or two Improvised Explosive Devices – so called roadside bombs – found by specialist high risk teams several more are unearthed by the skill and concentration of the ordinary soldier.

Simple Soldiers, Complex Skills

Such was the case when Ranger Gavin Edgar found one of the deadly devices and a haul of other IED making equipment while on patrol in Nad-e-Ali.

“I slowly pulled the top of the hay away, saw the pressure plate and couldn’t believe my eyes! I’m delighted but I was just doing my job at the end of the day”, said the 19-year-old from Ballymoney, Northern Ireland modestly.

Modest or not the skill with which he does his job accounted for a device capable of killing him, his colleagues and innocent civilians. With the device was the component parts to make a further 10 devices.

It is statements like that from Ranger Edgar which underlies the real courage of these men, many only teenagers, as they go about their work trying to make Nad-e-Ali a better place for the people of Helmand.

These young soldiers, brothers, sons, husbands and friends step forward day in, day out knowing each step could be their last.

Amongst their number will be those armed with metal detectors, scanning the ground ahead of them. But often the detector will offer only psychological comfort because – as with the device which accounted for Olaf Schmid – the bombs the enemy plant are increasingly sophisticated and decreasingly reliant on metal components to make them work.

The lonely hunt for IEDs by none specialists

We do have another weapon in our armory though, the mark one eyeball.

Inching forward soldiers will scrutinise the ground at their feet looking for the tell-tale signs of enemy activity: disturbed earth, patches of raised ground, soil a slightly different colour to that which surrounds it.

But the task is exacting. It allows for no breaks, no distraction. A moment’s lack of focus can result in broken bodies and shattered lives.

There is also the peril of tunnel-vision. With so much attention centred on the hazard below there is always the risk that another Taliban threat – an ambush, suicide bomber – goes unnoticed until it is too late.

So far the combined brains of those working in the arms industry have failed to develop what would perhaps be the most useful battlefield weapon of all – eyes in the back of your head.

Until that happens, the imprecise act of warfare goes on, with British troops – hour by hour, minute by minute – making judgement calls on where the biggest and most immediate dangers actually lie.

A ‘Find’ a life saved

Most of the time we get it right and complete another patrol unscathed. But not always.

And that is when another miserable train of events is set in motion: the loss of a man, the repatriation of a body, the inquest into a violent death.

As my Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir DSO MBE said of Ranger Edgar:

“The IED threat in this area has been significant. We have lost life and limb to IEDs. Ranger Edgar’s professionalism has without doubt saved lives. A good morning’s work!”

It is continuous, relentless, it saps the soldiers energy little by little. It is both physically and mentally demanding and it drives your actions every minute of every day, every step, every turn of the wheel. “But it is just about doing my job at the end of the day”.

FEAR – A very personal emotion

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

Fear. You won’t hear soldiers talk about it. Fear is a taboo subject, a word suggesting weakness or worse, what they once would have called a lack of moral fibre.

An Afghan soldier in the heat of battle

Troops skirt around it, deploying instead phrases like, “that was a close one” or “that wasn’t funny” to mask the reality of what they are feeling. But the question is not whether soldiers feel fear – for they do – but how they react to it.

It can be a powerful motivator, allowing you to do things you never thought you were capable of. But fear can also be mentally and physically debilitating, preventing men from carrying out the actions needed for survival.

If you look you will see fear everywhere. I have known fear, felt it, saw it in the eyes of my men and in the faces of my enemies. It strikes without warning, not just in the heat of combat but in the quiet reflective moments when there is too much time to think.

In the heart of Helmand there is much to be fearful of: the threat of death and injury, of having seen your family, your wife and children for the last time; of letting down your friends and colleagues, your regiment, your hometown, your country.

I have felt physically sick before deploying on a routine patrol, almost debilitated with fear as I watch children and women flee an area we’ve just entered, their dispersal known as a combat indicator, it’s always a prelude to attack. But as a commander I must stand tall, continue the mission, it is the loneliest of feelings, the loneliness of command.

In the middle of winter in Southern Helmand the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields freshly ploughed and irrigated. There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view or fire. The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers’ legs into the saturated terrain

It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War.

When the bullets come there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot. As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins.

