Cover Art_Black Letters

21 Days in Herat

by Bill Blaikie

My wife always said that before I experienced a series of traumatic events, I was a happy-go lucky bloke who loved life and got the most out of it in everything I did. Before my trauma, I had developed a real sense of ethics and ethos as a professional soldier, and I felt that what I was doing was the right and proper course. My family life was great, and I enjoyed being with my wife and three children at every opportunity.

I was a different person, though, when I returned from Afghanistan. I experienced mood swings with outbreaks of anger at those closest to me. As I recognized this, I isolated myself from those who loved me most. I decided to leave the Army, my perception being they didn’t appreciate me and my expertise. This led me into a series of high-profile strategic change management roles in private enterprise and government sectors. My only solace was launching myself into my work.

As my psychological state deteriorated, so did my physical health. I stopped going to the gym, and my sleeping patterns became spasmodic, intertwined with worsening nightmares. This culminated in two suicide attempts within a month of each other. The latter resulted in me being admitted to ICU and my family being told that there was only a 20 percent chance of survival from a drug overdose.

While I was going in and out of a coma, I could see my wife and daughter beside my bed. It was at this stage that the light went on and I decided that life was too valuable, that my family needed me, and that they wanted me back.

_____

The western province of Herat was a relatively secure, autonomous sector under the control of a well-respected—or feared—warlord and governor, Ishmael Khan. Khan, also known as the Emir of Herat, had reasserted his power in the province, and once again Herat had become the transit hub for goods and supplies coming into Afghanistan from Iran and Turkmenistan. This had led to increasing tensions with the Afghan Transitional Administration as he refused to pass on to the government the revenues gained from custom taxes on goods. This was a lucrative business as the majority of taxes went to Ismail Khan, not the national treasury. Herat was also by far the most advanced metropolitan city in Afghanistan at that time, with uninterrupted electricity, water, and sanitation. There was even city garbage collection and street cleaning, which gave it the picture of a city almost untouched by war.

In early spring of 2004 the build-up of the Afghan National Army (ANA) was continuing at a rapid rate. The aim was to extend the hand of the Afghani National Government and move forward toward unity. The idea behind this was to visually show the Afghan people that their country was on the road to establishing a national identity. This period in the emergence of the new Afghanistan was one of excitement and trepidation; no one knew where it would ultimately lead.

Just before our arrival in Herat and the start of our mission, there had been a major incident that had claimed, among others, the life of Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadiq, the son of Ismail Khan. Fighting erupted in Herat between Ismail Khan’s private army and the Defence Ministry’s 4th Corps militia. Sadiq was killed by a rocket propelled grenade during the military standoff between his father and the Defence Ministry’s Herat Division Commander, General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah. The death toll from the fighting was estimated at 50 to 100 people. The 17th Division headquarters was overrun by Ismail Khan’s private militia on 21 March 2004. The German Consulate was peppered with rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire, and the residents had to be evacuated to the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

In response to the fighting, 1,500 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops and their imbedded U.S. advisors were to be deployed to Herat. The ANA were sent to the garrison of the 17th Herat Division of the Defence Ministry’s 4th Corps, General Nayebzadah’s headquarters. The Afghan Government and the Coalition agreed that the deployment of an ANA force was imperative and essential not only to the stability of the province, but also to show the extent of the National Government’s reach. This was brought forward after the events of 21 March 04. One of the most effective ways to do this was to introduce the ANA in Herat province.

After the Sadiq incident, several high-level Afghan Government Officials were deployed to investigate. Concurrently, a small team of coalition personnel was selected to go to Herat to prepare the way for the ANA to move into the province. The team consisted of a U.S. Colonel, Civil Affairs, as Commander; a U.S. Operations Officer, a Major; and me as the Intelligence Officer. As tension built, the team felt excited that we were about to embark on a mission that was a real game changer in the Afghan rebirth. I personally felt a real sense of responsibility and pride that I had been chosen for this mission. In order for me to accompany the mission, I had to get clearance from the Commander of the New Zealand Joint Forces in Wellington and the approval of the New Zealand Government, as this was outside my mandated mission. This was quick in coming, and our small team was assembled and prepared to leave. Prior to our departure, we received several briefings that set the tone for our mission.

