"Final destination, Kabul!" exclaimed the startled airport official, and with that, I found myself leaving the comforts of the Netherlands for the unknowns of Afghanistan.
Shortly after starting at the NCI Agency, I heard about the possibility to deploy to the NATO Resolute Support Headquarters and work as an analyst within the Afghan Assessment Group (AAG). I was immediately keen to get involved.
I figured deploying to Afghanistan would be a unique opportunity to gain first-hand experience of NATO operations, work closely alongside military and civilian colleagues from around the world, and be part of the broader effort to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions.
Boarding the plane at Schiphol in early April, I was very excited about this new challenge, but also unsure of what to expect when landing at Kabul Airport the following day.
The team I worked with, the AAG, is responsible for campaign assessments of the Resolute Support mission. This includes analyzing progress towards achieving campaign objectives, and improving the way operational data feeds into the commander's situational awareness by applying both quantitative and qualitative techniques.
Since 2011, the Operational Analysis (OA) Service Line (SL) has provided year-round support to this group, through both a deployed analyst on a two-month rotational basis, and also analytical reach-back support from analysts in The Hague, Netherlands. The OA SL analysts provide not only specific technical skills such as expertise in programming and statistics, but also a wealth of experience and 'corporate knowledge' gained through years of experience supporting the Resolute Support and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) missions.
Some of the products provided by the AAG are only distributed within the Resolute Support mission but some analysis, such as the Periodic Mission Review, makes it all the way to national governments to inform their policy on Afghanistan.
Life at Resolute Support Headquarters is surprisingly comfortable and varied considering the compound only measures around 1sqkm. Everything is within quick walking distance. There are plenty of amenities including an Italian café, a Turkish and a Thai restaurant and a variety of shops and markets selling everything from authentic carpets, lapis lazuli stones and paintings by local artists. Every Friday, the headquarters welcomes a number of local traders into the camp for a 'bazaar' selling even more Afghan wares. This contributes to a source of income for the Afghans working there.
With an American friend, it's also possible to head over to the US embassy next door to catch a recently-released movie in their cinema and even enjoy some freshly-made popcorn. The atmosphere on camp is generally very friendly and welcoming given that everyone is away from their friends and family, with military and civilians working together throughout nearly all departments. Our group held a weekly board game and pizza social night, with prizes awarded to the most successful gamer at the end of the month. This was a great way to relax with colleagues after a long working day. Every so often, the updates and sounds from outside the green zone, accompanied by the various alarms and klaxons provided a stark reminder of the situation on the other side of the huge concrete walls and the dangerous reality that the locals face.
As well as the analytical day job, we were fortunate to be involved in the mission's Train, Advise and Assist efforts (TAA) which is one of the most fulfilling elements of any deployment to Afghanistan. Every week, we headed over to the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MOD) and provided training to the Plans and Strategy staff in Operations Assessment, Analysis and Data Visualization.
A walk to the Afghan MOD, even though inside the 'green zone', required a full armed escort and we had to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). But the trip provided a brief and rare glimpse of life outside the compound. As most of the Afghan military don't speak English, teaching was done through an interpreter. This brought a whole new level of difficulty to the task, and a 30-minute lesson could sometimes take over an hour. However, it was a great opportunity to meet and talk to members of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, who will be so vitally important to the country's future. It was also an excellent reminder of the purpose of the NATO mission there.
Despite the longer working hours, and seven-day working weeks, time flew by in Kabul thanks to the interesting work, experiences and people from all over the world that I was lucky to meet!