Behind the front line: re-shaping a nation

The European Union Police Mission (Eupol) in Afghanistan has dubbed Michael Holdsworth Mr Anti-Corruption.

Behind the front line troops in war-torn Afghanistan there are international forces helping the reform process that will give the country a strong government.

Among the British contingent is former Suffolk police officer Michael Holdsworth. Over the last decade or so of his police career and since he retired in October 2009 he has been spending time in some of the world’s political hotspots on international police missions.

His role in Afghanistan is to advise on combating corrupt practices in the police. The Eupol initiative includes a public awareness campaign encouraging people to report corruption via a hotline. The aim is to help create a professional and trusted Afghan police force.

This is not Michael’s first foray into the world’s most turbulent societies. In the 90s he was in Bosnia and East Timor, and in 2003/4 he was in Sierra Leone.

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Michael stopped off at Suffolk Police Headquarters last week to talk about his work in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Having flown from Afghanistan to America the previous week he was lucky to make the last flight out of Washington DC before the Icelandic volcano shut down European airspace. He then had a three-day conference at the Joint Force Command Headquarters NATO in Brunssum, Holland.

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Eurostar brought him back to England and he has a long weekend at home before he heads back to Afghanistan.

The first thing that strikes you about Michael - apart from the fact he has a healthy tan while most of us are a pallid white after a cold, long winter - is that he is the sort of person you would want to have around in a crisis.

He exudes calm competence and, as he talks about the perilous situations in which he has found himself, you can’t help thinking it’s just as well he is unflappable.

“I enjoy the role,” he says and clearly, he does. But does he feel safe?

“There are times I feel a little bit vulnerable.

“Last October I was caught up in a large suicide bomb attack. I was at the Ministry of the Interior, where I work every day, giving a lecture to Afghan police officers when a suicide bomber in a vehicle with a 500lb bomb blew himself up outside the Indian Embassy, directly over the wall to where I was teaching. We heard the bang followed by seeing all the windows blow in.

“If you’ve seen the one of those Hollywood movies with all the windows shattering, it was like that only in slow motion. The classroom we were in had more windows than you would normally expect. My colleague, from Finland, pulled me to the ground, then all the glass came in and all the dust came in.

“It’s a very dusty country - you notice it when you arrive and it gets to you. I realised he (my colleague) was injured - he’d got quite severe glass injuries; students had been injured and one of the students was killed. My language assistant was also injured.”

Michael’s ears were ringing from the blast but, remarkably, he was unhurt even though: “I had glass in my pockets.”

As the classroom was full of anti-corruption officers they were not sure whether or not they had been the bomber’s target. “My colleague was expecting a secondary attack - he expected people to come in and start shooting. We got out of there.”

The men made their way to their armoured vehicles and safety. “It made me realise was that you should carry your first aid kit with you at all times,” says Michael seriously.

Before he set off on his world-wide missions, Michael Holdsworth had spent most of his life in East Anglia. Born in Norwich in 1959, Michael Holdsworth grew up in the city. He joined Suffolk police in April 1979 and his first posting was to Bury St Edmunds. He says he quickly realised what a beautiful town it was “and adopted West Suffolk as my home”. He now lives with his family on the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

Over his 30-year career with Suffolk Police Michael also worked in Brandon and Mildenhall, with his first promotion taking him to Newmarket as Inspector. Then he was elevated again and went to force HQ were he was variously Chief Inspector (training); Chief Inspector (operations room) and Chief Inspector (professional standards). Ch Insp Holdsworth’s final posting was as district commander at Forest Heath.

The skills he acquired in these roles were to stand him in good stead in his work overseas - although there was nothing that could have prepared him for what happened in East Timor as the south-east Asian country clawed its way to independence in 1999.

A UN-supervised consultation showed more than 75% of the population wanted independence but the transitional period was marked by violent clashes. Michael and his colleagues in the international police force were trapped in their compound.

“We were locked down and under siege for 10 days while they were killing people outside the compound. We were eventually air-lifted and evacuated.”

The situation was so volatile that the international media were pulled out and so the rest of the world knew little of what was going on.

“It was a big decision on my part to stay there; but I decided to stay. I was the chief of operations and I had given an undertaking on television that we wouldn’t abandon them. There were about 150 of us living in the compound with 2,000 displaced Timorese who had sought sanctuary with us. We were in a media blackout. We ran out of supplies and went on to ration packs.

“We decided to evacuate the public but they were only evacuating internationals and I said ‘We can’t do that’. John Howard (then Australian Prime Minister) backed us up and agreed to bring all the Timorese out as well. Everyone in the compound was evacuated to Darwin, Australia”.