One briefing was from the U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad, who left us in no doubt of the importance of this mission, not only to Afghanistan and the coalition forces in the country, but to the wider international community and their continued support for the Afghan mission. This was to prove a major advance for international relations and a win for international involvement in the War on Terror. It was anticipated that this mission would last only three to five days.

_____

It was a lovely, crisp, spring day in Kabul as we assembled to drive to Bagram Airbase. We had just taken delivery of an up armoured Ford 4×4. I can remember that the doors were so heavy to open and close, and the thickness of the windows was impressive. I knew that this vehicle would offer us some protection against a direct attack with heavy weapons or an IED. It was a reassuring feeling we had protection as we were not 100 percent sure of the reception we would receive when we arrived in Herat. The reality of what we were about to embark on hit home, and that knot tightened in my stomach as it does every time you enter the unknown.

The three of us set out for Bagram Airbase in the early afternoon. We had an uneventful drive. We had driven this road numerous times; it was well travelled by military vehicles as it was the main arterial road between the major airbase and Kabul. On arrival at Bagram, we met with members of Task Force 180, in particular their operations and intelligence personnel, to get final briefings before we departed. My professionalism and sense of duty kicked in, and I absorbed every detail of the mission since my judgments would be imperative to a successful outcome.

Later that afternoon, we met the C130 crew who were to fly us to Herat. They were a National Guard crew from Texas that was experienced in flying in Afghanistan. For most of the crew, this was not their first deployment to Afghanistan. We loaded our vehicle and stores into the C130. The stores were destined for the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based in Herat.

We were unaccompanied on our journey to Herat, but we were tracked all the way by the multitude of air assets that operate 24/7 in the Afghan theatre of operations. As we settled down for our long flight, we went over our mission and how we would approach it. It would be a bit of “suck and see,” as we didn’t know what reaction we would get from Ismail Khan. The tension rose in the pit of my stomach as I knew I was committed and others were counting on me doing my job to the utmost.

Flying over Afghanistan on such a clear, beautiful afternoon, I couldn’t believe that there was so much turmoil happening on the ground. The landscape varied in our transit to Herat from nothing but desert to lush and very fertile valleys. We knew that the majority of those valleys were being used to grow poppies that stuffed the coffers of local warlords and government officials.

As the evening sun set over Afghanistan, we went into blackout mode, flying by Night Vision Goggles (NVG). Once the sun had set, it dawned on the three of us that we were going into an unknown situation that had the option of turning pear-shaped at any time, given the unpredictable nature of Afghan politics and power struggles.

Arrival time at Herat was set for midnight to ensure most people would be off the roads and we could make a relatively uneventful entry. We were to be met by members of the PRT and escorted to the safe haven of their base in central Herat. Descending into Herat was more eventful than expected, as the aircraft crew had difficulty in locating the Infra-Red (IR) lighting put down by the forces on the ground to illuminate the Herat Airfield. After we landed, we clambered aboard our armoured Ford vehicle and waited for the doors to open and the OK to drive the vehicle off. This was it. There was no turning back. The apprehension was electric as we knew so much was riding on us doing our mission with a successful outcome. Waiting there was the contingent of the PRT and protection party.

_____

In no time the protection party had loaded the stores, recovered the IR lights, and we were on the road into Herat. Part of the protection party was local militia that had been hired by the PRT to guard the PRT base. Later it would come to our attention that our arrival was not so unannounced, as the militia were loyal to Ismail Khan. This would pose a larger issue later on in our deployment.

Driving through the streets of Herat, the first thing I noticed was the street lighting as we came close to the city, the tidiness, and the tree-lined avenues, all of which were in stark contrast to the environment we were used to in Kabul. The trip to the PRT was uneventful, and once there we made our greetings, conducted a briefing on our mission, and then retired for the night.

