Ali Gibson Afghanistan 2013

Back To Afghanistan: Three Years On

Three years on, Forces News' Ali Gibson returns to Afghanistan.

Ali Gibson Afghanistan 2013

It’s been three and a half years since I was last in Afghanistan.

Between two trips I spent six months there. Most of my kit for going away has been sitting gathering dust in my attic. But now I’ve dug it all out again.

I’ve returned to visit Qargha, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy – nicknamed ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’.

In October 2013 I was one of the few journalists who got to witness the official start of training there.

Newly shaved recruits in their smartest uniforms, stood on the parade square in front of a frankly terrifying Sergeant Major as they tried not to put a step wrong in front of the international press.

Qargha Afghanistan
Qargha, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy

Ten thousand Afghans had applied for just 270 places. It was to be a training academy based on merit and hard work, with recruits wearing bibs so they could be graded without the instructors knowing which family or tribe they came from.

The Afghans were uneasy – British combat operations, known as Op Herrick, were soon due to wind down.

The Academy was hailed as a way to help the Afghan National Army lead and command on their own, training up a new generation who could take the fight to the Taliban.

Ali Gibson Qargh Afganistan
Filming near the ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’ in 2013

I’m really keen to see how that process has changed and evolved since I last visited.

More than 2,000 recruits have now passed through ANAOA – including many women. The academy welcomed its first female company or tolay in 2014.

British troops stayed on after combat missions ended as advisors, helping with teaching, as well as providing security and transport for the mentors under Op Toral.

But the security situation on the ground in Kabul has changed massively since my last trip. Not only is the Afghan Government still fighting the Taliban, they now have the so-called Islamic State to deal with.

The people of the city have been pummelled in recent months, a huge lorry bomb during Ramadan in June killed more than 150 people. One and a half tonnes of explosive ripped through the fortified green zone, making it one of the most deadly attacks in Afghanistan since 2001.

There were anti-government protests in the days after, nine people were killed. Suicide bombers then targeted the funeral of one of those killed, killing at least seven. President Ashraf Ghani has a difficult task ahead of him to find a solution.

To be honest I am apprehensive about this trip. I think that’s normal.

The first time I went to theatre in 2012, I was an ambitious 26-year-old, keen to prove myself and take steps forward in my career.

Now I’m a few years older (you can do the maths), I have more responsibilities, and every day seems to bring more news of another car bomb, another atrocity in Afghanistan.

But the Afghans and the Brits have a lot in common. That ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude is as present today as it ever was.

You can watch Ali Gibson's reports in full on Forces News next week

DISCLAIMER - This article was written prior to Ali Gibson's recent visit to Afghanistan