Blast brings home daily reality for police on Afghanistan beat

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I AM strolling past the main gate of Helmand’s Police headquarters with West Yorkshire Detective Inspector John Mountain, when a suicide car bomber slams into a convoy of vehicles just 200m away.

The blast sends shockwaves through us and we huddle on the ground as a huge plume of smoke fills the sky.

It is so powerful that it rattles the reinforced concrete walls of the buildings surrounding us.

Within seconds, we are bundled into an armoured car by security guards and driven to the main police operations room to grab our body armour and helmets.

Inside the building, soldiers and police issue frantic orders.

We are told to get back to the military base in the centre of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand 25 miles from where the six British soldiers were killed this week, as soon as possible.

As we drive, the road is clogged with cars and people streaming towards the scene of the blast.

It crackles over the radio in our vehicle that the car bomb was a white Toyota pick-up truck and multiple civilians have been injured in the attack.

The convoy was one of two being driven by the Foreign Office contracted private security firm in the city that morning – ours was the other.

DI Mountain, who transferred to Helmand Province from his normal post at Keighley Police station in December, is becoming a veteran of suicide attacks.

This is the second one that has rocked the city in a matter of weeks.

At the end of January, an insurgent car bomb smashed into another convoy carrying members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) – injuring several dozen civilians, including three PRT staff.

“It does, unfortunately, bring home the reality of the threat here and that the priority is still security,” says DI Mountain, who has served with West Yorkshire Police for 22 years and is a former Royal Marine.

Despite his experiences on the front line in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, we are both still shaking as we speak back at base following the explosion.

“Incidents like this do bring home to you where you are.

“You just have to remember that it can happen at any time.

“Afghan police officers in Helmand are getting killed and injured on a regular basis.”

DI Mountain, a 50-year-old father-of-three, is on a 12-month posting to help mentor the Afghan National Police (ANP) to build up to a strong enough force to provide security after British forces pull out in 2014.

He is one of several Yorkshire police officers currently providing training in the country, with West Yorkshire Police Superintendent Stan Bates also posted in Kabul.

The ANP has made huge strides forward in recent years, now numbering some 148,000 officers nationwide and up to 9,000 in Helmand alone.

It is becoming better trained, better security vetted and better equipped.

However there are still concerns over parts of the force, highlighted by the shooting of five British servicemen by a rogue police officer in 2009.

An Afghan policeman is also currently the main suspect over the shooting of two US officers in the interior ministry in Kabul last month.

Meanwhile, there are local fears in Helmand that the ANP does not represent the main tribes in the province, as well as question marks over its ability to make the transition from a paramilitary style fighting force to more regular police work.

DI Mountain is helping the ANP to overhaul its community policing model, alongside mentoring anti-corruption and detective work.

“I have found the Afghans to be very warm people who welcome the support and advice they are receiving,” he said.

“I volunteered to come out here and my colleagues back home reacted with a mixture of admiration and telling me I was mad, if I’m being honest.

“People admire that you are prepared to be away from your family and travel to a country that is, in areas, a very dangerous place, especially in Helmand.

“I suppose I see this as a new challenge which will be of real benefit in terms of the skill and experience I will be bring back.”

Also currently working alongside DI Mountain in Lashkar Gah, is Sheridan Moore, of Halifax.

The 54-year-old, who is married with four children, retired from West Yorkshire Police in 2006 as its deputy head of special branch.

He has been based in Afghanistan since November 2009, where he is currently working for its National Directorate of Security – the Afghan equivalent of MI5.

“It is amazing meeting old colleagues out here, but it is a small world,” he said.

“When I first came here, the ANP were nowhere near as professional as they are now.

“I have seen a big positive increase in the security situation, particularly in Lashkar Gah.

“If we don’t maintain that security level, I would say it will have been a waste of time us being here. But I am confident we will be able to do that.”