Allen Lane, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Kandak: Fighting with Afghans, By Patrick Hennessey

A searing yet heart-warming soldier's memoir allows us to meet the men of the Afghan army

With roadside bombs and mines taking an increasingly bloody toll on soldiers in Helmand, the British mentors of the Afghan army decided it was time for some intensive refresher training. In searing heat, they took the men of the kandak (battalion) through life-saving drills to identify the lethal threat and mark a safe route with bright orange mine tape.

 "A couple of days later a request came into the company sergeant major from the kandak supply sergeant: could they have some more supplies of mine tape? Significant looks were exchanged and smiles played on the lips of the trainers: the sobering lessons of the casualties were starting to sink in," writes Patrick Hennessey. "The mine tape appeared a couple of days later, meticulously wound round the picket fence as a colourful addition to the decorative garden border".

After a veritable invasion of volumes on the Afghan conflict, it would be hard to imagine that there was room on the shelves for another tome but, in his second book, the best-selling author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club fills a gaping chasm. He tells the story of the largely faceless Afghan National Army askar (warriors) who have suffered an even heavier toll during Britain's six-year sojourn in Helmand. For anyone who has worked closely with the ANA, the tape incident beautifully encapsulates the frustrations of British military teams charged with advising the men who, along with their police counterparts, will take over security of the country when most NATO forces withdraw by the end of 2014. But it equally exposes the more charming, human side of its soldiers.

Writing about Forward Operating Base Shawqat, Hennessey describes the Afghan propensity for tending their gardens. While the UK side of the camp was a model of security, the locals opted for more decorative comforts. But one side of Shawqat was simply designed to be an efficient, military base for men who would soon return to their own homes; the other was a permanent garrison for soldiers who had endured years of combat and would continue to do so. Too often the men of the ANA are divided in to two stereotypes – either fearsome warrior or feckless incompetent. Hennessey, his candid, clear prose resonating with affection for those he fought alongside, goes beyond those generalities to talk about the myriad of personalities, soldier or interpreter, that he came to know.

In his first book, the section on Afghanistan praised the courage and self-sacrifice of his fellow Grenadier Guards in Helmand; but in Kandak, they fade into the background and the Afghans come to the fore. The former officer pulls no punches when describing the patronising and dismissive attitude of some Brits who had less chance to work with the ANA.

The book begins with Hennessey's initial deployment as part of the Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLTs) in 2007. In self-deprecating style, he mocks the awkwardness of British officers at their first meeting with the ANA, "like a junior school disco with boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the assembly hall". He decries the lazy complaints that this rag-tag bunch from different ethnic backgrounds, clad in a patchwork of borrowed uniforms, "all looked the same", when it was the guardsmen who were immaculate copies of each other.

The book follows his returns to Helmand two and three years later as a journalist, having left the army, and his reunion with old friends. What follows is a moving, humbling and rare account of mutual respect among men who might as well be from different galaxies but have forever bonded through battle. In unfettered, unpretentious prose, he gives a searing account of the death of his favourite Afghan company commander, a man of ferocious, insane bravery.

Kandak does not attempt to canonise the men of the ANA and it is peppered with amusing anecdotes of their chaotic, quixotic ways, as well as tales of incompetence and betrayal. But it is equally full of heart-warming descriptions of their generosity, devotion to their homeland and self-sacrifice.

The British byword in Helmand today is "transition", the gradual handing-over of responsibility to Afghan security forces so we can extricate ourselves from a decade-long conflict that has cost us dearly. Kandak should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the magnitude of that task, as well as the people we will leave behind.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape