Life at the Tip of a Spear—Part Five: Afghanistan

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Nearly a year ago, my editor asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Garth Jones, a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I of course said yes without hesitation. What follows is part four of his story as told to me.

Click here for parts one, two, three and four.

Garth Jones: So, where were we? I forgot…

Brett Hamm: We finished up last time on Iraq. After that, you decided not to go to northern Iraq/Syrian border. So then what? After you left Iraq, you went home for a while?

GJ: I pulled the pin on that northern Iraq/Syria border task because of the risks after an assessment I was flown up there to complete. After I submitted it, it was largely ignored and they went ahead and deployed and started work. Within two weeks a massive car bomb rammed the perimeter wire exactly where I said it would and decimated the site, causing some casualties. It would have been a lot worse, apart from a diligent Ghurkha machine gunner on a roof.

A second issue where terrorists infiltrated the combat outpost we were on and assassinated the Iraqi army commander and an American officer with a vest-bomb occurred shortly after, and then a daisy chained IED (8 x 120 pound artillery shells) was found in the site planted by the workers themselves, designed to be triggered by mobile phones when we were stood next to it.

I wasn’t happy about the decisions being made and people were put into that situation regardless, so I pulled the pin and went home, having had a loud conversation with my ‘replacement’ up there who lost both his ear drums in the car bomb I said would happen. My mind was made up.

I was only home a week and I got a phone call and it was my old boss from Iraq and the AMEC boss, a really nice guy called Rick—the two Ricks—I’m on my hands-free in the car. The Rick’s just phoned up and said ‘Hey! It’s Rick and Rick.’ And I’m like that’s weird. ‘Where are you both?’ They said Kabul. So I’m like ‘What you calling me for?’ They go ‘Well, do you want to run the security for a project here in Afghan?’ So I said ‘Yeah look, right now I’ll say a tentative yes. Send me all the shit and when I get home I’ll give it a look.’

BH: OK, so you’re home for about a week and then?

GJ: Well, over to the States to get all the relevant admin and stuff out of the way, and then flew straight into Dubai and met the head guys there and then into Afghan, into Kabul. Which is a real culture shock because when you get there, you leave Baghdad—which is totally locked down, like a war zone, tanks and everything everywhere—and you turn up at Kabul airport and you walk out and you’re basically in the street. Very different. Very different.

You go to the airport car park and it’s just a bunch of Afghans hanging around the expat security details. Afghan people parking their cars, right next to yours, which doesn’t happen in Iraq. So I was very conscious of the fact that the security situation there is very low beat. You can have three or four months of nothing and then hotel attacks, car bombings, assassinations, everything at once. I just got picked up by a car and went to the local secure compound which was run by Armour Group, they have a big footprint there.

BH: When we finished our last interview, you mentioned some emotional issues started to show up around the time you were in Iraq. Did they continue when you got to Afghanistan?

GJ: The issues were there but did not surface readily. The tempo of the battle space was different, it was a lot of brain work and almost a reversion to the old days of intelligence gathering and Bosnia and Northern Ireland—that seventh sense started to take over and I ticked over quite well.

At home it was difficult and family and friends noticed a definite change and some worrying signs, but a lot of our ‘circle’ were in the same field, so we were all a little reflected and didn’t see it as readily as outsiders.

BH: What year was this?

GJ: That was 2007 into, well 2006/2007 . The interesting thing was during the war, the US had B52-ed it to death. It was just smashed. So there was ordinance all over it. 500-pounders buried, you know they go like ten meters underground if they don’t explode. So you’ve got to find and disarm, then remove, everything, and the mines! There were tank and anti personnel mines everywhere.

This prompts something of a diversion. For a little while we talk about the brilliant documentary Armadillo. It’s an incredibly powerful film. No talking heads, just fly-on-the-wall life on an FOB for soldiers in Afghanistan. Some of what happens, physically and psychologically, to the young soldiers isn’t pretty to watch but it’s an unvarnished look at the realities on the ground. Anyway, we finally somehow found ourselves more or less back on topic.

