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Military Leadership is Poor

I was a serving Detective Inspector who had seen it all in policing. There is very little I haven’t investigated or led teams investigating. Policing is portrayed as a fast moving profession with no two days the same. But when you’ve done it as long as I did the majority of the time it is paperwork and meetings. I was bored and unchallenged.

So in 2015 I applied to deploy via the UK Foreign Office to Afghanistan. In September I flew out on a weekend jaunt to meet the DI I was replacing. He told me a tale of woe about how terrible it was, about how little the Military leadership respected the Police and what a waste of time the deployment was.

Not exactly the welcome I expected. In that one weekend a bomb exploded on a road we had been travelling on not five minutes earlier. And when we were eating our evening meal the insurgents were firing rockets at us from the Qasaba region of Kabul.

I met my mentee, who was a Colonel in the Afghan Police. He led a unit that was supposed to secure Intelligence and supply it to other units to conduct executive action against the insurgency/terrorist organisations. The problem was he was as corrupt as you can get. He had orchestrated the theft of just about anything that was of value that the team had. From fuel to vehicles, to computers. He was ‘allegedly’ taking cuts of his staff’s wages for giving them the opportunity to be employed. And he was ‘creating’ intelligence by making mock roadside bombs and then claiming rewards for the ‘source’ of the intelligence from the Americans.

At $10,000 a bomb.

Eventually, and before I arrived, the Americans got tired of him and stopped all payments. So he stopped all work. There wasn’t a single piece of intelligence coming into the unit. The unit had 19 teams dispersed across Afghanistan and about 120 agents. All being paid for by the Americans. I was somewhat confused why the US wouldn’t just remove him from post but things in Afghanistan don’t run like you and I would expect. The system of honour runs deep in their culture and as he was employed by the Afghans they wouldn’t ‘dishonour’ him.

The Coalition unit I was on was part of Operation Resolute. It’s mission was to ‘Train, Advise and Assist’ the Afghans become a recognised democracy with the three pillars of governance all underpinned with recognisable structures of political and civil life. The legislature, the executive and the judicary were all present but not necessarily working properly.

My ‘team’ was multi-national but led by the British. At its head was a ex-Special Forces Colonel who micro-managed everything. He was responsible for mentoring the General who was my mentee’s boss. He was also responsible for ensuring the coalition team were training and equipping the Afghans sufficiently and that the Afghans maintained a posture of high operational tempo. That meant ensuring operations against the Insurgency were being conducted by the executive teams on the Afghan unit.

The Afghan teams were all police officers. But it was just about as far as you can get from policing we would recognise in Western Europe or the US. The executive Afghan teams were trained special forces soldiers masquarading as police. Armed to the teeth, flying around in military helicopters, they shot literally anything that moved and was male.

After I had been in the country a month or so, I had a grounded perception of the way things ran. I was on a military controlled unit that was mentoring the police but actually had zero knowledge of policing. Despite the models of intelligence for the military and the police being very similar, they didn’t apply in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there was little to no analyse of ‘information’ to make it credible intelligence. To do that, the information has to go through the ‘intelligence cycle’. During this process analysts would test its credibility, its provenance, its timliness and its accuracy.

Intelligence only becomes such, when analysts can say with confidence the source of the intelligence is credible or that information is corroborated. They assess the risk to the source if an operation is conducted on it. For example, if he or she is the only person with knowledge of the information and it is acted upon, it may put their life in danger.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the US Marines told me while I was there, “We go on a grid”, referring to a location being the most important detail and not necessarily the accuracy of the intelligence. A Major in the UK Army, when asked about the use of intelligence, “It’s more about the ‘value’ of the target than the accuracy of the intelligence.” This is important stuff. Because what I was being told was to forget about the assessment on information. Focus on whether ‘we’ (as in the Coalition) thought the target was relevant to us.

What this meant is our coalition team was authorising operations to ‘secure’ targets that the coalition thought valuable to them. Not that there was intelligence supporting the operation, because they didn’t analyse it. And not because the intelligence related to an Afghan operation, that could then legally be conducted.