My first glimpse of Ismail Khan was when, from a distance, we witnessed the burial of his son at the Herat cemetery. It was a large event that was bristling with individuals carrying weapons. It wasn’t a place for foreigners to be. The atmosphere was tense and even from our vantage point you could sense it could become volatile any moment. Driving past the main Herat cemetery was awe-inspiring when you knew the recent, violent history of this place with the occupation of the Soviet Army and Taliban. The cemetery was marked by thousands and thousands of blue headstones. Off to the rear of the Muslim cemetery were several large dirt mounds. These mounds represent the resting place of hundreds of Soviet soldiers, their wives, and children who were massacred by the Mujahedeen Commander, Ismail Khan.

The next day was spent arranging meetings with the Mayor of Herat, the Commander of the Militia Division, the Chief of police, and other senior players in Herat. Our meeting with Ismail Khan would have to wait until we had completed all these preparatory meetings. Meetings with the local government and police and military commanders were numerous, as nothing was ever agreed to in a first meeting. The Commander of the Defence Ministry’s 4th Corps militia was particularly glad to see us and the ANA. Meeting with the Afghan Police was polite but extremely tense as they saw their role as the provision of security for Herat. In their minds, the ANA had no role to play. The Chief of police in particular showed an aura of distrust and left me with a feeling that he would turn in a blink of an eye. There was yet another tightening of those stomach muscles. Negotiations were protracted and required a lot of persuasion.

It soon became apparent that our five-day mission would be extended, but we knew not by how much. Eventually we met the Mayor and other city officials and had numerous meetings, all of which were very courteous and always were accompanied by lots of tea and trays of almonds and pistachio nuts. We explained to the Mayor and other officials the nature of our visit. We made it clear we were there to ensure the peaceful reception of the first ANA troops into the province.

Several days after our arrival, the ANA arrived via road in a large convoy. We met them at the Herat International Airfield. Our first mission was to find an area where the ANA could establish a base. Initially the ANA moved into the garrison of the 17th Herat Division. This was short-lived for two reasons. First, none of the Herat Officials or Ismail Khan wanted the ANA to occupy a base within the city proper. Second, the barracks were heavily mined and strewn with unexploded ordnance. You had to watch your footing wherever you went. It claimed our first causality, who was seriously injured by disturbing unexploded ordnance. This brought home the unpredictable nature of operating in such an environment.

After a period of living in this highly toxic environment and after many negotiations, it was agreed that the ANA could establish a base on the outskirts of Herat, a site which was previously an agriculture college. We also agreed that a portion of the ANA force could be stationed at the Herat International Airport. This again was an interesting area as it contained thousands of unexploded ordnance dating back to the Soviet occupation; everything from 500-pound bombs and napalm to artillery and anti-aircraft shells, mines and mortars to small arms ammunition. United Nations demining teams had been clearing the area for several years and had only just scratched the surface. This was a situation not uncommon to most of Afghanistan.

Several days after the ANA arrived in Herat, it was finally agreed that ANA troops could patrol in the city proper. However, they had to be unarmed. We got assurance from local officials and the Police that no harm would come to the soldiers. The local people were happy to see the ANA presence as they had become weary of conflict. We accompanied some of these patrols, and it was refreshing to see the reception of the locals, and the relief on the ANA soldiers’ faces, as they had not known what to expect. This happened before we got to meet the man himself, Ismail Khan. Negotiations to this stage had been conducted through his intermediaries.

Ten days after our arrival, we finally had an audience with Khan. We approached his residence on the hill overlooking Herat, Takht e Safar Resort, a palatial mansion that had spectacular views and gardens. There was even a large, green with algae, swimming pool that had seen better days. On arrival at the entrance to the residence, we were met by a large contingent of armed men, obliviously the “Praetorian Guard.” The guard commander was officious and demanded that we hand over our weapons and body armour, for security reasons. It was at that moment the heart raced and the raw emotions of the unknown came to the fore. We had become accustomed to the ways of life in Herat, and we never went anywhere without our weapons. We subsequently locked our weapons in our vehicle where at least we had control over them. We left our vehicle and the ANA Commander’s security detail to watch over everything. The site was one of a stand-off, Kahn’s henchmen armed to the teeth and obviously veterans of several campaigns and our young ANA soldiers armed only with personal weapons. The party comprised us three from Kabul, the ANA Commander, his Intelligence Officer, and the Commander of the PRT.

