“I have to say, I have some sympathies for the Taliban point of view,” confesses Ross Kemp. “I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but there are views they have about why the West are in their country that I do actually agree with…”
These are not the words one expects from a man who has dodged Taliban bullets. Indeed, if we’re to believe the sensationalist commentary, Kemp nearly died at the hands of the insurgents on his first trip to Afghanistan – and now he agrees with them?
But then, Ross Kemp is full of surprises. Many – this writer included – snorted in disbelief when the burly soap actor best known for playing gobby Grant Mitchell in EastEnders reinvented himself as a serious investigative journalist. Yet Kemp swiftly proved us scoffers wrong, scooping a Bafta for his very first documentary series. Then in 2007, he braved the battlefield in Helmand.
“I felt that we weren’t hearing the story of the ordinary squaddie,” recalls Kemp. “I wanted to hear how he coped with war in a far-flung part of the world – what it was like for a cosseted young Brit in that extreme situation.” The ensuing series was widely praised and dozens of film-makers have since followed in Kemp’s footsteps, flooding the small screen with copycat documentaries.
Kemp isn’t one to boast about his trailblazing. “When I first went out there, I had no real understanding of Afghanistan as a country,” he admits. “I had no real understanding of the cultural problems, the political problems, the ethnic problems that were involved.”
His latest offering, he promises, is more nuanced. For one thing, there’s very little fighting: “If you’re turning on to get Medal of Honour 4, you’re not going to get it.”
So what will we get? “This new series tries to explain the complexities of the situation: why we stayed after al-Qaeda left Afghanistan; why we’re still there after the death of Osama Bin Laden; why we went into Helmand; why we went north in Helmand when we were outnumbered, with insufficient equipment to do the job; the cultural mistakes that were made; the strategic mistakes that were made…”
If Kemp’s film-making has grown more sophisticated, so have tactics: “Back then, the attitude was: we’re here to protect the people and it has something to do with 9/11 and they’ve killed one of my friends so I’m going to kill one of their friends now. It was that simple.”
Five years on, the cat and mouse game is clearly much more strategic. In the second programme, Kemp asks a Royal Marines major about his role: isn’t it as much about being a police officer, diplomat and counsellor as a fighter now? “We’re all of those things,” agrees the major. “There is an increasing amount of police work that is arguably alien to us as military men. We’re not trained in police skills, but we are finding ourselves having to take on a detective mentality.”
Nor has Kemp confined himself to the British perspective. He’s also spent time with the US marine corps, the nascent Afghan National Army and, of course, the Taliban. “The interesting thing is they’d watched my Afghan programmes, all of them,” laughs Kemp, a little uneasily. “One Taliban prisoner told me I’d looked scared. And he was right: I was scared. There were bullets out there.” Did he mind? “No, I don’t mind being mocked by the Taliban – as long as I get my interview they can mock away.”
Kemp is evidently willing to take whatever risks are necessary to get his story. Why? “I have a duty. It’s become part of my life. Once you risk your life to tell a story about something, it has an effect on you. I didn’t intentionally do it that way. It just happened.”
One of the questions the series poses is: what will happen when British and American troops withdraw? Kemp is careful to let viewers draw their own conclusions, but he’s not optimistic. “There are problems that are pretty much insurmountable and can’t possibly be resolved in any kind of short-term remit.” He pauses, then ploughs on with characteristic candidness: “The one thing I do know is that if we were to leave today, I think the Taliban would be at the gates of Kabul in days, without a doubt.”
Ross Kemp Back on the Frontline begins on Sky1, Monday 14 November at 9pm