Flying out of Afghanistan for the very last time 2010

Having spent 23 years in the armed forces, followed by around 10 years as a security advisor carrying out tasks from looking after Royalty and VIPs to working with media teams on the ground in conflict areas around the world, I didn’t think once when arriving in Afghanistan in early 2004 that I knew it all. In fact I still had lots to learn about my trade and even myself. It’s not just the tactics used around the people that I’m charged with looking after, but as much the knowledge of the ground that we will be going over…the people…their allegiances…and just how the West fits in here.

You can’t choose where you’re born.

As an Afghan, it’s all about which tribe, and that’s ultimately important when spending time with Afghan individuals, just who’s side are they actually on?

When I arrived onto a still heavily mined Kabul airport, Afghanistan had been fighting a 30 year long simmering but often bloody civil war. Then along came the Taliban and managed (ruthlessly, as that’s all Afghans understand…their words not mine) to put the lid back on. Play by their rules and all will be fine for you, your family and your tribe…which are the 3 things that matter to any Afghan.

But then for reasons given to the West’s electorate, an American led military coalition went into Afghanistan and pushed the Taliban out of power…for now.

I arrived almost 4 years later having worked in Palestine and Iraq with the media before hand.

Afghanistan was war torn, tired and desperate. Lots of money was pouring in…but for the next 6 years it was hard to see where it was all going that would benefit the average Afghan.

The average Afghan…yes, a young man or woman, neither having had the benefit of a formal education, but that most certainly doesn’t mean that they are dim! Indeed far from it. The average Afghan could twist the average Westerner around their little finger…astute they most certainly are. And history…kids from farming communities could tell you about not just the Russian occupation of their country, but that of the British too. This was one of the first things that amazed me about Afghans after my first year there.

Notch that up to Presidential level, and you would see just how good the Afghan President was at “playing” other world leaders and their diplomats and generals in order to get what he wanted.

Even today after presiding over the Afghan people for so long before handing over to Ashraf Ghani, Hamid Karzai is still living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule…only someone so extremely bright and savvy could survive that long without being assassinated. I’ve actually watched him in his palace for example meeting with the US Ambassador followed immediately by the Chinese Ambassador before giving my media team an interview. He must be an awesome chess player, and if not then he should take it up.

After my 5th meeting in 6 years in the palace with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan after a media interview.

In 2004 I was able to travel around with caution over pretty much the whole of Afghanistan by road. However year on year that became extremely restricted. By 2008 moving by local vehicle with the view of “blending in” with the traffic around you became very dangerous. Get pinged out in the provinces and you’re either killed or captured.

So it became difficult for all International actors to move around by road, not just the media…from the extremely overt military convoys to the UN, NGOs etc…

Afghan males from one family sit by their poppy crop which is about to be destroyed, Helmand Province 04.

Over the years I got to take part in some wonderful adventures. Outside of any security bubble most times, but also inside too such as US military embeds in places like Nuristan, Kunar, Paktia. Paktika, Khost, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces to name but a few.

One of my favourite photos that I took between Kabul and Kandahar on an awesome road move to meet with poppy eradication teams and later the Taliban. I always think about how good it would have been if I could have sat down with this man over tea and bread and listened to his stories about his life.

I found travelling Afghanistan that by road the scenery changes every 20 minutes or so, but by helicopter it’s every 20 seconds or so.

A road trip returning from Khost Province back to Kabul City.

On a road trip the vehicles would never be less than half full of fuel at any time. We would always have a minimum of two vehicles even if there was just 3 of us…anything happens cross deck straight away into the other vehicle. Many of the Provincial roads were still dirt tracks and easy to ambush.

Travelling by helicopter close to the mountain sides of Nuristan Province.

The helicopter flights when embedded with the military took away the dangers of road moves alone. But obviously they brought their own dangers, we were a big target in the sky! At times such as the photo above in Nuristan it was almost possible for an individual to toss a stone into the rotor blades below him…never mind a shot being fired.

A Nuristani sitting perched on a stone, I read his face like a clock…he was thinking “you have the watches but we have the time!”

So back to the first photo of my post, leaving Afghanistan for the very last time. All the way back in 2010, I could no longer look after journalists wanting to travel around the country and news gather. I no longer knew who was the enemy and who was “friendly.”

Yet I had an absolute ball living, travelling and learning about the country, the people, the situation and myself.

Published by: bobshepherdauthor

Bestselling author Bob Shepherd has spent nearly forty years operating in conflict areas around the world. A twenty year veteran of Britain’s elite 22 SAS Regiment with nearly two decades of private security work to his credit, Bob has successfully negotiated some of the most dangerous places on earth as a special forces soldier and a private citizen. Bob comments regularly on security issues and has appeared on CNN International, BBC, SKY News, and BBC Radio. He has also authored numerous articles and books including the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller The Circuit. In addition to writing and lecturing, Bob continues to advise individuals operating in hostile environments. For more of his insights on security and geopolitics visit

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