Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Better the devil you know in Helmand

Picture: Patrick Hennessey
Afghanistan Notebook: flights are cancelled and departures delayed but the Army gets me - and members of my old regiment - to Kabul

By Patrick Hennessey for the Times

The weather in London forces a last-minute change to my best-laid plans to get to Afghanistan as a “civvie” so I can revisit my old regiment out there. I’m grateful, though, that old habits die hard: my waterproofed bergen fares better than most of my fellow passengers’ luggage sitting out in the snow once our flight has been cancelled.

The advantage of being rescued by the RAF from my snowed-out plan to fly commercially into Kabul is the chance to return on an old Tri-Star with members of my former regiment, the Grenadier Guards, coming back from their R&R through Brize Norton. Compared with the increasingly angry chaos in London City airport, the announcement of a slight delay in our departure is met with resignation; maybe soldiers are more used to waiting around, more patient than the thwarted Eurostar customers. Then again, maybe they’re just not in such a rush to leave home. Those with faded and battered combats heading back out seem more relaxed than those in freshly pressed and bright new kit deploying for the first time. The unknown is always more intimidating than the familiar, even when the familiar is Helmand.

Croissant, anyone?

Kandahar airfield (KAF) has expanded since I was last here, a French patisserie and a German PX (kit shop) the most obvious additions to the “boardwalk” and testament to the increased Nato commitment to the region. What hasn’t changed, however, is a sense of coming and going. Although home to many dedicated staff and aircrew, KAF for most of the British is a staging post, a relaxed midway point between the comforts of home and the rigours of Helmand.

We stroll around the vast camp without the need to carry helmets, body armour or weapons, and shopping seems to be the main activity of troops in transit. I’m struck that it was slightly cheeky of recent reports to spin the Prime Minister’s stay here as being a night in a “war zone”. Neither the nice ladies in the coffee shop nor the pizza delivery boys can remember when the base was last attacked.

For the full report click here for the Times Online

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