What do you do…?
‘But what do you DO?’
Have you ever been asked that, and suddenly realise that the answer that you have to give is really difficult. It’s been said to me many, many times during my career in the RAF, and the answer has always been a bit of a difficult one…I used to say ‘I fix radars that are fitted to the Tornado F3 fast jet interceptor.’ THAT’S a bit of conversation killer. People have no reference you see. It’s not a job that is often bandied about; not one that they have much experience of. There are not many radars knocking about and (especially nowadays) even fewer Tornado F3’s.
Answering the question out here is the same. People ask on Twitter and Facebook you see. It’s a difficult one to answer. People have little frame of reference. Like when I say I am in the RAF they ask, ‘what do you fly?’ When I say I am out in Afghan they stop.
Most peoples frame of reference for that comes from the TV news. People fighting. People getting blown up. Another coffin sent home. Another funeral cortège going through Wooton Bassett.
And yes, some of the stuff I have been involved in out here has been ‘kinetic’, although so far, thank you God, I have not been involved in a fire-fight. I’ve provided security for helicopter operations, I’ve been involved in the Op Omid Haft, I’ve been one of the first on the scene of an IED strike…but I am not actually out here to do all that.
My job is very specific. It is to bring Stabilisation to the country of Afghanistan. It’s my job to help the people of Helmand to rebuild their province and their nation. I am here to act as an intermediary between the British Forces and the Afghan people. To help with governance and development. Sometimes it is very direct. Helping to manage projects that bring water, or a bridge, or irrigation to a village. Other times it is less direct. It could be about finding out who the local elders are in an area – like I did on Omid Haft – mainly by walking up to people and chatting to them and having a cup of tea with them. And once we have made contact with the elders, we work at bringing them together to discuss how the government can help them and the people in their communities.
On Omid Haft, it was a pleasure to sit with some one and listen to him say how welcome security forces are in an area. In one place, as I sat talking to an elder in a field, the Afghan National Army was building a check point on a road by the NEB canal. I asked him, ‘What can the government bring to your village?’
The elder looked at me, and smiled. He turned and pointed at the check point. ‘They already have,’ he said though the interpreter. ‘Just building that is enough. You make sure that those soldiers stay there and people here will be happy. All we want is security.’
Obviously, the British soldiers won’t be there for ever, and the gains we make are being passed across to the ANA. And we are there to develop and help the local communities through what we call ‘Transition’. This is where Afghans start to take over the running of the country themselves. In some areas it is more advanced that others.
Like I found on Omid Hatf, some places are ready for it almost as soon as we arrive. The villages we moved into during the operation were basically just waiting for the Taliban to leave. Like people everywhere, the local population just want to get on with their lives. They are farmers and just want to grow their crops, feed their animals and take both to a market. They want their children to grow up with an opportunity for the future and the desire that parents have for schools for their children is only matched by the desire of the children themselves to go there.
I have seen parents look embarrassed and ashamed that they can’t write their name in front of their children. And I have talked to locals who don’t want their own children to have that shame and embarrassment in the future. They want their children to be educated. And one of the best jobs I have out here is helping to build schools.
Seeing children enjoy being in school…it’s one of the images that I will take away from this country.
Working on the camp we have a couple of Afghans. A couple of interpreters live in a tent near to the gate of the camp and along with them we have three guys who help out with the cleaning in the welfare and mess tent. They do a few other of the more unpleasant jobs around the camp as well, and whilst they live slightly separate from us, they do mix well and do use some of the facilities as we do.
This morning was a case in point. The camp was quite empty as the infantry element of the people here were off providing support to an IED clearance operation nearby, and so the Welfare Tent was quite empty. I was in there making a cup of tea and noticed one of the LECs (Locally Employed Civilians) sitting with a cuppa of his own watching the TV. His English is quite good and I have told him that if he improved his English further then he might be able to get a job as an interpreter himself. Instead of washing the cooking pots he’d be earning far more for his family.
The BBC Breakfast News was on the streamed BFBS we get out here keeping us in touch with home, and it cut to the local news. Straight away the local news presenters started talking about traffic problems in and around London. The LEC watched intently. I watched him intently. I turned to the guy next to me and told him to look. ‘I wonder what is going through his head? What does he think of our country when he sees that? When he then goes outside and goes home…what does he think? What does he think of us?’
I wondered if he thoought how lucky we are. How fortunate we are. He sits there and sees our TV and sees our adverts. He sees all that we have and all that we do in the UK. And by God are we lucky. This place has so very little and has had so little for the past 30 years due to war, pain, conflict and violence. The people I have met out here have pretty much all been some of the most friendly and kind people I have ever met in the world. They offer hospitality when they have very little. They share what little they have with us, visitors to their country; arriving not only from another country and culture, but at times from what must seem like a different planet. Yes a minority don’t want us here and want to hurt us, but minorities everywhere are by nature never representative of the majority, The majority just want to get on with their lives.
And I am here to help them do that. I am here to offer them a future where they might have things like the LEC saw on the TV. Why shouldn’t they have them? Why shouldn’t their children all go to school. Why shouldn’t they all have houses with electricity and clean running water. They have just as much right to that as we do.
Even though it is early days yet, everyone has to start somewhere and I am glad to be here helping them on that road, and I am glad and richer for meeting people who have made me look at the world in a different way. Gul whose car was shot up by the Taliban, Mahmood, the kid who I shared a biscuit with, the elder who shared a tea in a field with me, all have taught me something different, but all something important.
I am off on my R&R very soon, and I need the rest, I need the break from being here, but as much I need that break I know it will reinvigorate me for the rest of my tour once I return. And actually, I now know how to deal with the question ‘What do you do?’ It’s an easy answer. I am helping the Afghans to rebuild Afghanistan.