Departing Afghanistan: Reflections on my year in Helmand
My time in Afghanistan has, all too soon, come to an end. I'm moving on for pastures new, not because I'm ready to leave the country I've come to love so much, but just because the time has come. I'll now be based in London, working on climate change - specifically working with low income countries to ensure their development follows a low carbon path.
Readers of this blog might be wondering what I’ve been up to since I last posted back in December. I'm sorry to say it's nothing more interesting than a combination of Christmas, wrapping up and handing over in Afghanistan, gearing up for a complete change of jobs and moving country. But I'm back, and will continue to blog in my new role. I'll even have a surname from now on - although the risk is low, giving too much personal information while working somewhere like Afghanistan is not a good idea.
The beautiful Panjshir valley shows both Afghanistan’s stunning landscape and its blighted past: the valley is littered with the rusting hulls of Russian tanks and helicopters
As I leave Afghanistan, I've been reflecting on how things have changed over the time I've been in Helmand. And, on a more personal note, on the unique experiences I've had here.
So what's changed since this time last year? Significantly, a very strong governor, Gulab Mangal, was appointed last March. Without his tenure, things wouldn't have progressed with anything like the speed they have. Mangal visited London a few weeks back, capping off a year of significant progress.
DFID has supported the best functioning government department in Helmand, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, as well as the municipal government in Lashkar Gah, to assist communities to build wells, build roads, repair canals and clear garbage. As a result, over 425,000 people across Helmand have benefited from clean water, irrigation has been restored to 13,800 and brought to 5,800 new hectares, and 254,887 labour days have been created for 18,487 individuals. And just two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, visited Helmand and announced that DFID will spend an extra £50 million in Afghanistan, including on a new road from Lashkar Gah to the commercial capital of Helmand, Gereshk, and on the refurbishment of a hydropower plant in Gereshk.
On the military side, I've worked with two brigades, 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando. Perhaps their greatest achievements during my time have been the delivery of a new hydro electric turbine to the massive Kajaki dam, travelling 180 perilous kilometres with no loss of life, and Operation Sond Chara to assist the Afghan government and security forces to secure and stabilise the Nad Ali district of Helmand.
On the other hand, when I first arrived in Helmand just under 100 British troops had been killed. As I leave, the figure stands at 152. The youngest was 18.
So some of the unique experiences of Afghanistan - ones I'll be glad to leave behind - are those of learning that someone's life has been lost and attending the memorial services about which I've written.
But the positives of my experience massively outweigh the negatives.
It goes without saying that I'll miss the Afghan people and landscape enormously.
Taking a final look at my experience of Afghanistan: the beauty, the hardship and the enduring military presence
I'll miss the civilians and military with whom I've worked and lived for twenty four hours a day - and my work, which I've found so challenging and rewarding.
I'll miss the helicopter and Hercules commutes, especially getting to sit up front in the Hercules, look outside with night vision glasses and hear the pilots chatting when they don't realise I've got a headset on.
I'll miss hearing utterly incongruous things that would never get said in the normal course of life - like a strapping Royal Marine Commando telling me he wouldn't be joining us for a movie because I'd chosen a horror film and he'd be too scared. Or ‘jackspeak', a language all of the Royal Navy's own for which there's a dedicated dictionary. Or the military notion of ‘30-day pants' - about which, fortunately, I've never managed to find out too much.
And I'll miss having a radio call sign and feeling like I'm in the movies when I do my radio check each week. So I can't resist one last opportunity. I'll be off. This is Echo Two Zero, over and out.