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The final tour

“The first time I went to Afghanistan in 2008 I don’t think I appreciated how much danger I was in. I was invited by the Brigadier of the 52nd. From the moment I arrived I travelled around the country with the troops, jumping on helicopters, moving around in Snatch Land Rovers, going where they went. I guess I was quite green and didn’t realise the situation I was in. When I returned in 2014 the mood was completely different. Security was much tighter. In 2008 when we were in camp the atmosphere was very relaxed, but because of the rise of what are known as ‘green on blue’ attacks – rogue cells of militants within the Afghan security forces attacking soldiers on bases – the atmosphere within the wire had changed. I wasn’t allowed anywhere without an armed chaperone and no soldier could be more than an arm’s reach from their weapon. There was a palpable sense of tension despite knowing that the tour was coming to an end – you never knew where the next attack was coming from.”

“Despite the tension there was also a sense of boredom among the troops – there was a lot of waiting around and most of the work was packing things up, not being on active operations. Unlike in 2008, many troops were on their first tour of duty and told me they wanted to see some action. Having seen the look in the eyes of people who had been in the field in 2008 – and had clearly witnessed terrible things – I had to bite my lip to stop myself telling them to be careful what they wished for.”

“One of the jobs the troops seemed to dislike the most was driving high-level personnel around between bases. You had soldiers who had been trained to fight and were acting, as they saw it, as taxi drivers. In 2008 this was done in Land Rovers, which were known as ‘coffins on wheels’ because they gave so little protection. In 2014 they had replaced them with these Foxhound armoured vehicles. They are incredible – they cost around £1 million each and are highly armoured, but still you never stop moving. If traffic slows, as it has in this picture, the soldiers drive on the central reservation, the pavement, anywhere. There is a sense that if you stop moving that’s it. This was taken while driving between camps near Kabul and there was intel that there was a lorry loaded with tonnes of explosives driving around at the same time looking for troops, so we were on edge. The driver was saying he’d rather be in a firefight than driving around risking coming across an IED [improvised explosive device] – in a firefight at least you have a chance.”

“What really fascinated me about the 2014 trip was the deconstruction of the war machine. Camp Bastion was started by ten men with shovels being dropped into the desert. Out of the ground rose a city the size of Reading. The airstrip was as busy as Gatwick. That takes some dismantling. Anything of value was flown back. A lot of it wasn’t worth the expense but couldn’t be left – computers, knives, fridges and so on. This was known as “war-like junk” and had to be dismantled, ground down or cut into so many pieces that it could never be reassembled.”

“This picture is the one that stays in my mind the most. It was taken when I was going through the “war-like junk” and noticed hundreds of spent shotgun cartridges and smoke canisters. It really brought home to me that Afghanistan was a face-to-face conflict. You tend to think of Afghanistan as a very modern war, with smart bombs, aerial strikes – a laptop war. But these show a different story, one almost about hand-to-hand combat. A fight where you see the whites of your enemies’ eyes.”

“There were times among all the machinery that I found things that seemed very organic, almost natural. The open nose of the plane reminded me of a whale, while this Tornado engine looked almost like an eye. There was so little wildlife in the desert – a few birds nesting in the canopies above the planes – that maybe you start seeking these things out.”

“This [below]  is taken from one of the ‘sangers’ – or lookout towers – in Bastion. One of the soldiers told me he found it the hardest one to man. Maintaining a state of readiness, feeding off your nerves, while watching children play. But he needed to maintain the idea of separation: if you let your guard down then that’s the weak point that will be exploited. In 2008, there were stories of new Taliban recruits – children – being loaded up with opium and told to attack the bases. The question of what a soldier would have to do faced with an armed child firing at the base and ignoring warning shots doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“The sun was so intense that when it hit the camouflage netting it created this incredible dappling effect. The heat was extraordinary and everything had to be air conditioned to compensate – the tents, the mess hall, even the dog kennels. Actually the dogs had the only swimming pool in Camp Bastion. The heat makes everything slow progress, even stocktaking – as these soldiers are doing.”

“This [below] is the Boardwalk in Kandahar Airfield, the most surreal – and divisive – area within any of the bases. It’s a massive hexagon, probably 100 metres on each side and in the middle is a football pitch, hockey court and running track while the boardwalk outside is full of chain fast-food restaurants, shops, supermarkets etc. It was like an American campus, but was actually built by the Dutch and Canadians. One of the American generals hated it. He felt it made the troops soft and wanted it torn down. Others thought it was good for morale, especially for the Americans who serve really long tours of duty –18 months at least.”

“I watched a lot of training exercises in Camp Bastion. There’s a complete replica of an Afghan compound which would host simulations of different scenarios like this one with the helicopter rescue. Not everything I saw was as impressive.
The troops on the shooting range are medics being reacquainted with shooting practice – some of them were missing by so much it was dangerous.”

“This is the Qargha training camp – ‘Sandhurst in the Sun’ as it was known. It was here that the British troops were training up the Afghan forces who would take over when they withdrew. This was a boxing lesson and I liked the imagery of the Afghan troops taking up the fight. The Afghan troops looked incredibly tough, but most of them had no idea how to fight. You had rows of 30 on one side, 30 on the other. They would shuffle towards each other and then have a sort of schoolyard scuffle.”

“Four hundred and fifty-three British troops died in Afghanistan and every loss of life is heartbreaking. But it’s easy to forget that the Afghanistan conflict lasted longer than World War I and World War II combined and in terms of loss of life 453 probably equals about an hour’s worth of fighting in those wars. I think there’s a danger that one of the worst legacies of Afghanistan will be mental health issues. Some of the things the soldiers have seen are not easily processed and when you go from that back into modern life there are going to be problems. When you are in the camp or on patrol then you feel like you are at the centre of the universe. You really do. The bonds between soldiers are really strong and it feels like you are making a difference. Then you go from that back to home, the bonds are broken and for a lot of people nothing you’ve done or do seems to matter. The political machine and the military machine are separate things: a soldier’s job is to do as they are told, be it right or wrong. We should all be aware of the legacy that remains when the orders stop.”

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