10th – 14th February 2018 – British High Commission Islamabad and MoD Main Building, London
Cécile and Phillips were kept under what could only be described as open arrest within the bounds of the High Commission, as the legal wrangling was carried out between the British and Pakistani governments. They were wanted by the Pakistani authorities for failing to stop after an accident, for carrying illegal weapons and for the murder of three undercover police officers and the wounding of two more, who had tried to arrest them. They had the murder weapon, a Sig that was found in the burned-out hire car. This was patent nonsense, but the two countries were locked in a diplomatic impasse, while a weak British Government failed to act decisively by using the overgenerous foreign aid budget to Pakistan as a lever. But at least they weren’t handed over to the Pakistani authorities, which would have been an effective death sentence. The BAE 146 was impounded and the aircrew kept under open arrest at a hotel near the airport for aiding and abetting, although they were visited every day by the High Commission staffers.
There was little for them to do, apart from read a lot, improve their tennis and Phillips taught Cécile how to play squash. They spent a great deal of the time chatting and slowly he prised out of her what had happened in Bahrain.
“There are two ways for blonde bimbos like me to get on in the forces,” she told him with more than a trace of rancour, “You can be good at your job or you can climb up the slippery pole by sliding up and down on another one.”
Phillips was deeply shocked at her choice of language He knew that it must still go on, but was surprised at her deep resentment and bitterness.
“You’re bound to make enemies in my business. The law is adversarial and usually one side loses. There’s a lot of egos in the law, like the medical profession and these egos clash in a court. You have to be grown up about these things. Sometimes you know you’re going to lose because you’re defending a hopeless case, or the prosecution has been so incompetently put together defeat is inevitable. Sometimes you meet someone who is just better than you are. Take it on the chin, learn from it and ask for advice from this person on another case.
“What you must never do, is politely reject the amorous advances of an officer of air rank, who thinks that detachment rules apply. Then a matter of days later, have the temerity to tell him that he’s making a mistake that could be constituted as a war crime. Bombing a fresh water pipeline in mistaking it for an oil pipeline is a case in point. But what you must never ever do is be caught crying, because you knew the crew of an aircraft that went missing. Of course we all knew the crew. I came from Marham and I had to fend off the amorous advances of the two winged master race every Friday evening at Happy Hour in the mess. You have to, otherwise you get a reputation, but I nearly did sleep with the pilot of that Tornado after a very boozy dining-out night. I’m glad I didn’t because I was seeing someone else.
“To feel sadness is a weakness, so you get your end of tour report red-ringed by someone who is five ranks above you and really should have better things to do than change the report of a bottom-feeding flight lieutenant. I think the wording was along the lines of: Hammond is unsuitable for the robust and exacting nature of current warfighting operations.”
“What an utter bastard, no wonder you’re so bitter.”
“I’m not bitter, Mr Phillips. I’m resigned,” but she had left out the most important thing.
“But you did a tour in ISAF HQ in Kabul and what about the time you spent with the SBS in Somalia?”
“But that report is always on your personal file. There will always be a doubt about your resilience. It is in effect like the LMF stamp they used to put on Bomber Command aircrew files, if they suffered from combat stress.”
Phillips tried to reconcile a junior officer crying with personal grief, with the woman who had shot them out of trouble on the roads of Islamabad. On another occasion they were cooling off after a game of squash. He had beaten her overall, but she was winning more games and beginning to dominate the T. He could win in tennis because of his power, but squash was a different game where power could be blunted by a subtle spin or a drop shot. Her question came out of the blue like a Paveway II on a sunny afternoon.
“Are you married, Mr Phillips?”
He almost choked on his water bottle, “Err no, not now.”
He could have told her to mind her own business, perhaps he should have done so, “I was. For five years. It was fine at first, my wife had her career and we didn’t have to move around too much, but then I applied to join the RMP Close Protection Unit and I was never at home. It was, well it still is stressful, obviously. And after you’ve been away it takes a while to re-assimilate back into a marriage, while your wife has been coping fine and dandy and getting on with her life without you.
“Eventually she just had enough of being married with an absent husband and I became a statistic of failed Service marriages. We had no children, which was another wedge and she suggested that I might be a Jaffa.”
“Jaffa? What, you mean like gay?”
