By Stephen Paul Stewart, Glasgow.
Nothing can really prepare you for going to Afghanistan.
It is a country of paradoxes – at the same, the best and the worst of places. It is a stark, beautiful place with ruined villages and compounds that look like the backdrop of a Biblical parable.
But it is also deadly in many ways that you can’t even foresee. It’s not hyperbole to say that I fell in love with the place – it has dominated my life for more than six years. In 2009, I was there as an embedded reporter with British troops.
And last year – I returned, this time, as a frontline soldier. It is striking country with a breathtaking landscape of deep contrasts. Vivid red poppies and lush, green fields sit next to deathly, dry desert plains.
Known as the “graveyard of empires”, its rich history is populated by the likes of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Tamerlane. I came home, joined the Army reserves and was deployed as an infanteer last year.
I was posted to the remotest British base in Afghanistan for my six-and-a-half month tour. Conditions were grim with no running water but I have no right to complain. I came back in one piece, if a few stones lighter.
My pal Bobby Hetherington did not come back. He was killed with two comrades in a massive bomb blast which destroyed their Mastiff armoured vehicle. As a reporter, I knew soldiers were killed and injured in Afghanistan but this brought the war very close to home.
I never really believed my friends or I would be killed in action. Every soldier thinks, “It won’t be me, I will be OK”. But that is just a coping mechanism. The reality in Afghanistan was that anyone could be killed, day or night.
In my book The Accidental Soldier – I tried to show there was no concrete, coherent frontline of enemy troops. They could strike anywhere at any time. I also wanted the book to show a facet of the war that few people understand.
I discovered first hand that a soldier’s family completes a tour just as much as the service men and women. My quest to serve in Afghanistan confined my loved ones to a nerve shredding six-and-a-half months with them wondering if every knock at the door would herald the news that I wouldn’t be coming back.
I still feel guilty for putting them through that for the sake of immersion journalism.
My tour was a true eye-opener – a unique perspective on the biggest story of our generation.
People seem to think that once Britain and other NATO countries leave Afghanistan, then the Taliban will “come back”. The truth is they never went away. I would stand at Observation Post Dara, watching as the Taliban mortared our positions. They didn’t seem like a vanquished force.
I think they never tried to over-run us because they wanted to keep their men and resources for the big fight – the advance on Kabul which will inevitably follow our departure.
It is hard to look at Britain’s record in Afghanistan and see it as a victory. We vowed to wipe out the poppy crop, which is used to provide opium and drugs cash for the Taliban. By the time of my deployment, it seemed like we had given up that idea.
In fact, when I returned from Helmand in October last year, I read that poppy production across Afghanistan had reached record levels.
In my experience, Afghan forces were often kept at arms length. They were seen as incompetent, if not outright dangerous.
Originally, rebuilding the country was a goal but that dream seemed to evaporate. Our corner of Helmand looked like a panorama from the Stone Age.
Winning hearts and minds was a no-no. Locals kept their distance, with Taliban chiefs occasionally sending children up to try to survey our position. At the time, I loathed every single second of my tour.
As time passes, I look on it as a rewarding experience – one to be enjoyed after the event rather than at the time – like climbing Everest or running an ultra-marathon. I am just grateful to have come back.
The Accidental Soldier by Stephen Paul Stewart is available from Amazon and good book shops.
Stephen is a reporter with the Daily Record newspaper.
Twitter : @heidbangaz