BH: It’s interesting to see in Armadillo when the new squadron arrives, the outgoing commander hands over to them and tells them to make no mistake, the people they’re fighting against are trained up, some are ex-mujahedeen and they are used to fighting forces of superior numbers. He says ten of them will take on forty of you. Don’t go in there thinking that you’re going to overwhelm them. They’re used to it and they’re very skilled and very trained and organised and he said if you’re not careful…

GJ: I concur. An Afghan will ‘have a pop’ at you, bury their weapons in a hide, and go and sit down and have dinner with their wife and kids two minutes later. By the time you get into the house where the rounds came from, he’s sitting there with a cup of chai going ‘Come on in, sit down have a chat.’ Two minutes earlier, he’s been launching fucking incendiaries at you.

And that’s the problem with a counter-insurgency or guerrilla warfare, you have got to—if you can—buy their peace. Buy the fact that they won’t have a go at you. Why not? You’re only there for a short period of time. You’re not there to fix the world. So you throw money at them—and money talks—but also throwing infrastructure at them, and winning over their hearts and minds. In Afghan, as well as any counter insurgency, this is a very big thing. They like the fact that you can put clean water in. They like the fact that they might get electricity in their village so they can have television, and their kids aren’t so sick.

BH: So, were you in one location primarily the whole time?

GJ: The bulk of the time just around Kabul. A few trips here or there, not a lot of helicopter movement. I tried not to fly in Afghanistan internally because it has a nasty reputation, and terrorist action aside, the terrain will kill you in a heartbeat. A very good friend of mine, whom I went to a wedding just last year in Mornington Peninsula, a guy called Taff Carter was recently killed. I was in Bosnia with Taff, I grew up in the Special Forces side of life in the army with him, he was killed in a domestic flight internally two weeks after I saw him here in Australia. We hadn’t seen him for three years up to that point, but both me and my wife knew him very well and he was a lovely bloke.

His aircraft flew straight into the side of a mountain, everybody killed. And they couldn’t get to the crash site for four days. Very, very dangerous country to move around in, in the air. Obviously, you saw the Chinook issue a few weeks ago. You put 30 Special Forces guys in a helicopter, it’s like a flying fucking target. Especially a Chinook. You can hit a Chinook with an RPG if you’re good enough.

BH: I’d like to talk ask about the local civilians. How much importance is placed on them?

GJ: Oh, lots! When you put up at a site, the first people you approach are the local leaders because they get in every mother and their sons and everybody else locally. So you’re immediately pulling in the local community. And what that does is you become their meal ticket. So they’re highly unlikely to jeopardise it. And they are likely to report anyone who might try to jeopardise it. So they actually become your eyes and ears. And the Afghans are fantastic at that.

So, you’ll have a queue of 200 construction workers at the gate and they’re coming in one by one and getting searched, and number 192 will be a face they haven’t seen before. And some guy will walk over and go “See that guy there? I don’t know him.”

BH: Right.

GJ: Phwoop, out he comes. “Where you from? Who are you?” “Oh I’m standing in for ‘Dafur’ who’s sick today.” “Okay, what village are you from?” “I’m from so and so.” “Okay. You’re not coming in. I have no fucking idea who you are.” We then hand them over to the military for processing.

And the other thing is, the ‘Dafur stand in’ could be potentially looking for weaknesses in the perimeter, weaknesses in the security system and then go back to the village and tell somebody else. And then they come back and do it. All mobile phones and any photo equipment were taken off all workers each day, and handed back at the gate, no exceptions.

But we had problems where previously a sub-contractor had built probably two-million dollars worth of brand new accommodation with western shower rooms, porcelain squat toilets, halal kitchens, everything you would need. The facilities were based around the Afghan culture. A beautiful bit of kit. It was handed over and within a week, all the taps were gone, the copper pipes had been ripped out of the walls. There was no electricity, all the bulbs and wiring had been stolen. All the bedding, bed frames, springs, were gone. They were living on the floor in the freezing cold and cooking up in big pots in the middle of the floor.

