Afghanistan in winter is not what most people would expect. It’s cold, very, very cold.
When I left Melrose, temperatures had dropped to -16.C. I left my wife to deal with frozen pipes as I set off on a four-day journey to a remote patrol base in Helmand.
I’m here to see soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, from the 2 and 5 Scots Battalions. They are operating from Patrol Base Attal in Lashkar Gah and Patrol Base Bolan in Nad-e Ali districts. Both areas have seen heavy fighting and British losses in the past.
I was in Lashkar Gah two years ago. When my producer colleague Craig Swan and I set off in the new heavily armoured Huskey vehicles out of the main battle group HQ, I was truly taken aback at the changes. I was filming out of the turret when we turned into the Bolan market – for about a mile it was nothing but traffic, crowds, stalls and bazaars, an incredible noise.
This is what the military is trying to achieve, a level of security that will spread out from the main centres.
Captain Colin Woods, 28, from Duns was also here two years ago, serving a six-month tour. He’s now half way through another six-month tour, this time with 2 Scots.
“The big difference I notice is the freedom of movement for the local population. Last time I was here, we did six patrols a day, now it’s all done by the Afghan National Police,” he said. “We were very focused on tackling the insurgents last time; now the focus is on the population. We’re talking to people much more.
“It’s very easy to be cynical about what we do here but if you have any experience of Afghanistan you can see the improvements.
“This is not a short-term fix, I expect to be back and I’m hoping to see progress when I do come back.”
There has been a clear change of tactics on the ground. Out at Bolan, a patrol swung in through the main gates, the soldiers covered in a layer of dust and buzzing from a firefight with the Taleban. The insurgents had manoeuvred behind them and the bullets had whizzed in very close.
If the soldiers want to confront the Taleban, they usually know where to go to find them. Now they are more concerned with keeping the Taleban at bay and away from the local population, allowing the security to spread if it can.
The military believes the key to that is to train up the Afghan security forces. The soldiers of 2 and 5 Scots have been working alongside the Afghan Police during this tour, mentoring and letting them take the lead on patrols and operations. But the local police are a long way off providing the security the coalition forces can.
For the soldiers out at the patrol bases, life can be pretty rough. The urinals are tubes running into the ground, the toilets are a disposable bag used in a makeshift wooden box. For a shower, hang up a bag of warm water and wash as quick as you can.
It’s not like back at home, there’s no getting away from the cold. It doesn’t matter what you wear or how many layers, there’s no chance of getting properly warm unless the sun breaks through for an hour or so at midday.
But the cold isn’t going to affect the cheery disposition of the Jocks. There are tinsel and santa hats dotted all over the camp. The chef has already planned the Christmas Day meal, he’s going to have to do it over two days.
That’s because most of the soldiers in the base are expecting to be out on another operation over Christmas. It doesn’t matter what day of the year it is, it’s business as usual for the soldiers in Afghanistan.