In pictures: Departure from Afghanistan
In 2008, photographer Robert Wilson travelled to Afghanistan to document the 52nd Infantry Brigade’s six-month tour of duty. Six years later, he returned to capture the end of British military presence in the country.
In Delayed Gratification #17, Wilson explains how the British military base at Camp Bastion had changed between his visits. The tension levels there, he says, were higher on the second visit due to an increase in “green on blue” attacks, where Afghan security personnel targeted their Western allies. At the same time, he speaks of witnessing “a sense of boredom among the troops”, as active operations gave way to preparations for departure.
“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 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 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.”
Wilson’s photographs of his return to Helmand are on display at the National War Museum in Edinburgh until 31st March. Read more about the exhibition here.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter.
Thanks for signing up.