The shouts are workmanlike and purposeful, orders are given and information passed. Insurgent positions are identified and fire is returned. For most the fear has been elbowed aside, the controlled violence and frenetic activity offering an escape. However for some the fear is persistent…

Looking for combat indicators

Back home, the British public are buoyed by media stories of heroism, young men overcoming adversity, it is uplifting. And these stories are part of the picture. I witnessed such bravery on many occasions, I was instrumental in the award of 3 Military Crosses and a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to men under my command – there can be no greater honour for me that to have my soldiers recognised for what they have done.

But where is the glory for the man who has overcome the most incapacitating fear? The one who has – against every instinct – unfurled himself from a foetal position and used his inner strength to haul himself up to face the enemy?

What recognition for the soldier who has lost a colleague in horrifying circumstances and yet the very next day will return to the scene despite uncontrollable vomiting and emotional confusion?

For many of the men and women in Helmand the biggest battles every day of every week for six months and more are with themselves. Only when those are won can they turn their attentions to the enemy.

Even for me – a soldier of 30 years with 13 operational tours completed – those battles are still to be won daily, each time harder than the last and well beyond the confines of military service.

But they are never fought alone, they are fought with those who share your experiences – your friends, your colleagues, the men left and right of you when the bullets fly.

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

I woke in my camp cot sweating. Even in sleep the fear is there.

An outpost in Helmand Province

British deaths shine spotlight on partnering operation. Tragedy underlines conflicting realities of our #Afghan allies.

The euphemisms for the type of slaughter which has resulted in the deaths of men from the Welsh Guards and Royal Corps of Signals are anodyne. Green on blue; blue on blue; green on green. Yet the human tragedy of such events, where one ally turns his gun on another, will be all too evident to the loved ones of those who will not now be returning from Afghanistan alive.

Afghan soldier prepares for battle alongside British forces.

The killing of three more soldiers in Afghanistan highlights once again the difficulties our troops face whilst training Afghan security forces. The job of mentoring was once the sole domain of UK Special Forces. Yet as the scale of the job became clear the net was cast wider to find suitable people to do it. The bulk of the burden fell on the ‘Green Army’.

Events like those reported today throw a long shadow over this work and it is easy to believe that everything is going wrong in the country. Yet the figures hint at another picture and in this war context is everything.

So far we have trained over 350,000 Afghan security personnel; that’s over a quarter of a million men at arms, nearly four times the size of the UK Army.  Over half of Afghanistan’s people live and work under the protection of the Afghan security services and the other 50% will be in the same situation by 2014.

Me working with an Afghan police commander who was himself a former member of the Taliban.

When we arrived in Afghanistan just under one million children were in education, none of them where female, now we have three million and a third are female.  Many people will know that education is the key to success in countries like Afghanistan but to put education, development, reconstruction, and law and order on the table you need security.

The same goes for the Afghan parliament, when we arrived there were no female MPs. Now there are over 60 and a female is running for the presidency, something that could never have happened a few years ago.

There have of course been some terrible setbacks and today’s is the seventh-such incident since we arrived in the south of the country. In human terms 15 young men have ostensibly died at the hands of our allies, men we had befriended, put our trust in who turned out to be either a wolf in sheep clothing or individuals with a real issue with our western ways.

During three tours of Afghanistan I worked closely with Afghan forces: ate with them, slept in the same compound as them, fought side by side.  They are a people of contrast, incredibly compassionate yet incredibly cruel. In 2006 I fought with an Afghan police major named Sher Wali. He remains the most honourable, noble and brave man I have ever known – he gave his life for mine.  Yet contrast that with what happened in the Upper Gereskh valley in 2008 when I watched as soldiers of the Afghan Army casually murdered a Talib taken prisoner only minutes previously.

But what is the alternative to trying to deal with these dichotomies? Those who say we should throw down our weapons and run ignore the strategic situation. To leave any semblance of order we need to complete the training up to a standard where our presence is not significantly missed.  Once we have trained the ANSF and they take over responsibility it will create the time and space for the remaining British soldiers to withdraw.

That said, the withdrawal has already started with the first 500 leaving by the end of this year and the remainder will follow in an orderly fashion over the next 2 years.

My patrol tries to deal with the aftermath of the murder of a Taliban prisoner by our Afghan Army colleagues.