We entered a large sitting room overlooking the pool and gardens. The room was full of various individuals, some unarmed—obviously Khan’s hierarchy—and several heavily armed men. These armed individuals had those eyes that just stared straight through you, disconcerting. They were obviously veterans of many conflicts, and they were not just there for show. We were instructed to sit together on a large couch and await the arrival of Ismail Khan.

After toing and froing of officials to a side room, Khan emerged as if making a grand entrance. We all stood out of courtesy, and were duly introduced. The tension was electric, though we were able to keep our composure and not show our true feelings. The ANA Commander was visibly nervous and scared as he knew Kahn’s past track record, and they were also from different tribes. Khan directed his first question to our Colonel as to why we were in Herat, stating that there was no need for Coalition presence as things in Herat were under control. The Colonel responded that our presence there was to ensure him of our help with integrating the ANA into the province and to brief the PRT. This was then followed by a conversation about the deployment of the ANA within the city and its surroundings. Khan had been instructed by President Karzai that the ANA were there to stay and that he was to help facilitate the ANA integration.

The conversation then turned to talking between the ANA Commander and Khan, which immediately became extremely heated, with Kahn having the upper hand. After some time, Khan ordered the ANA Commander out of the room, and they moved to a side room. They were followed by several armed men. The conversation got even more heated, and we could clearly hear a one way tirade. As we later found out, Khan had also made a phone call to Karzai outlining his displeasure of the situation. As we were left to sit in the room while this was going on, the tension in the air rose, and the presence of the armed men became exceedingly intimidating. This is when you feel you are in uncharted territory and that you have no control over the events that are about to unfold. This period seemed like a lifetime and was eventually broken when Khan and the ANA Commander re-entered the room. When the ANA Commander returned, it was obvious that he was distressed and totally belittled and intimidated. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he settled down next to me. He was openly shaking, and you could feel the terror in him.

When we left the residence and recovered our weapons and personal belongings, we all breathed a big sigh of relief. Just the fact we had our body armour, weapons, and the security of our vehicle gave us a sense of control, even though we were totally outnumbered and out-gunned. It felt like I had been holding my breath the whole time as the tension in the room had been so intense.

_____

Tensions were still high between followers of the local Divisional Commander and those loyal to Khan. After a period of about two weeks in the city, rumours spread that there might be a skirmish between these two groups. Caught up in all of this was the local United Nations mission, which had been in Herat for some time. It was decided that contingency plans needed to be made to evacuate the United Nations personnel to the PRT compound and to establish a defensive area around the compound. This was to prove almost impossible as the PRT compound was in the city centre proper and surrounded by civilian houses. A built-up area is no desired place to establish a defensive perimeter. To add to the mix was the fact Khan knew exactly what we were doing as the local guard force hired by the PRT was supplied by Khan.

As the tensions rose and word filtered in that there was possible trouble brewing, it was decided to enact our defensive plan in case of incursion by local forces loyal to Khan. It was heard that local mujahadeen had armed themselves and would overrun the United Nations compound and rid the city of forces loyal to the local Divisional Commander. The situation was growing ever more tense and unpredictable. The Colonel in command of our mission took charge of the defensive operation of the PRT compound as the PRT Commander was ill-equipped with the necessary military skills. While the Colonel and Major ran the command post with other PRT headquarters staff, I moved to the roof of the central building in the compound as this provided a good vantage point to observe beyond the perimeter of the base. On the roof, a Special Forces Civil Affairs Team had set up a satellite communications set to talk to the air assets on standby. I was able to direct air assets overhead and instructed them to make a show of force by crisscrossing the city at low altitude. This proved most effective as the crowds dissipated. They are all too familiar with the potent strike power of coalition air assets. This was the real deal as we knew we were on our own on the ground, and years of professional soldiering came to the forefront in what we call the “automatic mode switch on.” However, you still feel the extreme tension and vulnerability, but you overcome that by concentrating on the task at hand. As this situation evolved, an emergency response team was placed on standby in Kandahar. This was hours away by air; fortunately they were not needed.

