"Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching Kandahar Airforce Base, could all windown-seat passengers draw down their blinds and could everyone please put on your flak jackets and helmets before we black-out for landing."
I was awoken by the soothing and urbane tones of an RAF pilot who made it all sound tickety-boo over the intercom.
It wasn’t exactly a common occurrence but it had been known to happen that the Taliban would launch rocket attacks on planes approaching the ISAF Coalition’s main base of air operations in Afghanistan.
With a nonchalance I didn’t feel (but copied studiously from the laconic Marine sitting in the aisle seat beside me), I strapped myself into my Kevlar corset and donned my helmet.
Then I sat in near darkness, dim emergency strip lighting afforded only shadowy glimpes of the rows of helmets ranged in the gloom. We waited for the reassuring rumble and lurch of the sturdy old RAF Tristar's wheels hitting the runway. That was a long fifteen minutes.
Kandahar, it seems, was one of the few places where the Taliban really tried to make a stand and taking the city with its international airport had been a crucial and hard-won objective for the Western forces but there was always hostile activity going on beyond the confines of the international compound. No-one seemed overly concerned however so I did my best to keep the calm side out and tried not to seem too grateful for an uneventful landing.
KAF is like any airport really except that everyone is armed, wears khaki and the buildings are mostly tents (or Tier 1 structures in army engineering speak). And Apache attack helicopters far outnumber the 737s.
My MOD ‘handler’ and I were cordially greeted in ‘arrivals’ by what the Army and Navy call ‘a civilian in uniform’. A very polite and delightfully self-effacing RAF officer was our media liaison and he took us by Land Rover to an accommodation block. As we chatted amiably and drank a hot chocolate before turning in, our RAF man even confessed to hating flying.
Breakfast the following morning was like eating in an international building site canteen; lots of burly men in work boots and most of them bringing their ‘tools’ with them to the table. French, Danish, American, Canadian, Macedonian, British and German soldiers; all sitting together in their national cliques, eating a breakfast of champions provided by an American company and Filipino catering staff.
Before being scheduled to fly out that afternoon to Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province, I was given a briefing by the Army’s Royal Engineers headquarters staff on the engineering marvels of the camp I was about to visit. (More of that in later pieces.)
My repeated requests for permission to be taken out on patrol however met with unfailingly polite rebuffs from the Engineers Major, (to the visible relief of my handler; an English rose with a cut-glass accent and a fine art degree; all in all a teddibly nice gel and a good egg...). I resolved however to try again with the Engineers OC when I got to Bastion, knowing that it would be more in hope than expectation.
After a mercifully short Power-Point presentation, the rest of the briefing took place on what is known in KAF as ‘The Boardwalk’ over coffee and donuts while we watched American soldiers goofing about with a football.
Kandahar Airforce Base is known as ‘slipper city’ according to squaddies I spoke to and it’s fair to say if you had been out for three weeks on forward observation base (FOB) with almost daily enemy action, Kandahar really must be slipper city, a ‘Gucci’ posting if you could get it.
Far removed from the frontline (even if their enemies do operate in the city), and replete with coffee shops, pizzerias, gyms and supermarkets, Kandahar Airforce Base is a thriving town of thousands.
While waiting for our Hercules to arrive in from Helmand, I got chatting with a brawny Royal Irish Regiment warrant officer in the 'departures lounge'. I started off with my (by then) obligatory gambit to squaddies about how nice it was seeing the British Army in someone else's country for a change. Big Belfast Billy liked that one and we hit it off straight away.
It didn’t take us long to get talking about the old country and the comparisons to be drawn between the two conflicts.
The obvious ones were in terms of scale. Neither he nor I thought that the British force of 8,500 was nearly enough to mount a successful campaign in Helmand, an area the size of Wales.
At the height of The Troubles, there were over 30,000 ‘green army’ stationed in the Six Counties and that was only barely keeping a lid on things (and whether in fact they did actually maintain order is of course also open to interpretation).
My new soldier friend and I both seemed to come to the same conclusions in terms of timescales for the conflict as well. Whatever anyone in politics might be saying; judging solely on the scale of military infrastructure they've been putting in and moreover, the permanence of many of the new structures, ISAF is likely to be in AFG for some time to come.
The Ulster man smiled thinly when in perfect journalese, I told him Afghanistan could probably be summed up as being a lot a lot like South Armagh with scorpions. I regretted the glibness of it immediately...
Before I got on my plane to Helmand and he continued to wait for his flight back to the World; the East Belfast NCO warmly shook my hand and gave me a broad wink before telling me a close relative of his only narrowly missed being selected for the ill fated MRF mission that resulted in Belfast's Four Square Laundry Shooting in 1972...On that parting shot, he propelled me on my way with a hearty slap on the back...(Off you go now, wee journalist man...)