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When facing death is all in a day's work Print
22 April 2008 - By Stephen McGinty
ON A drizzly, cold day in Ramallah in the West Bank, where Israeli tanks patrolled the roads and wet concrete dust scented the air, Bob Shepherd thought: "This is it. I'm going to die."
His head was slammed up against the side of an Israeli armoured personnel carrier and a tall blond, blue-eyed Israeli soldier was pushing the barrel of an M16 into his temple. For a 20-year veteran of the SAS, a man who once swung through the windows of the Iranian embassy while Britain watched on television, in awe at the their first glimpse of the secretive army unit, it was a unique and unpleasant experience.

A few minutes before, the burly Scot had been providing close protection and security advice to a CNN camera crew reporting on Israel's incursion into the West Bank following a spate of suicide bombings. Now, he was more scared than he had ever been in his life, unarmed and convinced he was seconds away from being shot dead. Instead, the soldier demanded his ID. When Shepherd handed it over, the soldier threw it on the ground and ordered: "Pick it up." Shepherd bent down and as he scooped it up, the soldier slammed the heel of his boot down on to his hands. The bones in his fingers snapped. "If we see you on the streets of Ramallah tomorrow, you're a dead man," said the soldier. "Now f*** off."

Shepherd, 54, admits he has had better days on "the circuit" as the international commercial security market is called by the former soldiers who populate it and spend their days earning ten times army pay guarding diplomats in Iraq or journalists in Afghanistan. "That was the closest I've come to getting killed, including all my years with the regiment (SAS]," said Shepherd, a big, broad man with a gentle voice.

For the past 13 years, Shepherd has worked on this lucrative but dangerous carousel, spending the first five years as part of a close protection team for an American billionaire and his family, a job that involved its share of five-star hotels and private Caribbean beaches. Since the events of 11 September, 2001, he has pin-balled around the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.

His most recent deployments have been to Afghanistan and it is clear he does not share the optimism of the British military commanders who insist progress is being made. During operations to protect CNN journalists and later as part of a close protection team for ambassadors and diplomats, Shepherd has come to the conclusion that the situation is all but lost. "Afghanistan was lost at the beginning of 2006 when America handed over military control to Nato, which has neither the troops nor the commitment to handle the situation properly. I am amazed that no American or British general has resigned over what is going on. They should not be playing the political card and going along with wrong policy for political expediency.

"The situation is simple. The British military produces the best front-line soldiers in the world but we have not sent nearly enough to do the job – we are expecting them to help and assist NGOs. The idea is that if we fix a school or build a road then the Afghans will love us. It's nonsense. We need to provide them with security. At the moment there are over 3,000 NGOs sitting in Kabul because it's not safe to get out. We have this attitude of: 'give a prayer mat and win a friend'. What good is that when we can't secure the village and the Taleban come back, ask them where they got the prayer mat and then cut off their ears? No British soldier should be in the position that this government has put him in. How many brave soldiers have died or been maimed as a result of flawed policies and poor leadership? It makes me angry, really angry," said Shepherd, whose book about his experiences, The Circuit, was published last week.

Bob Shepherd was born in Dundee into difficult family circumstances on which he prefers not to dwell, explaining only that he left home at 14. When a promising football career collapsed, he joined the RAF parachute regiment. While Shepherd was stationed in Oman, he would look up into the hills and see firefights which he learned from his fellow soldiers involved the SAS. At the age of 20, he was one of just six out of 150 to be accepted into the regiment and over the next 16 years he served in Oman, Northern Ireland, the Falklands War and the first Gulf war.

Unlike other veterans who have written extensively of their service in the SAS, Shepherd does not. "I think it's a disservice to the boys who remain in there," he said. "I don't think it does anyone any good." The Circuit does however attack the rogue elements in his business, the wannabees, who buy wraparound sunglasses and adopt an overly aggressive stance whenever they travel and incite problems the legitimate military then have to deal with.

He also attacks the men in suits who sit in offices in Britain, putting profits before lives. "There are certainly men in pin-stripe suits who should be in jail because of their lack of duty of care of people on the ground."

In fact, the rise of global commercial security companies (CSCs) has, he believes, allowed the governments of Britain and the United States to conceal the true cost of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan by perpetuating the illusion that both nations are stable. Without CSCs, both governments would have to increase their troop numbers significantly. As he explains: "That is exactly what they don't want to do."

• The Circuit by Bob Shepherd, is published by Macmillan, priced £16.99

COVERING UP FAILED POLICIES

THE circuit is undermining the war on terror, writes Bob Shepherd. How does it do this? First and foremost by enabling politicians to continue to implement flawed policies. The primary objective of any military campaign is to dominate the ground and hold it. The US-led coalition didn't commit enough troops to dominate the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan at the start of either campaign. Faced with declining security and an escalating manpower gap, rather than admit its errors and send more troops, the coalition used the circuit (commercial security companies) to cover up its mistakes.

Troop deployments are headline news. Images of brave young soldiers waving goodbye to their families tend to weigh heavily on the public conscience; flag-draped coffins returning home even more so. Hence, why so many military jobs have been outsourced to the circuit; it's far more politically palatable than troop deployments. I have yet to see a TV news report on a security adviser shipping out to Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone one of them returning home in a body bag.

The circuit is also facilitating damaging policies. Training local police and military in Iraq and Afghanistan is a job largely outsourced to the circuit. If the government tells a commercial security company to cut a ten-week training course to five weeks, do you think the CSC is going to say no to the client or take the money?
 
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