In essence, this meant operations were being conducted, without a required warrant from a ‘Saranwal’ (similar to a Magistrate) to authorise it. The Afghans couldn’t get a warrant because the intelligence case was (frequently) non-existent. Without a warrant the operation would essentially be illegal, so the ‘Police units’ would not be able to arrest anyone.

For all operations conducted like this even prior to the briefing of the teams the Military leadership and the Afghan police leadership would know the operation was illegal and they couldn’t arrest anyone. So the only resolution would be to kill the target. Because what would be the point of flying into Afghanistan on a Military helicopter, in the middle of the night, to just go and ‘have words’ with the subject of the intelligence?

Let’s just hypothesise for a moment. Let’s say that the information related to a target of the coalition. Let’s say the information suggested he/she was bringing in bomb making equipment from Pakistan, down the Jalalabad road from Peshawar. Let’s say the intelligence was uncorroborated and the source of it was untested previously. No one is going to get a warrant to ‘arrest’ the subject of that ‘information’ anytime soon. Yet the Coalition would approve a Conop (concept of operation) and cause the Afghan ‘police’ team to go and execute that operation on that target.

In every instance of these operations, which were very regular, the Afghans would kill the target. In some of those operations coalition Special Forces would go on the helicopter to the target site and ‘train’ the Afghans in how to conduct it. While I was in Afghanistan, one such operation resulted in a Norwegian Special Forces soldier receiving significant leg injuries when he was shot.

This is again highly significant in the context of Afghanistan. The rules of engagment for coalition forces did not give authoirty to use force against any Afghan unless they were being engaged directly. They could not use force against an Afghan to defend another Afghan. The rules of engagement came from the fact, contrary to Military leadership’s verbalised thoughts, ‘we’ were not at war with Afghanistan. The conflict was classed via international law as an ‘Armed Internal conflict’. Any other classification via the Geneva convention and it would give rights (and responsibilities) to the insurgency to fight that conflict and we, the coalition would not be able to assist without appropriate UN cover.

The coalition was there at the invitation of the Afghan Government to help them establish rule of law and democracy.

In my first two months in Afghanistan I travelled outside of Kabul airport (where we were based) more than the previous incumbent did. I soaked up the atmosphere, the culture (of my role and the people involved around it) and the experience of being in Afghanistan trying to help. My role, dictated by Operation Resolute, was to train, advise and assist the Afghans. It was almost impossible to be effective because the guy I was mentoring was focused on nothing but getting the ‘source money’ switched back on. I cajoled him as best I could with ‘suggestions’ if we proved the team was capable, we ‘might’ be able to get some source money flowing again.

The Afghan Intel team started to conduct some intelligence gathering but it was all low level stuff. I briefed the Afghan teams around the country to try and improve but the process of the flow of information meant it went through the Colonel. So it rarely made it out to me.

I was working alongside a contractor firm in Afghanistan that was supposed to deploy conflict hardened intelligence agents that were deployed by the RUC during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It was sold to the US to fund it on the premise these guys had seen it, done it and got the ‘T’-shirt.

The reality was the contractor would employ anyone that applied. So rather than ex-RUC intelligence officers they had UK police officers who frequently didn’t even have any background in ‘normal’ intelligence let alone anything in such conflict ridden circumstances.

One of the contractor team mentored a Police Sergeant on the Afghan Intel team while I was mentoring the Colonel. The contractor came to me and told me the Sergeant had intelligence about an Afghan ‘warlord’ from the past. The target was a previous Prime Minister of Afghanistan, a drug trafficker and part of the Mujahideen. This information had been given to the contractor without the knowledge of the Afghan Colonel. The contractor rewarded the Sergeant with a number of mobile phone credit cards as payment for the source.

We passed the information into the coalition chain. As far as I am aware, no action was taken on it.

About one week later, I met with my mentee. He questioned me why we had paid the Sergeant without his knowledge and why the information hadn’t gone through him. I played dumb (not hard for me) and told him I would look into it. He informed me he was moving the Sergeant off the team and on to the ‘Major Crimes Team’ based in Logar, south of Kabul.

