Michael O NeillHelmand, Afghanistan
I had some idea what to expect in Helmand, after a recce visit in July and quite a lot of training in the UK and elsewhere. But I don’t think I anticipated spending a Friday evening in November at a packed rock concert in the Karzai stadium in Lashkar Gah.
Someone described Farhad Darya as Afghanistan’s Elvis Presley, or this country’s answer to Robbie Williams. Either way he gave a great show in Lashkar Gah on Friday, to a crowd of several thousand Helmandis including Governor Mangal, Provincial Police Chief Angar and Afghan Army General Malouk – and a fair number of women and children. Watching hundreds of his fans dancing at the foot of the stage, below a gantry of lights and a camera boom, with scores of mobile phone cameras snapping the star, you could have been at a concert anywhere in the world. President Karzai called the Governor earlier in the day to say he would be watching the TV coverage from Lisbon, during a break in the NATO Summit.
What made this event so remarkable was that it could not have happened a year or two ago, and it took place on the spot where ten years ago stonings and hangings were commonplace under Taleban rule. It’s hard to imagine a more graphic illustration of the progress that has been made in Helmand through recent times, or of the clear enthusiasm of ordinary Afghans for a normal life and the cultural opportunities that other people enjoy.
Equally significant is that Governor Mangal and the Afghan security forces managed the security around the event – which passed off without incident. It was also testament to the impact and sacrifices of coalition efforts, both military and civilian in making Helmand more secure and training and mentoring Afghan security forces.
The concert was one of three different ceremonies in the past fortnight to encapsulate important features of our work and life here.
Two Wednesdays ago the United States Marine Corps celebrated its 235th birthday. I remember from my time in the Embassy in Washington what a big deal this is for the USMC. Anywhere in the world that Marines are stationed a celebration event is held. A traditional birthday message is read from the 13th Commandant, General Le Jeune, followed by another from the current Commandant. This year’s message recognised the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict and the achievements of the Marines involved. Tributes are made to Marines who have sacrificed their lives in battle - today in Helmand as in conflicts across the world since 1775. At the end there's a cake, the first pieces given to a guest of honour and to the oldest and youngest Marines present.
In Lashkar Gah it was a simple but stirring occasion well-organised by the exceptional team of Marines assigned by Maj Gen Mills to work with us in the PRT. It was good to be able to offer a venue for their event, and to join them to mark the Corps' birthday.
Four days later was Remembrance Day, when British and Commonwealth personnel paid tribute to those who have lost their lives serving their country. Small commemorative events had taken place on Armistice Day - at the British Cemetery in Kabul, where Ambassador William Patey laid a wreath, and in Lashkar Gah with a bugler playing The Last Post - a haunting, evocative sound that brought everything on the camp to a halt for two minutes.
The principal commemoration took place the following Sunday at Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand. Prince William and Defence Secretary Liam Fox flew from London to pay their respects alongside William Patey, and senior US and UK military commanders. Two thousand UK and Commonwealth troops assembled in a moving tribute that powerfully underscored the challenges of this campaign, and the bravery and sacrifice of armed forces serving their country. Prince William, Liam Fox and William Patey met Servicemen and women – from the US, UAE and Jordan as well as the UK – some on parade, others at their hospital beds, several more at breakfast in the cook-house. It was a good day.
The next day in Lashkar Gah we hosted Afghan leaders for dinner to mark the start of Eid. It's a major occasion in Afghanistan, as for all Muslims, a time to spend with one's family as well as give thanks for one's blessings and pray for the future. Deputy Governor Sattar was guest of honour, with religious, civic and judicial leaders from across Helmand. Brig George Norton (Rich Mills’ British deputy), Jamie Chiswell and his US Marine counterpart Brig Gen Jodie Osterman joined us, as well as Andrew Erickson and his new deputy Sheila Lutjens. It was a friendly, informal evening- a nice opportunity to relax together amid the pressures. It’s almost eight weeks since I left London. There still hasn't been a dull day in Helmand.