BH: Presumably, the people that were stuck there sleeping on the floor and what not weren’t the people taking all the stuff.

GJ: No, they were. Because they don’t live in rooms with air conditioning. They don’t live like that at home. They live in a mud room eating out of a pot and sleeping on the floor. But that’s not the American way.

To put it in context, if I were to go to southern Sudan now and build a training area—to train guerrillas in a military training area with indigenous recruits—I would build six hundred mud huts, fresh water, a huge cooking area and whatever else culturally they expect to have when they’re at home. I would also live like that as that is what makes them comfortable. It keeps them lean and it also means they are not losing their identity. I wouldn’t build them a shiny block of flats with fucking air conditioning and MTV. It would be alien to them. They’d just sell it to people that want it. And they would be weakened in the eyes of the enemy if they did live like that.

BH: So is there a massive disconnect then between the people which are making the plans for how this is going to go and how it should be done?

GJ: Yeah…yeah it is. Because if you study the Afghan person against what the expectation of the military machine is expecting to spit out, it’s not going to spit out G.I. Joe. It’s going to spit out an Afghan in American uniform. So if you don’t lose sight of that, you’re going to be fine.

There were influences that we had that were really positive where, when we built the cook-houses, the original designs were all westernized American model. Afghan’s don’t want fucking Burger Kings, you know? So we went out and sourced these huge—you could fit ten men in ‘em—these pots. And you know, they mainly eat vegetables. They might have goat like once a week. So we got huge kebab spits you could fit like four goats on. Also bread ovens. Afghan bread is a staple of the country, lovely stuff. So we ensured the on site bread oven and baker was not disturbed, it had been there hundreds of years. And they walked in and were like ‘Brilliant! We love this!” because they don’t know what to do with pots and pans. They’re not making up a bolognese. They don’t eat Western food. We used to go eat with them in their cookhouse. Fucking great food.

It’s a very interesting culture and it’s not Arabic. It’s completely different. Look at somewhere like Pakistan to get an idea of what’s going on and then look a bit further afield into Iran, and then take a middle picture, and you’ll kinda get what people in Afghanistan are about; based on multiple tribes and different dialects. Tribes such as Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch speaking Pashtun and Dari, following religions based on Islamic Sunni/Shia, and Christianity, as well as Hinduism, and even Budhism! These tribal ties go back to the steppes of Russia and the hordes of Genghis fucking Khan in there. You know, the place is a melting pot. It’s an interesting country to work in. If you try and understand it, you’ll go insane. It’s too complex. Which is why you should never ever have a war there.

You just have to read Afghan history. Everybody who’s been involved in that place, including Alexander the Great, all had a good fucking hiding when they went in there. There’s a really good reason for that. It’s the perfect country for guerrilla warfare. If you wanted to design the most impregnable country and based your blueprint on statistics of failed military campaigns from history, and took into consideration, geography, and demographics, you’d come out with Afghanistan. It’s the crossroads of Asia. It was on the spice route, the silk route—it’s always been a fighting area. And that’s what is so amazing about these guys. They’re so savvy. They’ve been doing it for years. Evolution of military conflict in that country has shown one thing: You cannot win by force alone. You cannot win by technical assets and money. You cannot win by winning the hearts and minds of the people alone, because it doesn’t work. What you can guarantee, the only win, is by is by staying the fuck out of there.

BH: There seems to be a harder edge of cynicism to what you say about this stuff. Is that fair? Why do you think that is?

I think it is based on the wider your eyes are opened, the more you see. The more combat and destruction you witness, the more jaded you become. The idea of tea and medals and drinks in the mess after fending off the ‘hun’ at the trench plate, are gone. They never were there. It is misery, rage, fear and disappointment for everyone involved. The trick is staying alive long enough to get the luxury of making a decision to turn your back on it.

Be sure to stay tuned for our final installment with Garth wrapping up his career in the military-industrial machine.

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