He laughed, “No, like the orange. Seedless.”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly feeling embarrassed for prying, “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked really.”
“It’s OK. No secrets.”
“No secrets, Mr Phillips,” the lie came easily.
Eventually the United States grew tired of watching the discomfort of what had once been a very close ally and the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department by the US Secretary of State. There was nothing cordial about the meeting and the ambassador remained standing for the short duration of the conference.
He was presented with a dossier that contained the reconnaissance photographs from the U2, transcripts of telephone calls, one in particular from the Islamabad Serena hotel to a known operative of Pakistan’s ISI, telling him the two British guests were leaving the hotel. There was live footage of the attempt to ambush and murder the two members of the British Armed Forces, taken from the vehicle Phillips had unfortunately crashed into. The ambassador was asked directly why the Pakistani government had not only known that someone who the Americans wanted for murder and a terrorist attack on an ISAF base in Afghanistan, was not only able to operate freely, but was being guarded by the Pakistani police.
The Secretary of State told the ambassador that the dossier would be widely circulated in the United Nations Assembly, that all US foreign aid to Pakistan would be immediately stopped and sanctions would be applied on all imports to and exports from that country. He was warned that the United States would retain interest in the region by developing closer relations with India and that any escalation would if necessary be met by military action. Within twelve hours the Pakistani authorities provided the US with a list of names of known terrorists operating from Pakistan, the police guards were removed from a number of locations in the Swat Valley and the Tribal Homelands, the BAE 146 was freed as were the aircrew and Phillips and Cécile were driven to the airport by a car from the High Commission. The British Prime Minister didn’t thank the US President. She got her Secretary of State for Defence to phone him on her behalf. The Predators had a busy time over the next few weeks.
The Ministry of Defence Main Building is also known as MoD Whitehall. It was constructed between 1939 and 1959 on the site of the Palace of Whitehall. It was occupied by the Air Ministry and the Board of Trade, before becoming the home of the MoD in 1964. Beneath Main Building is the Defence Crisis Management Centre (DCMC), which is also known as Pindar. It is a three-storey bunker complex with a direct underground link to Downing Street and the FCO and other Ministries. It provides the government with a protected crisis management facility for senior members of the Armed Forces and selected politicians.
That morning of Valentine’s Day, Cécile walked down the seemingly never-ending steps towards the DCMC. She was up gunned and in the company of the most senior man in the RAF, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). He had met her in the atrium café of Main Building, her in a dark suit, he in his normal RAF shirtsleeves and trousers, but an Air Chief-Marshal was difficult to miss, even in Main Building. He had greeted her warmly when she stood up politely, shaking her hand with both of his.
“I read your report and that of Staff Phillips. I have to say to you both, what a bloody good show. I’m sorry he isn’t here today, but the Civil Serpents are iffy about having ORs in what they like to call “Head Office.” Bloody cheek if you ask me, but nobody ever does,” He sat opposite her and smiled, “The photograph in your personal file doesn’t do you justice. Neither does your report from Islamabad. Staff Phillips is a much more honest writer.”
Cécile was confused, “I’m sorry sir, but I don’t understand.”
“Your modesty might be appreciated in some circles, Wing Commander Hammond, but honesty is the best policy, particularly when it comes to operational report writing. You saved your life and the life of your close protection officer and he made no bone of the fact that you reacted with commendable alacrity and personal bravery.”
“He got us out of there, sir.”
“And you ensured that there was someone alive to get out. Now down to business. When we go down there I will be batting for you and so will the Chief of the Defence Staff. You will be up against the Defence Secretary who will have been given his orders by the Prime Minister. You have embarrassed them and caused something of a diplomatic problem in a Commonwealth country through no fault of your own. They, the politicians have tried to imply that you were acting outside the legal framework of your rules of engagement, specifically the Card Alpha. We have already rubbished that as you were acting quite appropriately to save life and limb. Even the Attorney General has put the Defence Secretary back in his box. The Americans have gone the extra mile for you, proving that the attempt on your lives was made by the Pakistani Secret Service ISI, probably because the Americans killed one of their pet Taliban and God bless them for that.