When my interpretor and I left his office the Sergeant came running up to us pleading for us to intervene. He was speaking in an emotional state and asking us to stop the move. But I had no authority to intervene, and even if I tried, it wouldn’t have helped.

The Colonel I mentored was a Pashtun. The same ‘tribe’ the Taliban come from. Logar was a storng Taliban area, we could fly to the Logar base, but we couldn’t travel outside of it because the area was deemed too dangerous. Within a couple of weeks the Sergeant had been captured by the Taliban, tortured and murdered. I considered if the Colonel had any involvement in this but I had no proof and no way of inquiring into the death either.

This element of this blog is important.

This exemplifies how dangerous Afghanistan was. You never knew who you were dealing with really, what connections they have to the insurgency and it is naive to think you can somehow influence ‘them’ in any meaningful way. The coalition staff come and go. Deployment here, deployment there. The Afhgans knew we were just the latest ‘white’ face to be in their country telling them what to do. They went along with it, so long as the US money kept rolling in and ‘they’ were stealing it hand over fist. Before I deployed, I read a book, whose author and title I have lost in the midst of time. But in it the guy, who had deployed after the war, explained how he was trying to get the local Governor of the region (in the South) to get the Taliban around the table to negotiate a sort of peace. After months in the country, the guy was drinking with the Governor (alcohol illegal in Afghanistan), and the Governor was ‘fresh’. He again asked him to try and negotiate. The Governor then called the head of the local Taliban command and asked to meet to discuss a possible truce to allow reconstruction. When I read this I ascertained from it to not trust any Afghan I came across with my personal security. It highlighted that when you’re in their country, you really have no clue who you are dealing with. Whether they genuinely believe in reconstructing the country, are just taking the money or worse, are involved with the insurgency.

To try and do my job more effectively, and to put in place measures to try and get the coalition mentors to train their mentees more effectively, I ran a serious of crime scene exploitation sessions. How to recover evidence from scenes in a forensically sound way. I did this because after sitting in briefings every evening of every day (except Sunday), I witnessed the reports on the operations that had been conducted across Afghanistan. Recall I said there was frequently no legal basis for the majority of the operations. The Afghans and Coalition run operations (sometimes partnered) never, and I mean never, recovered weapons, ammunition, bomb making equipment or even mobile phones or digital devices. When I questioned this with senior command, I was told and I quote, “they don’t have time to collect evidence.” And yet whenever the operation was to interdict huge shipments of heroin, the teams would stand for sometimes days burning it. It seemed to me to be inaccurate what I was being told. I have led thousands of Policing Operations and it really doesn’t take that long to recover evidence from a scene, even if done in a fast haphazard way. Minutes at most.

I started to suspect, the reason they weren’t recovering weapons was because there were none found. Yet in the vast majority of the operations the target would be shot and killed.

Socially, Kabul isn’t the place to go for a great night out. For downtime, my colleagues and I would spend time in coffee bars within our base in Kabul. We would chat about back home, the days work and the general thrust of the place. I spent most of my time in the company of a retired Police Detective Superintendent. He had been in Afghanistan previously on a number of occasions. The stories he recounted to me I enjoyed but with raised eyebrows because they were ‘from an age gone by.’ I enjoyed his company and dry wit.

I have changed his name to protect him, I call him ‘Steve’ in this blog.

Steve told me about all the illegal operations. His role was to advise the Colonel and command team on our small coalition team on policing operations and generally network and try and ensure legality. His task was impossible because the military ridiculed him at every turn. On one occasion I witnessed the UK Colonel say to him, “Steve, we’re here to kill people.” The Military senior officers repeatedly trotted out the mantra “We’re at War” when, as I have outlined we weren’t.

It’s imortant for me to say here that I knew what I was getting into when I deployed. I knew that Afghanistan would be significantly violent and dangerous for me and the team I operated on. Who wouldn’t. It was on the news almost nightly. I deployed with the genuine desire to make a difference, using my experience to help.

