Letter from Kabul, December 2014: 'Living the dream!'
Lieutenant Nick T J Cartwright, 2 Rifles writes:
The snow-capped mountain range of the Hindu Kush that surrounds Kabul provides a stunning and dramatic backdrop to my working environment and to my desk as a type this account. My invaluable local interpreter tells me that soon the whole of the city will be covered in white.
As platoon commander of 9 Platoon, C Company, 2nd Battalion The Rifles (2 RIFLES), in August I deployed on a six-month tour: Operation HERRICK 20/Operation TORAL, to fulfil the role of Kabul Support Unit (KSU), providing support and force protection to UK and entitled nations' troops in the Kabul area.
Having read Theology at Bristol after leaving Lancing, I commissioned into The Rifles from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in December 2012, and then went on to complete the four-month Infantry Platoon Commanders’ course in Brecon, Wales, before joining 2 RIFLES, based in Northern Ireland.
Our journey to Kabul began a full year before deployment, with a two-month exercise beginning in June 2013 on the British Army training area in Alberta, Canada, familiarly known as the ‘Prairie’. There is no better way to get to know your men and to earn their trust and respect than being on exercise. We returned from Canada to three weeks’ leave once back in the UK, before shifting our focus to getting our Riflemen through driving courses and our commanders through specialised vehicle commander courses, in preparation for the kind of vehicles (Foxhounds, Ridgebacks and Civilian Armoured Vehicles) we would be using in Kabul. We also completed specific exercises geared towards the tasks that would be required of us on tour. Our training took us from the rainy ranges and training areas of Northern Ireland, to even more rainy ranges and exercise training areas in Wales, and to the hot ranges of Cyprus in late July this year.
From Cyprus, we flew to the dusty desert outpost of Camp Bastion, in Helmand Province, and in early August we finally touched-down in Kabul.
We are based in Camp Qargha in the Eastern part of Kabul, and C Company's mission is to provide Force Protection to the 100-strong international military mentors advising their Afghan counterparts at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy. For this tour, our Company is comprised of two British platoons (9 and 10 platoon), and one Australian platoon (from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment). Support to the Academy is British-lead, and is a manifestation of Britain's enduring commitment to Afghanistan. The mentors are predominantly serving British men and women, but there are also Danes, Norwegians, New Zealanders and Australians.
Camp Qargha itself is a self-contained and self-sufficient 800m2 fortified ISAF camp situated within the Academy site. The Academy covers roughly ten square kilometres, and is home to those seeking to become Afghan Army officers and to the staff who teach them. The academy structure and training is based on the Sandhurst model, with tailor-made adjustments to suit particular Afghan Ministry of Defence requirements. As at Sandhurst, at any one time, there are three officer cadet intakes (situated in three distinct areas of the Academy, and the course, from start to finish, is a year long; slightly more than at Sandhurst. The number of ISAF mentors is progressively decreasing as Afghan instructors increasingly take the lead in every aspect of the cadet training.
Three tasks fall to our mission: Force Protection, Quick Reaction Force and Guard. These separate tasks rotate on a weekly basis between the three platoons. On Force Protection, we are required to ensure the day-to-day security of the mentors as they go to work with their counterparts training each of the three different intakes. Typically, this involves a junior commander (a Corporal or Lance Corporal) deploying to each of the Academy sites in an armoured Protected Mobility Vehicle (Foxhound), usually with a team of five Riflemen. In this role, they are what we call 'guardian angels', whose sole task is to protect the mentors in a stand-off but constantly alert stance. My job is to coordinate these teams, and, when the cadets are taking part in an exercise, to command my protection teams in-situ on the training area. In addition, several times a week, a number of high ranking mentors are also required to attend meetings and consultations in the city, usually in the 'Green Zone'. The 'Green Zone' is the heavily-fortified area, surrounded by enormous blast-walls and sentry towers, with multiple access checkpoints, situated at the heart of Kabul. It houses all the Afghan Ministerial buildings, most foreign embassies, and ISAF headquarters. Visits to the ‘Green Zone’ will involve either me or my platoon sergeant leading the vehicle convoy into the city.
The Quick Reaction Force rotation requires a platoon to be ready around the clock to respond to any incident involving ISAF either in the city or within the Academy. The main tasks are to provide protection, medical help and extraction capability to any ISAF personnel needing help. The Guard rotation entails a platoon providing constant perimeter protection to our camp, in sentry towers and at the main access points.
As will be clear from media reports, this is a tour which continues to face multiple challenges and dangers, and one that requires constant vigilance. There are few greater privileges, however, than to lead such a disciplined, professional and good-humoured group of infantry soldiers. I consider myself fortunate indeed to be deployed with my platoon and to be doing the job for which we have trained. It is a far cry, perhaps, from the fondly-recalled CCF fieldcraft training in the Ladywell Valley at Lancing 10 years ago now, but there is an undoubted thread of continuity. I am sure the Lancing CCF will continue to inspire others to follow my path: as I say, ‘living the dream’!