Had Michael been frightened?

“It’s a funny thing actually because while we had a black-out in communications my main priority and focus was the job in hand. I didn’t have that ‘I must get home’ (urge).”

“My wife, Alexandra [back in Suffolk], was obviously terrified about the situation. She did some interviews about her husband stranded on Timor island.” The East Anglian Daily Times reported on the news conference Mrs Holdsworth held during the agonising period when there was a total communications blackout.

She said: “I just want him home with us now. But he is one of the UN chiefs out there and I know he will be one of the last left in there.”

She was right, of course.

Michael says his responses are a “combination of training and temperament. If you go out [to such places] for the wrong reasons - you’re trying to escape problems at home for example - then you won’t survive.”

He says it is the unswerving love and support of his wife and family that gives him the ability to be so sharply focused on his work. Michael and Alexandra have a daughter, Emily, 17 and a son Ben, 16. “My trips away make the whole family stronger. You appreciate it more,” he says.

He is a little disappointed that he never had the opportunity to go back to East Timor. “We rented a house from the local community and I didn’t know if my landlord and landlady were alive or dead...” Michael Holdsworth is a man who likes to see things through to the end.

After East Timor it was Sierra Leone and, during his mercifully trouble-free 12-months there, Michael was promoted to Deputy Police Commissioner. The task was to retrain a new police force in the aftermath of war and this included working with the country’s Deputy Inspector General on standards and dealing with corruption in the police force. Offered a secondment to the European Police Mission in Afghanistan in August 2009, Michael paused a moment before accepting.

“The difference between earlier missions and this one was that it was an armed mission and this was one of the reasons I was initially reluctant to take the post. It meant I had to carry a firearm for the first time.”

“I was deployed to Afghanistan based at the European Police HQ in Kabul which is a secure compound but work very closely with the British Embassy - they retain a duty of care.

“Unlike other internationals out there, we self-drive. I drive a five-tonnes B6 armoured vehicle. It will withstand small arms fire and short rounds of heavy arms fire and it will take a small explosion.”

Is the landscape as beige as it looks on the news reports?

Michael nods. “The first impression I had when I flew in to Kabul was that it was all dust and sand but there are green areas and trees. Kabul has very hot summers - 45 degrees celsius and very cold winters. I travel from one secure location to another in an armoured vehicle. You don’t stop off in the shops on the way. All your movements are fully controlled. The operations room know when you’re leaving and you call in when you arrive. If you’re stuck in traffic you let them know.

“We can’t travel alone. We have to travel in pairs; with body armour; helmets; glasses; hand gun.” We all have to live in barrack accommodation but we have single rooms and en-suite and TV - Sky News.

Apart from his family he most misses “being able to go out for a long walk - we can’t do that. But we have got a squash court and a good gym.”

Recently appointed Deputy Project Leader for Anti-corruption, Michael’s role is working as mentor to the Afghan inspector general; General Wakeel, who is responsible for anti-corruption.

“He was educated in the UK and speaks good English. He is a really nice guy who is passionate about stamping out police corruption in his country.”

Police in Afghanistan cannot realistically be compared to police here, as Michael explains.

“There is 70% illiteracy in the police force which is a problem. The pay at grass roots level has now been increased but it was very poor, very low. It is now at an average of about US $150 a month.”

The prospect of a fully-trained, autonomous police force is a long way off, he says.

“The problem is trying to educate the police and then get them trained sufficiently to deal with what’s required. There’s a big investment to try and bring in officers of a higher quality but that takes time. You don’t have a police force over night.

“While corruption is very high, to the average Afghan it may not seem that bad. We’re trying to change that culture thing to make it unacceptable. You shouldn’t need to pay to get through a checkpoint.

“Their skills and abilities need to be improved. If you get the scene of an explosion, where we (British police) would secure an area for some time to preserve evidence, here everyone’s walking around in it. We’ve done presentation and exercises to try and handle these sorts of things.

“But my area of work is mentoring the Inspector General. Every morning I go through all the cases of corruption and intelligence reports that have come in overnight - we get quite a few overnight - and we discuss what our course of action is going to be.”

Now eight months into his one-year secondment, Michael is hoping to secure an extension so he can stay longer. There is an important job to do.

“There’s a lot of international work going on out there. We are doing our best for the Afghan people. “We would hate to think we are out there wasting our time. I have to think that what we are doing is making a difference and, in a few years time, they can govern themselves.”

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