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PeopleJames Cowan

James Cowan

My mother’s family are from Dorset, but my father’s was originally Scottish; we lived in Scotland until three years ago, when we moved to Dorset. My father was a soldier, which meant we lived all over the world, so I was at prep school from the age of 7, and public school from 13. After school I went to Oxford, where I read Modern History. Several generations of my family were in the Army, so my joining “the family business” seemed the obvious thing, and I found I enjoyed it hugely. After training at Sandhurst in 1986, I was posted to Berlin. It was such an interesting time to be there; to start with we were guarding Rudolf Hess, the last of the Nazis in Spandau prison, until he died shortly afterwards, and then the Berlin wall came down. It was a remarkable period, the hangover from the end of WW2, and the beginning of the new age which followed the end of the Soviet Union. Berlin was such a fascinating city, vibrant, fun, and altogether a hugely enjoyable experience.
I was in the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), Scotland’s oldest and most famous. Belonging to the Black Watch gives one a great sense of esprit de corps, and pride in being part of it. It’s almost like being part of a family, and I made many lifelong friendships from that time.
A few years later, in 1998, as a junior staff officer based in London I did the planning for the Kosovo operation. I wasn’t deployed there, but obviously I went out there from time to time. It was an interesting time, to be potentially involved with a ground-based invasion and the air war that accompanied it. It was the first big example of New Labour’s “force for good” approach to international conflict, and in that case it actually went quite well. Perhaps it went too well, giving the Labour government confidence to become militarily involved elsewhere in the world, and of course we all know what happened in Iraq.
I was working in the Ministry of Defence, on 9-11, and very involved in dealing with the aftermath. The first operation was in Afghanistan, late 2001. I remember going out to Kabul in 2002. Although I was still only a lieutenant colonel at the time, I soon became aware that looking beyond that operation, to removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, was under consideration. The rationale for that plan was dubious, and with hindsight we know the intelligence was faulty. I wasn’t there for the invasion in 2003, but in 2004 I went to Iraq to command my regiment, The Black Watch. The invasion had been relatively simple, but by 2004 the war had degenerated significantly, becoming quite vicious. Initially we were in Basra in the south, dealing with the Shia insurgency, but it became clear that the main problem came from the Sunnis in the centre of Iraq, and my battle group were sent there to help the Americans in what became known as the second Battle of Falluja in November 2004. This was a big set piece operation which involved the encirclement of Falluja and the defeat of Al Qaeda occupying it. Five of my soldiers were killed, and several more wounded, and it had a big impact on me and my professional life, but I look back on our involvement with considerable pride.
I went back to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, to Basra, where the situation had deteriorated further. There were many casualties on all sides, and the British government were by this point extremely jaded about the whole Iraq business. It was a difficult time with a lack of political support, but I felt we did the best we could.
In 2007 I took command of a brigade, of 5000 men, which I had to set up from scratch, an exciting challenge. In September 2009 we went to Afghanistan, to Helmand, really at the peak of the fighting. Jointly with my more senior commanders we decided on a new strategy, which was to try and protect the people instead of just killing the enemy. Together with the Americans, this involved a greater number of troops, but it enabled us to operate with far less violence, and I’m proud of the fact that as a result we turned the tide of the campaign at that point.
Of course tactical victories are not necessarily strategic success, and one has to look back at our efforts in the light of what’s happened in the last few months in Afghanistan. All of the campaigns I’ve been involved with have taught me that wars come to an end, and peace eventually emerges. Although we fought the Taliban I believe in honour among warriors. I’m not one for looking back, so we now have to find a way of working with them to make Afghanistan a functioning state. At the moment most of their problems are made by the West, through sanctions and the freeze on the banking system. Women aren’t going to work not because the Taliban are stopping them, women aren’t going to work because they’re not being paid, because the West has cut the money off. In my current job, running The HALO Trust, I’m still very involved with Afghanistan, so I don’t have a sense of having abandoned Afghanistan because I and my organisation are still incredibly committed to it. It’s our biggest programme; out of 28 countries employing 10,000 people, 3,000 of them are in Afghanistan.
My wife, Minnie, trained to be a doctor relatively late in life, we have three children, and the military life is hard for a wife who has her own career path to follow. So at the age of 50 I felt it was time to leave the Army while I was young enough to embark on another career. I have had wide experience of working internationally, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m quite good at organising large groups of people, so when the job of running The HALO Trust came up in 2015 I applied for it, and I’m now extremely pleased to be working for a humanitarian organisation. Our mission is quite straight forward; to save lives and restore livelihoods by clearing land mines and IED’s, remove small arms, and deal with ammunition stockpiles. We’re not a charity with a huge bureaucracy; we have a staff of 10,000, 9900 of whom work overseas. Our metrics are very clear: for instance, in Zimbabwe we are currently working on clearing 30,000 landmines a year. When the last one is gone, we won’t be going back. Farmland will be made safe for cultivation, and children will be able to go to school without having to walk through a minefield. The satisfaction for us is the difference made to real lives. Ours is not a military charity, but the nature of the work makes military experience helpful, so many of the staff are ex-soldiers. And I knew many soldiers who died, or lost limbs, by stepping on landmines, so I have a personal desire to see them disappear.
Afghanistan is still a massive priority, and we’re very disappointed by the British government’s decision to stop funding us there. I think they’re confused about the importance of our role. Fortunately other countries are still supporting us there in a big way. Our work is about stabilisation as well as humanitarian support. We don’t just clear the landmines, we train up the guy who was in the Taliban, as a combatant, and give him something constructive and peaceful to do by swapping his Kalashnikov for a mine detector.
Like all charities, we have to raise our own funding, we have to make a case for it. As well as from governments, money comes from a huge range of incredibly generous private donors, foundations, and even children contributing their pocket money.
Our aim is to make landmines history, to be victims of our own success, but with ongoing conflict in the world that may not happen. We have many ambitions for our future; firstly, to employ more women. Ours has been a very male workforce, and we would like many more women to be involved and become beneficiaries of our success. Secondly, there is a relationship between conflict, conservation and climate. Many of the countries who made promises at the recent COP 26 to address climate issues are in conflict. If they are not in control of their own territories they will not be able to deliver on those promises. Conflict damages the environment, and stressed environments create conflict. My vision for HALO is to move from “the people who clear landmines” to “the people who tackle conflict”.

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