Meet the Bristol soldiers on a mission to train Afghan army to take back control of war on terror
David Clensy meets the three Bristol soldiers heading out to Afghanistan to help to mould the Afghan National Army into a force capable of going it alone
AS they stand in the seemingly perpetual drizzle of Salisbury Plain – watching the Warthogs’ enormous tracks pass by and discussing the relative merits of the British Army’s state-of-the-art combat troop carrier compared to earlier models – you might be forgiven for thinking that they are three ordinary Bristol soldiers.
But Captain Johnny Emery, Corporal Luke Mortimore and Trooper Danny Evans will soon be leaving the rain on the plain behind for the sunburnt deserts of Nahr-e-Saraj, where they will form part of a small British Army unit, with a very important job to do.
Beyond the fact that they’re all Bristolians, ordinarily the three men wouldn’t have much in common – but the invisible divide between officers and men, the different regimental cap badges and different specialisms are immaterial, because from the moment they set foot in Afghanistan the three Bristolians will be focused on the same mission.
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Corporal Mortimore and Captain Emery will form part of the Kandak Advisory Team (KAT), a select unit of 22 men responsible for advising an Afghan National Army Colonel, equivalent to a British Army Lieutenant Colonel, and his staff.
The 22 trainers will deploy for a six-month tour in mid-March, on “Operation Herrick 18” (H18) in Army-speak, working under 4th Battalion The Rifles. (4 RIFLES).
The infantry battalion heads up the larger unit, the Brigade Commander's main effort for H18, called the Brigade Advisory Group. (BAG).
“In short the 22-man team, of which I am a part, will be working closely with the Afghan National Army during one of the final stages of transition to Afghan-led security within the Nahr-e-Saraj South area of operations,” explains Captain Johnny Emery, of squadron CYCLOPS 2IC, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (2RTR).
The 27-year-old from Clapton in Gordano will be one of the officers charged with the sensitive task of developing the military skills of the senior levels of the Afghan army.
He will be joined by Corporal Mortimore, of R Company, 4 Rifles – the “Force Protection Multiple” tasked with protecting the advising unit, while Trooper Evans, a Warthog driver with Badger squadron, 2RTR, will form part of the logistical force supporting the Brigade HQ – the distinctive tank-tracked Warthog vehicles are used primarily as armoured troop carriers in the field.
For 21-year-old Trooper Evans, from Withywood, this will be his first time in Afghanistan.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “This is what you train to do. I’ve been in the Army for two-and-a-half years, and so it will be good to get out there and experience it for myself.”
The key target for the team is to get the Afghan army into a position where it is able to take on responsibility for its own governance and its own war against the Taliban insurgents when the ISAF forces step away from the war-torn nation in 2014 after 14 years of occupation.
“In fairness the Afghan Army has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years,” Captain Emery says. “But there is still work to be done. In the past the British Army has focused on helping them to develop their skills at their warrior rank – the equivalent of a British private soldier. But in this tour we will be focusing much more on the higher levels of the army.
“It is a sensitive task. You can’t just go in there and start telling their commanding officers what they should be doing. You have to be diplomatic and sensitive to their rank. You talk to them, you eat with them, you spend a lot of time drinking tea, and gently persuading them to understand the military techniques you are trying to teach them.
“You spend a lot of time gently suggesting ideas for tactics they could consider, and let it percolate in their minds for a few days, until they turn around and tell you what they are planning – it’s fine that they frame it as their idea.
“After all, these are people who have been warriors for centuries. It’s not for us to tell them they’re doing something wrong. But if we can use our training, skills and British Army experience to guide them, they certainly appreciate that you can always keep learning.”
Corporal Mortimore has previously served in Afghanistan training the Afghan National Police. The 29-year-old, from Yate, says while the police force is improving, he’s more comfortable working alongside fellow soldiers.
“The Afghan National Army is considerably more advanced than their police force, and they’re easier to work alongside in an advisory capacity. We may not have a lot in common, but what we do have in common is the fact that we’re both soldiers. They respect you for that, and tend to be more happy to take guidance than civilian policemen.
“Over the last few years the Afghan army has come a long way – you can see the influence of the British Army’s guidance, it’s now much more structured along the lines of the British Army.”
But there is one big difference between the Afghan National Army and the British Army – the “insider threat” is still something the advisory team have to be conscious about.
“For every advisor who goes off and spends the day with the Afghan officers, you have two riflemen who accompany him purely in a protecting capacity,” Captain Emery explains.
“When insider attacks do occur the overwhelming feeling you get from Afghan officers is shame – a sense that they should have known their own soldiers better. It’s not about them and us. They are as mortified about these things when they happen as we are. So we certainly wouldn’t let that threat come between us.
“The danger isn’t like it was a few years ago. But you do have to be conscious of the potential threat, and having two infantrymen watching your back just makes sense.”