Having said that I couldn’t believe how bad it was when I arrived. Something like 14 years had passed since the war in Afghanistan. I expected some sort of progress. But it was terrible. The Military led coaltion had little to no influence over the running of the place, the Afghans were just taking the money and the coalition staff on the ground knew it. I knew, within a couple of weeks there, that it would be an unmitigating disaster when we pulled out.

I knew the Taliban would resume command and I knew all the money spent was a total and utter waste. I also thought, what was the point trying to bring western democracy to a Middle Eastern country that had tacit ways of doing their own form of Governance developed over centuries? Of course how they do it isn’t acceptable to western democracies but that doesn’t give us the right to go in and try and change it. And it is naive beyond comprehension to even try.

I reconcile this now by considering the fact at no point did the Politicans even anticipate ‘they’ could achieve democracy in Afghanistan. Every war ends in a peaceful negotiation of some sort. I just think the whole effort to reconstruct the country after the war was to satisfy the UN and others that the US and others weren’t in the business of destroying contries and walking away. Plus of course that vacuum would just enocurage further development of terrorist factions bent on hurting the west.

With all the information I was collecting, illegal operations, poor intelligence processes, the killing of ‘potentially’ unarmed targets, the operations being on coalition targets and not Afghan ones and the fact some of these operations were partnered involving coalition forces, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable by the way the teams were being led by Military command.

US and UK military leadership it was all about ‘tempo’. Making sure the operations were being conducted come what may, rather than ensuring they were legal, proportionate, necessary and avoided collatoral intrusion (non-target deaths). On my command team were senior Military officers from Norway, the UK and the US. Our Colonel was held accountable by US command for the whole Resolute mission. So it is not possible they didn’t know they were putting coalition forces at risk on illegally based operations and were killing targets without appropriate levels of use of force.

That’s not leadership that I recognise. Putting your team at risk of legal, morale and physical risk and for what? To pass the country back to the very dictatorship you took it from in the first place?

I am not naive. I am an experienced DI who has managed investigations into the most serious of crimes. I know when to suspect and when to collate evidence. I was in no position to collect evidence of wrongdoing because I wasn’t a ‘cop’ in Afghanistan. But I was still a cop and I can smell it when things aren’t being done correctly. In the UK to make an arrest you need ‘reasonable gronds to suspect’. You don’t need proof. I had more than enough to suspect the operations in Afghanistan were both illegal and prosecuting death on the targets without appropriate levels of force being applied.

What to do? What would you do?

I decided to do my best to do my role without getting involved on the execution side of the fence. So I continued but I had a healthy and growing disrespect for the military leaders. This sits uncomfortably because of the risk they put themselves in when deploying on behalf of all of us. They keep us free. They help to maintain our way of life. In British culture we uphold them as bastions of bravery and freedom fighters. We watch as their coffins come back from places like Afghanistan, when they have paid the ultimate price for doing their jobs. And we remember every year the terrible cost of war on our armed forces. I might add I did seven years in the Royal Navy so I have been in the military, if not the army.

What I can say about the Military junior ranks is I have every respect for them, for what they do. It is the leadership and politicians putting them in harms way in terms of violence and legality. Politicans send troops into conflict. I know that is an immensely difficult decision to come to. Probably the most serious a Government/parliament make. Yet they send them and more importantly keep them there beyond conflict to ‘reconstruct’ the countries we invade. It is an impossible task that is basically fruitless. You can’t change the culture of a country in a couple of decades.

If we learn anything from Afghanistan, that has to be the lesson.

What Politicans do is send our troops overseas with inadequate rules of engagement in situations they are not equipped to deal with. They fight wars. They don’t reconstruct. The military in any ‘peace’ mission should be there to protect the advisors and subject matter experts they should not run the whole show.

The experts should make the decisions on what is lawful and what is appropriate. Not the military. The military ‘kill people’ as the Colonel said. Hardly a way to change ‘hearts and minds’ a term I heard regularly in Afghanistan.

In January 2016 a drone filmed one of the operations. During it the executing team put an unarmed ‘target’ against a wall and shot him. The footage of this circulated like wildfire because we now had footage of what I had been suspecting all along. I don’t know if this operation was partnered or just Afghan Police officers. What I suspect is it was just Afghans.

