Feature

Martin remembers the dangers of Afghanistan

Last Updated: 17 Mar 2016
He also finds that his keyboards skills are almost as much in demand as his knowledge of the country.

playing_synthesiser.png

Playing Synthesiser
© Crown Copyright 2014

When I was posted to Afghanistan, I rather thought my knowledge of the country may have been what was in high demand. However, I found myself being the focus of attention for another reason altogether.

Wherever I deployed, sooner or later someone asks "is there anyone who can play the piano?". Move over Liberace! On my second day in Afghanistan, five minutes before a service in a glorified tin hut there I was trying to make some infernal synthesiser contraption stop playing complicated drum riffs whenever I touched it, and start making some sort of piano-like sound.

camp_bastian_church_45150966.jpg

Camp Bastian Church
© Crown Copyright 2014

Not quite what I imagined when I prepared to take up my post, but it was a good way to meet those I’d be working with in short order. The job was not all piano-playing and cocktails.  Working in a windowless office you could easily forget you were in Afghanistan, but there were times you were sharply reminded of your exceptional working conditions. Like the day the tannoy announced"Small arms fire heard, all staff move into buildings".

Shortly after there was a small explosion and we moved into the corridors to get away from the windows and started closing all the office doors. A little later there was an enormous bang that shook the building, and at that point we started a full lock-down, calling round all those who were at other locations or travelling to check on them. The next several minutes were pretty alarming - periodic loud explosions, some of them obviously pretty close. The lack of information was unsettling: you're stuck in a windowless environment and there's obviously something pretty serious going on nearby but because you have no understanding you can't do anything to manage it.

I calmed down as we started to get various bits of data phoned through, and as open source came in on the TV. It became clear that a group of insurgents in suicide vests had occupied a building and were using it as a base to lob rocket-propelled grenades into the compounds where we were. This was one of a series of co-ordinated attacks. We were told to stay on the side of the building away from the incident. Very occasionally, from then on, a large explosion would happen.

We were in that state for about six and a half hours. You move through various emotional stages here. First, relief that there is some form of control of the situation and that you are reasonably safe so long as nothing gets worse. Then boredom. Then, actually, irritation at not being able to get back to work. Towards evening I started being able to speak to and email people back in the UK who had come in to deal with the event.

About an hour after dawn all the shooting stopped and by nine o'clock we were back to normal. It's very clear we were lucky. There were no casualties and the only property damage was the destruction of a Portaloo. The security staff couldn’t take credit for where the rounds landed, but for everything else to do with reducing risk they got full marks - and a spontaneous round of applause from everyone at breakfast.

 

Memories of deployment 

At the heart of GCHQ's support to the Military are our staff. It is a team effort to gather, analyse, translate and report intelligence, but when it comes to keeping the Military safe in warzones, the delivery of intelligence is often done by a single person.

Putting a Signals Intelligence expert in the field can both improve understanding of what the Military need, whilst protecting the use of intelligence. This is a lesson learned in World War One, and it is still valuable today.

In recent conflicts, GCHQ's staff have volunteered in numbers to deploy to warzones to help keep the Military safe. 90 GCHQ staff have received the medal for service in Iraq, and 156 for service in Afghanistan.