Kabul elections show military's good side

AS USUAL, THE MILITARY list of what to bring was not only exhaustive, but clearly intended to cover every eventuality.

It
ended with the memorable suggestion: “Perhaps a sarong for the ladies.”
Previous experience of working in Afghanistan suggests that, while
undeniably exotic and colourful, it is, well, just not a sarong kind of
gig.

Anyhow, it’s Brize Norton to Kabul for the elections by MoD
invitation. This means the pleasures of a night lying between the
pallets on the vibrating metal floor of the C-17 transport plane. The
Sky defence correspondent’s an old hand at this: sleeping bag liner,
mat, inflatable pillow, ear defenders, eye-patches and he’s out for the
duration.

Our arrival at Camp Souter, British HQ in Kabul, along
the road to Jalalabad and the Kyber Pass, was a welcome surprise.
Fringed by the dust and hazy mountains of an Afghan late summer, inside
Souter is a little piece of Blighty.

Somebody puts out birdseed
for the local sparrows and every day at noon and six an overwhelming
range of roasts, pies and curry (the Gurkhas’ favourite) arrives. It is
invariably delicious. One day, with no announcement, one of the eight
or so choices is cod, yes cod, in Kabul.

Judging
by past experience these military trips stand or fall by one key issue:
flexibility. This is not an embed where you go with your unit, see what
your unit sees, do what it does.

Ideally it’s a negotiated
agenda. The MoD will, of course, have lined up a number of visits
designed to show the public back home what it is that the army and RAF
are actually doing here, and whether peace and stability are being
achieved and a calm election delivered.

We, of course, have
different ideas about how that might be done. What’s remarkable about
this trip is that the military has left various periods free. As nature
abhors a vacuum, so the military usually has a problem with inactivity.

So
come election day we want to retrace the journey we made four years ago
down from the mountain passes with the Northern Alliance and over the
plains to Kabul. “Ah,” says our minder-in-chief, “could be tricky.” The
problem is, it means leaving Kabul and crossing the US sector, and all
manner of security considerations apply. But two factors swing things
in our favour.

First, the soldiers and RAF people looking after
us really want to go. Second, without wishing to cause a fuss, we make
it plain we’ll just go on our own and do it anyway, if our minders
cannot swing it.

Maybe they’re just being nice, but the military
team with us insists it is a good journey from an intelligence point of
view, and wonderful to be out of the dust and smog of Kabul into the
mountains of the southern Hindu Kush.

Journalistically, both us
and The Mirror lads are happy. An unscheduled stop at 10,000 feet on
the Salang Pass, when one of the Land Cruiser’s radiators blows up,
suddenly gives both media teams the chance to talk to the road gang who
keep the only north-south main road in Afghanistan open.

To a man, they’ve voted for a woman in the election.

Neither we nor The Mirror can quite believe them at first.

But
their room has her poster up and they can rattle off her manifesto.
Suddenly, from a breakdown miles away from the nearest mechanic, we
both have our story. Blowing up the car engine wasn’t flexibility, but
getting clearance for the unexpected request to go up there in the
first place was.

Alongside all this, Channel 4 News had the
foresight to fix up its own independent reinforcements on the story.
Our foreign desk had been in touch with the redoubtable Borna – or Tora
Borna as he quickly became known. We’d arranged for him to pursue
filming elsewhere and, being an Iranian freelance, he had far greater
ability to get down to difficult areas for westerners, to the southeast
around Kandahar.

He returned with some remarkable exclusives, not
least interviews with the Taliban, complete with black turbans,
explaining pointedly how the election was a stitch-up by interfering
infidels and no, they would not be voting.

This wasn’t exactly on
the Brize Norton manifesto, so I decided to let our wing commander know
good and early that this bearded, long-haired Middle Eastern civvy
would be showing up at the gates of Camp Souter in the dead of night,
bearing tapes and demanding access.

Not a problem, as they say
rather a lot around here. And it truly wasn’t. Perhaps a few years ago
the MoD might have come over all unnecessary about this kind of thing.
Now there’s clear recognition that we need, if at all possible, as many
sides of the story as we can get, whether or not they chime with the
MoD’s tune.

One day, of course, this whole system will truly be
tested by bad news. But while the news is good, the understanding of
what the media need and how they work grows year on year with benefits
for both sides.

When the news is bad, the MoD will have to show
the same flexibility and understanding. PR is a valuable byproduct of
what we do when the news is good. But we are here for news, not the PR
by-product, so if the news is bad we do the same job and try to keep
our end of the deal.

We expect the military to do so too.

Alex Thomson is chief reporter with Channel 4 News

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