The ANA were on the other side of the city, hunkered down in their temporary base with their U.S. advisors. They were in no place or state to offer us any real help, as they were a relatively new force. Khan’s men, on the other hand, were seasoned fighters.

_____

Tensions subsided in the city over the next couple of days, and things returned to relative calm. Our 21 days had come to an end. We had achieved the first major deployment of the ANA into a province and with it the extended authority of the Afghan National Government. Our mission had been a success. It had taken far longer than first expected, and the personal toll would not manifest itself until much later.

This was one of several traumatic events in my tour of Afghanistan that year, and it has remained with me ever since. I now suffer from claustrophobia whenever I am enclosed in small spaces, and I struggle with the feeling of utter vulnerability whenever I am not in control of a situation. The hyper arousal is still with me today and manifests itself in many different ways daily. It was the constant tension and unpredictability of the whole situation I found myself in, but the meeting with Khan was the culminating point. I coped with the stress by just putting all the incidents into that black box in the back of the brain, trying instead to concentrate on the immediate tasks ahead, all the time not knowing that this extended period of stress, tension, and the unknown would have a devastating effect on me years later.

When I returned from overseas I was still on an adrenaline high and running on red alert. Everything was a life and death decision that had to be made quickly. Most of these decisions were made on the run, at times with only the information on hand, and in hindsight, it would have been better to have waited and made more informed decisions about my life and future. I decided to leave the Army early after my return, based on what I thought was best for me and not for the Army. As I had just come back from a high profile position and had been at the cutting edge of operational and strategic intelligence, I wanted to move straight away into a similar role back home. However, the Army had different plans, and that was to move me out of my specialist role to one I saw as wasting my experience and talents. I felt undervalued, so I changed jobs, the start of my downhill slide. I didn’t discuss my feelings with anyone and was not willing to as I saw this as a weakness. This attitude is common among military personnel. We are unwilling to put our hands up and say we are having problems, since we are then perceived “not up to it.”

I was angry at the Army and at the world. I felt I had been treated unfairly and was undervalued. I could not see into the future as I had been operating in the “here and now” for so long at such a high intensity, making decisions that were valued and acted upon. Some of these decisions have had disastrous outcomes, especially when you can’t have all the information at hand and you can’t control the situation on the ground. The loss of life that came as a result of those decisions lay heavily on me, and I often relive those decisions and outcomes to see if I could have done things differently. What did I miss?

Looking back, I realize that I punished myself for those rare events that went wrong, and I didn’t pat myself on the back for all the good things I had achieved. Even when I was made a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit MNZM in the 2005 Queen’s New Year’s Honors list, it was a hollow victory. I still felt I had let people down and individuals had lost their lives.

Intensive flashbacks became strong and were associated with traumatic events, particularly the ones in which the death of others occurred. These became exceedingly disruptive in my life and remain today as disruptive nightmares. I know that in war people get killed and sometimes there is what we call collateral damage, but this still challenges me both ethically and morally. I have come to accept that I was not in complete control of a situation and that you may not have all of the information to make decisions. However, you need to rely on others that they are doing their best.

On my return from Afghanistan, I found myself irritable and quickly lost my temper about stupid things, especially around my family. I wanted to regain the household decision making straight away and found myself arguing with my wife about everything, especially our finances. I had served overseas, I had earned the money, and I would decide on the finances. My relationship with my kids was volatile, especially my eldest son, who could do no right, when all he was doing was just being a teenager. I still regret this today, but now we are rebuilding this bond. He has been so supportive of my recovery, and even though he is a young man, he still tells me he loves his dad and is hugely proud of me. My youngest son was removed from my emotions and anger, but his love for his dad never faltered and hasn’t to this day. He too is extremely supportive of me and my recovery. Both my sons are now young men with bright futures. My daughter went through this hell with me and fortunately has come out the other end a most wonderful and beautiful young lady. This is no small miracle as it was my wife that ensured that she was grounded all the time and was protected from me and my actions and moods.