I think it was just Afghans because in the currently running Independent public Inquiry (in the UK) into extrajudicial killings by UK Special Forces, the method of operation was for those soldiers to ‘clear’ a building of people, then take the target back inside. And inside he would allegedly be shot while unarmed. I believe the British Special Forces would do this to stop any drone overhead being able to film. While the Afghans shot the target outside and it was captured on film. This is just an opnion I don’t know the truth of it. What I do know is it was filmed and the man did die.

This was the last straw for me. I spoke to Steve and I told him I was going to raise it as an issue with the British Colonel. He advised me to keep out of it. Even in Afghanistan I am under the Police code of ethics. Sitting quiet wasn’t an option. I considered my position for a week or so. And then I sent the email.

Within five minutes the Colonel responded admonishing me and calling a meeting between him, Steve and myself.

In the email I made it clear my intent was to move Afghanistan mentees on a continuum to a position of lawfulness. I stressed that by Coaltion forces being involved in these operations we were at best ‘acquiescing’ to illegal operations in Afghanistan. I expressed I understood the situation we were in but that we had to move them to a legal standing because they were police officers not some sort of paramilitary unit.

Later that evening I attended at the meeting. Steve sat there as an ‘observer’. The Colonel asked me what evidence I had. I didn’t want to drop ‘Steve’ in it so I said ‘third party reports’ and my own suspicion based on the briefings I had been in and the drone footage filming what I suspected. The Colonel told me I was not a police officer in Afghanistan and it wasn’t my position to ‘police’ his team. He asked if I wanted to make the report official. I told him, again, my position was to not get involved in the operations, to do my job, to train the Afghans to a position they were operating legally.

The meeting ended.

The following morning I awoke to an email from ‘Steve’. Despite me considering him a friend, despite him being the one telling me about the illegalities and despite me defending him and his role and raising what he should have raised as the officer charged with advising the senior command, he completely took my legs. He claimed I had ‘shot from the hip’, had ‘been emotive’ and had ‘failed to investigate’, something he said he found embarrassing for me as a DI.

I couldn’t believe it. I considered for the day what to do, but I recognised my position was now untenable.

I responded to defend my position by emailing both Steve and the Colonel and asking very searching questions of the Colonel. I asked a range of questions to establish if operations were being conducted illegally, how many had coalition forces on them, how many unarmed people had died. And more, and more. He refused to answer, not denying anything.

At approximately 10pm that evening he called me into his office. I was told in no uncertain circumstances I didn’t ‘fit’ the mission and I was to fly home to the UK the following morning. I spoke on the phone to the UK unit who deployed me and the following morning I left Afghanistan.

Only on the morning of my departure did I hand in my sidearm. This is important and I will explain why in a future blog.

On my flight home I felt sick. I knew in my heart of hearts I had done the right thing. But why did no one else have the guts to stand up and be counted? Was I just naive?

I will wrap this blog post up now and write another about what happened to me on return to the UK and what it is like being a whistleblower – something, I might add, I didn’t consider myself to be until someone in an email sent me the ‘whistleblowing policy’. What I will say about the whistleblowing side of this saga is this.

We should all respect whistleblowers.

Like anything in life there are some who will try and take advantage for their own ends. And whistleblowing is no different. But the vast majority of whistleblowers the globe over do it because it is the right thing to do in difficult circumstances. Frequently they go to places the majority either fear to tread or are not prepared to suffer the consequences. Whistleblowers change societies for the good. They stop scandals and bring them into the light.

Do you have the guts to blow the whistle? I built Aranea from the ground up to protect whistleblowers. To enable them to report what they know in complete anonymity. Because when the chips are down you will be set adrift and your friends will cut you off (Steve).

Whistleblowers should report anonymously so they are in control of when to go public, if they chose to do so. Not be controlled by those that the whistleblower reports to because they are bad leaders that have to defend the status quo because they are part of the problem.

You can report what you know anonymously through Aranea. Download the apps below. I will write next week on what happened when I returned to the UK.

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