“What we are hoping for is that this nonsense will be ended and the surviving piece of filth, Daffi Hashmi will be killed by a drone strike in Syria. Nevertheless, we have carried out a great deal of what I hope is nugatory planning for the final part of the operation in Syria. We certainly have the capability and assets to carry it out, but both myself and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) hope that the politicians will see sense and order an extra-judicial killing. And then you can get back to the business of getting useless ne’er-do-wells off court marshals.”
It was cool down in the DCMC, the air conditioning cranked too high. Apart from the comms technician, the CAS and Cécile were the only two down there. The CDS joined them a couple of minutes later and they made their introductions. Obviously the CDS and CAS knew each other, their both being air-marshals. They sat down and the CDS remarked curtly: “We’ll just wait for our masters.”
They were joined a couple of minutes later by Bartlett who greeted Cécile very warmly. It would appear that the SIS had forgiven her for the comment she had made regarding a former employee. Apart from the gentle hum of the fans, occasionally they could barely hear and feel the distant rumble an underground train passing on the Metropolitan and Circle line. Being the predictable and time-honoured ten minutes late, the Secretary of State for Defence and his Minister of State for the Armed Forces deigned to join them. They breezed in fresh as daisies.
“Good morning, gentlemen and lady,” the Defence Secretary said sitting at the head of the table, “And it’s a pleasure to meet the scourge of the Pakistani police force.”
Cécile said nothing. They’re right. You really are a stupid boy, she concluded.
“For the record, sir,” The CDS said firmly, “If you are referring to the incident in Islamabad, where Wing Commander Hammond distinguished herself in the finest traditions of her Service, the individuals were members of ISI, the Pakistani Security Service, as the report has stated.”
“Indeed. Now we have had a couple of setbacks regarding this mission to bring the three murderers of the RAF crew to justice,” The Defence Secretary said in his ponderous way, putting the inflections on the wrong part of words, as if it made him more statesmanlike, “However, the Prime Minister is adamant that the mission continues into phase three. Mr Bartlett, have the necessary plans been put in place from the Syrian perspective?”
There were imperceptible shifts in body language from the military around the table. Oh God, they mean to carry on with it, Cécile thought with dread.
Bartlett dared to say what they were all thinking, “Sir, this as you are aware is potentially the most complex and dangerous phase of the mission. We will be putting a significant number of personnel and military assets into harm’s way, for the sake of arresting one man. Now more than ever, it is in my opinion, more prudent to kill Daffi Hashmi with either a missile or other precision guided munitions, than to risk the lives of Service personnel in some vainglorious enterprise, which has more to do with politics than the military necessity.”
Everyone around the table stared at Bartlett. Cécile could have hugged him for his forthright bravery. The CDS and CAS looked down at their notes. Even the Defence Secretary and his Minister of State had the decency to look uncomfortable. And then she knew. This was about the monstrous ego of one deeply flawed woman. The Prime Minister who had drawn attention to the things which divided the country, rather than those that united it. She had embellished victimhood with government statistics. She had labelled the legitimate tactic of the police “stop and search” as racist. Cécile had once read that the influence of her father’s unbending High-Church Anglicanism, producing a kind of virtuous arrogance, labelled pithily as ‘vicar’s daughter syndrome’, but described more specifically by one acquaintance thus: ‘She has this view of herself, which must be connected to her faith, which is that she has a morality others don’t understand.’ Cécile came from a dysfunctional family and understood factors that Phillip Larkin had described as: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
And now this Prime Minister was potentially going to kill Servicemen and women for a completely nebulous form of “justice,” because she lacked the moral fibre to use the powers she possessed. She was attempting to re-write the history of her own disastrous premiership, augmented by an aura of anguished self-righteousness. Cécile thought how terrified she had felt, just a few days previously and now she would have to go back into the mental meat grinder of operations, this time in Syria. She felt sick.
The Defence Secretary looked at Bartlett, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear so I’ll repeat it. The Prime Minister is adamant that we should apprehend Hashmi, have him brought back to the UK, prepare a case against him for the murder of the British aircrew, and have him tried for these crimes in a court of law. Do we know where he is?”
“Yes. He is in Syria, currently in the major ISIL stronghold of Ad Dumayr,” Bartlett said.
“And do we have a plan to capture him?”
“Then please brief us.”