History could teach us a thing or two. Those critics of the current policy who harp back to the first and second Afghan wars as proof the British cannot win in Afghanistan, should read up a little bit more. The British did actually win the military side of the conflicts, but they failed to secure the peace. It is the peace which is the difficult part of this puzzle and if we do not leave behind viable structures including security then history surely will repeat itself.


The four heavy machine guns rained fire down into the valley, the 7.62mm rounds ripping up the soft earth or spinning off at unpredictable angles; tracer rounds lighting up as they arced into the sky. Low down in the crook of the defile – below the sheet of metal flying overhead – the small heavily armed rifle company snuck through the undergrowth, following the course of the river, heavy white acrid smoke masking their movements. Every so often their progress would be stalled by an encounter with the enemy dug into their positions.

The response from the attackers was murderous. A cascade of ordnance unleashed from their arsenal of rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, followed by high explosive grenades at close quarters to clear the enemy and allow momentum to be regained. And so it went on.

Variously crawling, running, jumping and yelling their way across the landscape the soldiers all wore masks of grim determination. More than once the cry of ‘casualty, casualty’ reverberated down the line as each man passed back the message that a comrade had been hit. Next would come the wounded man himself, dragged towards the company axis and safety, ready for the company sergeant major to retrieve him and deliver him to the aid post.

Yet the scene is not one from the heat of the arid Afghan desert, nor the suffocating green zone that straddles the Helmand river. This is the lush, moist, mist covered Brecon Beacons and the men under fire and returning fire are training. They all wear the distinctive flash of the UK’s premier 16 Air Assault Brigade but these are not regular soldiers. They are members of A Company 2 Royal Irish, a Territorial Army Unit recently grouped with 16 Brigade.

The work-out in the Welsh countryside is the culmination of a two-week exercise which has already seen the soldiers spend many days being tested to their limits in Cyprus.

The territorial infantry are clearly part-timers, but anyone who wants to use the term dismissively to belittle the professionalism and commitment of the soldiers need only see how they have performed over the past fortnight to realise their judgement is flawed.

In recent months and years there has been much to say on the purpose and positioning of the TA in the overall UK defence and security plan, but it is worth remembering that many of the 38,000 TA troops have played a major part in military activity over the past decade with many of them fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, and often both.

I have been fortunate enough to serve alongside the TA as a regular soldier, and also – on my last tour of Afghanistan – mobilise as a TA officer, and I can vouch that the training and preparation for operations is identical whether you are a full-timer or territorial.

Yet still perceptions of a two-tier system remain and it is undeniable that there are those in the TA – and indeed those who run the TA – who suffer from a crisis of confidence, their perceived second-class citizenship not just fostered by those outside the armed forces but also amongst some regulars propping up the mess bars.
But looking at our reserve forces as something to enhance our overall defence plan could elevate the TA’s status to that which it deserves to be. As an increasingly integral and numerically significant part of the larger UK defence strategy they will soon find themselves resourced to a far higher level than ever before.  They will be expected to do more as a cohesive unit instead of supplying individual reinforcements who are cast far and wide to make up the numbers amongst regular units.

The TA should be encouraged to have ambition; a drive to do more and achieve more than traditionalists might believe possible or warrant as desirable. To see them in the model of the US National Guard in the future may not be far off the mark

Earlier this year six esteemed military men and commentators on soldiering matters wrote to the Daily Telegraph, Colonel Richard Kemp and my old boss Colonel Tim Collins amongst them. Decrying the cutbacks in the numbers of regular troops they said:

“We urge the Ministry of Defence to halt further cuts in regular Army manpower and to review its current redundancy programme. The Government should re-examine this aspect of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and recognise that the primary role of the TA and other reserve forces is as a vital support to the full-time professionals, not as an alternative to them.”