Then there’s my wife. Where do I start? “MY ROCK.” I have put her through hell over these last years, and yet, she has stuck by me. When I returned from Afghanistan, I did everything the Army told me not to do. I was still in the controlling mood and wanted to take over the running of the household, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. This caused a terrible amount of friction at home and led to many arguments with me getting angry at everything and her getting upset not knowing what to do. My wife went into protection mode for herself and the kids and kept things running as normal as possible. I felt I was a boarder in my own home, and I became resentful over what I felt was a total loss of control. I know now that this was not the case. She was protecting the family from an exceedingly unpredictable me.

It was at this early stage I took refuge away from home and I moved to a new job I thought then was an advancement and a real challenge, a new beginning. This captured my energy full-on at first and then soon became boring and mundane. I found it hard to remain interested and engaged. Some parts of the job I liked. Those were the interaction with people when I was in control. The day-to-day stuff became mundane. As I got bored, my concentration waned, and I turned to having a drink to fill my day, take my mind off work and home, and dream about big ventures I might take in the future. The typical avoidance strategy, I soon became wrapped up in this fake world.

I soon looked for a new challenge in work. I moved to a new and what I thought was a more exciting field: consulting with a major worldwide consulting firm. The prospects of travel, money, and moving around the world were the draw card, not the hard work that would go with it. This led to me travelling a lot. I liked the idea of not being at home as it meant that I could avoid all the things that go with having a family life, such as day-to-day responsibilities I never had anyway, dealing with kids and my relationship with my wife. During this period, I was living the life of a single man without a care in the world. The cycle of avoidance started all over again, only this time it was worse than before. I knew I was underperforming at work, and that was being noticed. This led to quitting before I was pushed out, blemishing my record.

This cycle continued for four years. Eventually this all came out in the open due to my stupidity. I soon attempted to take my life and ended up in hospital under care. I discharged myself as I thought I had reached rock bottom and could solve whatever was wrong with me. How untrue this was. This was an early cry for help, but the “demon” had me and wouldn’t let go. I saw that there was no way out, and no matter what people told me, I became unmanageable. I spiraled down into the depths of depression and avoidance and all those things associated with PTSD. Once again I tried to take my life, this time very nearly succeeding. My wife came home early, and the quick work of paramedics and hospital staff saved me. Thank God I am here to tell my story and help others.

Coming to the point of where I am at now is due to several positive changes I have made to my life, both physical and mental. I have reengaged with getting physically fit as this is one of the easiest and quickest ways in improving my overall health, allowing me to better concentrate on getting my mental health/physiological space in order. What has worked for me over the last 18 months is this combination of working on both the physical and mental balance in my life. I initially progressed on a journey of intense physiological therapy with a clinical physiologist. It was most important that I found a professional with whom I could connect and who understood my story. Also, it was great they understood PTSD and the military.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been especially successful in my recovery. It has enabled me to understand the trauma and place it in perspective. I feel it has been important for me to relive the trauma and then accept it. The addition of medication has also played an important role. Used in combination with therapy, it has helped me to readjust and focus on the here-and-now and on my future. I also found that it is important to get the right level of medication that works for me. If I wasn’t getting the results I wanted I would discuss this with my psychiatrist, and we would change my meds until they were complementary to my recovery and therapy.

One of the greatest self-help therapies I have used has been to write down my story and journey through recovery. This is extremely cathartic in getting the emotions out and putting them into perspective. This journey over the last 18 months has been one of personal discovery and enlightenment. By no means has it been easy. However, it has been rewarding as I can now help others to overcome the stigma of PTSD. I am now lecturing at Command & Staff College and Army promotion courses on PTSD and recovery from traumatic experiences, and on the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with making command decisions on operations. PTSD does not differ from physical trauma; it just happens to manifest itself in specific ways. It is important to bring the discussion out into the open and demystify it.