Bartlett accessed a presentation from the Government shared drive and it went up on the screen. The Notation on the first slide was Op Erudite, Top Secret UK Eyes Only. The first slide showed a map of Syria. As Bartlett began to brief the plan, symbols appeared. The CDS was well-versed with the plan as his staff officers had been involved with the planning process. He didn’t like it one bit.
“This is Ad Dumayr, about fifty kilometres north-east of Damascus,” The next slide showed the town and the surrounding area, “As you can see, there is a Russian controlled airfield east of Ad Dumayr. The town is still very much in the hands of ISIL.”
The map of Syria went back on, “This is Ar Raqqah, formerly held by ISIL but now in the hands of the Coalition forces. We currently have a Special Forces team of nine in Raqqah, and they were inserted into Syria to find out what happened to Tornado ZV352 and its crew. They provided the video footage that you’ve all seen.
“The plan is to move this team south to the airfield at Ad Dumayr by road, some 430 kilometres. One of the team, a special operative will go into Ad Dumayr and find the precise location of Daffi Hashmi. Once the SF team from Raqqah is at the airfield, two Chinook CH 47s will fly from Cyprus, carrying a further eight special forces personnel, Wing Commander Hammond, Staff Phillips and a communications team. The SF personnel will go into Ad Dumayr, apprehend Daffi Hashmi and then all personnel will be flown to Zarqa Airfield in Jordan, or as it’s known, Prince Hussein Air Force Base.
“Mr Hashmi will be initially interrogated at Zarqa, before being moved back to the UK, where justice can take its course as per the Prime Minister’s wishes. It will involve putting thirty Service personnel in harm’s way, not to mention two Chinook helicopters. It also requires a great deal of good will and cooperation from the Russians, who will have to refuel the helicopters and provide service support. They will expect something in return.”
Cécile felt the creeping tendrils of fear wrap themselves around her heart. She wasn’t a coward, but there seemed just too many things that could go wrong.
“Questions?” said Bartlett.
“How will the helicopters and the SF personnel be recovered?” asked the Minister of State for Defence.
The CAS answered him, “By two C17s going into Jordan. Hashmi and Wing Commander Hammond’s team will be recovered first in a Falcon jet, via Akrotiri.”
“What about medical support in the event of casualties?” asked the CAS.
This was the part that worried Bartlett the most, “The SF will have their own organic medical support. In the event of more serious casualties, the Russians have a small surgical facility at Ad Dumayr airfield. Repatriation will be via Jordan, depending on clinical necessity. We really owe the Russians a huge debt of gratitude and as I have said, they will expect a quid pro quo.”
The CDS wrapped it up, “The Chinooks and their crews are pre-positioned in Cyprus. You will fly out tomorrow morning, Wing Commander Hammond. Sir, If you will excuse us, there is much to do.”
The Defence secretary nodded. He looked reassuringly worried and most of them in the room had the distinct impression that he thought it was a damned fool idea as well. As she stood up, the Minister of State smiled at her and quickly looked away. That sympathetic smile told Cécile everything she needed to know about the internal dynamics of the government.
Up on Main Building’s ground floor, the CDS shook her hand warmly. He bent down close to her and said quietly, “Nobody would blame you if you didn’t go.”
Cécile swallowed hard, “But I would, sir.”
“Then God’s speed my dear.”
As Cécile walked up Horse Guards Avenue, she heard footsteps behind her and turned round. Bartlett was hurrying to catch up with her.
“You will be meeting someone I’m very fond of in Syria. Please would you get her something from me? He told her what to buy in the NAAFI in Akrotiri and pushed a £20 note into her hand, “I wouldn’t normally approve, but as I said, she is a very special person to me. She can be a bit… Well, you’ll see. And thank you. In many ways, you’re very alike.”
Cécile watched him head down the Embankment to Westminster Bridge. She turned left and headed for the Tube station.
She was back at Northolt within two hours. She rang Phillips, “Could you meet me in Costa Coffee. I have some news.”
He seemed in rather a good mood as he slipped into the booth opposite her. She pushed forward a mug of tea.
“It’s all over, isn’t it? Well it was nice meeting you Ma’am.”
“Au contraire, Mr Phillips. It is I’m afraid far from over. Have you ever read a book by Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness?”
“No, but I’ve seen Apocalypse Now.”
“Well that’s where we’re going, Mr Phillips. Into madness.”
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file