They have a point. But only up to a point. I regard things slightly differently, taking a view based more on what challenges the future holds for the armed forces than on what has gone before. Off course we must be realistic in what the TA can achieve and I think this is the question we should be asking, not dwelling on their perceived failings.
It is not difficult to see the TA taking on the role of the Falklands reinforcement company for example, or conducting operation TOSCA, the UN policing role in Cyprus. It is also easy to see short-term training teams from the TA taking up roles in places like Uganda, Botswana, Kenya or the Baltic states. In fact 2 Royal Irish have already conducted three of these training missions in Uganda readying the Ugandan People’s Defence Force for their mission in Somalia. Watching those young men of 2 R IRISH fight, not fumble, their way up the Welsh valley as a disciplined force, it was impossible to tell they all had ‘real jobs’ to get back to. There was no doubt in my mind that they are ready to meet the challenges thrown up by the SDSR. All they need is the nod of approval from on high and an ongoing commitment to appropriate equipment and instruction, for if there is one thing the TA cannot do is train themselves, for that they need regular support. It would be foolish to deny them either the resources they need or the respect they deserve, because in the short to medium-term it might well be the TA who hold the line while the regular army re-cocks, adjusting from the full-on campaigning role in Afghanistan, to a go anywhere, do anything contingency function. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9m5YB8GGa0

My thoughts on the withdrawal method. Pulling out of #Afghanistan


Winston Churchill famously once said, “This is not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning”

Maybe the same thought could be applied to the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. To start pulling people out is one thing. Yet setting a rigid date for completing it is quite another. The US seems to leading the way with a 33,000 reduction in troop numbers over in the next 18 months. Many nations, including Britain have also publically committed to exit timetables.

But pulling out will be a leisurely process. Just recently the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said 500 personnel – mainly combat troops plus logistics support – will be gone by the end of 2012. That will still leave about 9,000 men and women in country, and while ministers have said fighting personnel will be in ‘Afghan’ until the end of 2014, the exact rate and style of extraction will be “conditions based”.

As a soldier who has spent much of the last six years either in, or preparing to go to, Afghanistan my emotions are extremely mixed.  Initially I was struck by the thought this was a politically motivated move, with intense domestic pressure forcing President Obama’s hand. The same view can be held of the decisions being made by other leaders including Prime Minister David Cameron. In fact to think otherwise would be naïve. To slightly misuse Abraham Lincoln’s quote, the ballot is stronger than the bullet.

The thought that I – we all – had done so much to help the people of Afghanistan only to find that as soon as the opportunity arose we could cut and run left a bad taste in the mouth. Morally it seemed reprehensible, a slight to both the troops who had died and to the Afghans who have suffered along the way.

But it is possible to see legitimate reasons for the current rush for the door. Governance has improved in Afghanistan and while many will understandably baulk at attempts to bring the Taliban into the peace process, this is world of realpolitik which has offered hope in other troubled corners of the globe, some of them not very far across the Irish Sea from the British mainland.

On reflection I think it probably is the right time for our drawdown, though it will be a long time before everyone is out. I am surprised ministers haven’t been quizzed further on our commitment to Afghanistan even after handover? We already know that an Afghan Sandhurst is to be established in Kabul, presumably manned by British Officers and SNCOs, but what about force protection, logistics and medical support?

I would estimate that in 2015 the UK force levels might still be at those seen when I first arrived in the country in 2006: perhaps 2,000 people.  These men and women will be based in Bastion helping to facilitate the Afghan army and police. They will not be interacting directly with the local nationals but they will be robust enough to give backbone to the Afghan security forces.  I would also imagine NATO would retain an over-the-horizon force, ready to be parachuted (not literally) back into the badlands if any particular province or district is having problems.

It is worth looking at parallels with Iraq. Combat missions there ended in July 2009 when the majority of our forces were removed, but a training agreement with the Baghdad government meant others – predominantly Royal Navy personnel – were involved in the country for a long time afterwards.

The major difference between the two conflicts is scope and mission. While not quite ‘a little local difficulty’ the situation in Iraq was predominantly one contained within the country’s borders. It did not involve foreign fighters nor – a bit of oil apart – did it threaten our economic and political stability. Afghanistan does both with the threats coming not just from the local Taliban but also that amorphous and internationally represented group Al Qaeda. Throw in the huge opium poppy crop which forms the basis for some 90 percent of the heroin dealt around the globe and it is clear that whatever progress has been made in Afghanistan, there are several sound reasons for making sure the pressure is kept up by internal organs of law and order long after 2015.

A subsidiary issue, though one important to military chiefs is the experience working in places like Afghanistan actually provides our armed forces. It keeps us on our toes, ready for that yet to be announced war that – if history is anything to go by – will one day surely follow our Afghan ‘departure’.