Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

Afghanistan Elections Spot Report

13 Comments

20 August 2009

This dispatch has been dictated by satellite phone due to communications difficulties.  My satellite gear has failed on election day.  I do not know how well the elections turned out in other parts of Afghanistan.  Here in North Helmand Province, near Sangin, I am told that less than 300 people voted.  In this area the day was marked by serious fighting.  Apache attack helicopters were firing their cannons throughout the day.  The howitzers fired many times.  The mortars were firing.  Various bases were attacked.  On the mission I accompanied the snipers were firing.  We got into a firefight, and the soldier beside me had his antenna shot off.  I would not characterize this as a failure of the elections, it was a local setback.  We saw the same in Iraq in early 2005, where some people boycotted the elections.  The situation here is not good, but this is only one area of Afghanistan.  I do not know what happened elsewhere.

Michael

 


Do Americans Care about British Soldiers?

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19 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

A gunshot ripped through the darkness and a young British soldier fell dying on FOB Jackson.  I was just nearby talking on the satellite phone and saw the commotion.  The soldier was taken to the medical tent and a helicopter lifted him to the excellent trauma center at Camp Bastion.  That he made it to Camp Bastion alive dramatically improved his chances.  But his life teetered and was in danger of slipping away.  Making matters worse, the British medical system back in the United Kingdom did not possess the specialized gear needed to save his life.  Americans had the right gear in Germany, and so the British soldier was put into the American system.

British officers in his unit, 2 Rifles, wanted to track their man every step of the way, and to ensure that his family was informed and supported in this time of high stress.  Yet having their soldier suddenly in the American system caused a temporary glitch in communications with folks in Germany.  The British leadership in Sangin could have worked through the glitch within some hours, but that would have been hours wasted, and they wanted to know the status of their soldier now.  So a British officer in Sangin – thinking creatively –asked if I knew any shortcuts to open communications.  The right people were only an email away: Soldiers Angels.  And so within about two minutes, these fingers typed an email with this subject heading: CALLING ALL ANGELS.

Read more: Do Americans Care about British Soldiers?

The Kopp-Etchells Effect

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17 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The roads are so littered with enemy bombs that nearly all transport and resupply to this base occurs by helicopter.  The pilots roar through the darkness, swoop into small bases nestled in the saddle of enemy territory, and quickly rumble off into the night.

A witness must spend only a short time in the darkness to know we are at war. Flares arc into the night, or mortar illumination rounds drift and swing under parachutes, orange and eerily in the distance, casting long, flickering but sharply defined shadows.  The worst that can happen is that you will be caught in an open field, covered by nothing and concealed only by darkness, when the illumination suddenly bathes you in light.  Best is to stay low and freeze and prepare to fire, or in the case of a writer, to stay low and freeze and prepare to watch the firing.

Explosions from unknown causes rumble through the cool nights while above drifts the Milky Way, punctuated by more shooting stars than one can remember.  The Afghanistan nights will grant a wish to wish upon a shooting star.  And while waiting for the next meteor, the eyes are likely to catch tracer bullets.

Read more: The Kopp-Etchells Effect

Stars & Stripes

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13 August 2009

Reporting from Afghanistan: Not your typical job

Posted August 12th, 2009 by Leo Shane in Stripes Central

Back in 2006 I spent six weeks traveling around Afghanistan with various U.S. Army units and reporting on what troops were dealing with in the "forgotten" war. Filing stories and calling my editors was always a tricky prospect, even without any of the heavy fighting that reporters there now are seeing.

So it's humbling to me to listen to this live interview with Michael Yon from his latest travels into Afghanistan, this time with British troops.

Yon has already made a name for himself with his freelance work in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and his latest work has given an up-close view of the tension and danger in Afghanistan right now. But this interview may top all that.

At just about the 7:30 mark, you can start to hear gunfire in the background as he talks with Military.com's Ward Carroll about recent violence in the area. A few minutes later, he pauses for a minute to get to a safer location as machine gun fire intensifies and a rocket whizzes overhead.

Read more: Stars & Stripes

No Young Soldiers

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10 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Daily dramas unfolded, including the bangs, booms and small-arms fire that punctuated the times.  At 1800, I was preparing to go to orders with 1 Platoon, A Company of 2 Rifles, when shots from a large-caliber rifle began cracking low over base.  I passed by sniper, Kris Griffith, and said, “Hey Kris, why don’t you grab your rifle and go shoot that guy?”  Kris replied that two other sniper teams were on it.  “He’s close,” I said, and Kris answered, “About 600 meters.” Then we went our separate ways.

Orders were given and then the soldiers performed final checks on their gear and tried to fall to sleep in the sweltering evening heat.  Some nights I would go to sleep using the sleeping bag as a pillow, only to wake up with it drenched in sweat.

Read more: No Young Soldiers

Pixie Dust

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Thursday night, 06 August 2009
Afghanistan

I made this photo last night in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  This Landing Zone is very dangerous.  A few weeks ago, another helicopter was coming into this LZ and was shot down at the last minute, killing all passengers and crew.  Two children on the ground also were killed.  The sparks coming off the rotors occur when the helicopters land in hot, dusty conditions.  The landing itself occurs in a dangerous "brownout."  Brownout danger is compounded by the sparks which light up the dust and can confuse pilots who are wearing extremely sensitive nightvision goggles.

Michael


Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

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Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

from

Common Days & Nights

 

A helicopter roars into FOB Jackson in Sangin, Afghanistan.  Medical tents are just next to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) so casualties can be quickly loaded.

05 August 2009

The helicopter pilot wearing night vision goggles roared in so fast it looked as though he were crashing.  The four green Cylums (Americans call them Chemlights) mark the HLS.  While the helicopter is above the dust cloud, it melts into the dark, but as it approaches the HLS, dust swirls high, setting the stage for an amazing light show.  The Chinook descends through the dry dust and the rotors glitter brightly, creating an eerie glow as if sparklers are attached to the rotors, which in reality appeared brighter to the eye than in the photo below.  If the helicopter were not so loud, the millions of static discharges might be heard crackling and popping.

Read more: Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

Resurrection

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Spraying for bugs on FOB Jackson, Sangin.

03 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The bugs are not bad in this part of Afghanistan.  The scorched terrain is biologically boring.  Mice and ferret-like creatures dash around in the evenings when sparrows and doves and a few other sorts of birds flutter through the cool air.  But even at sunrise, I cannot make out the songs or see in flight more than ten types of birds, one of which is the rooster.  There are no wading birds, not here anyway: no kingfishers, no cormorants or ducks.  The dominant hue of land and bird is desert brown.  Maybe a bird or two with black feathers, but never one with sharp, primary colors: not even a red wing tip or a white tuft.  There are no ornamental birds with glorious plumage or fancy dance, only drab designs, though the lucky ones have short golden legs.  There is not a single inspiring song among them.

Read more: Resurrection

Night Into Day

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Sangin, Helmand Province
Afghanistan

Finding the Enemy

29 July 2009

Orders are given before every operation.  The orders filter down through various unit levels involved, until each platoon finally recieves its specific mission.  The concept for this mission came down from the 2 Rifles Battlegroup (battalion) to the  companies, including elements of the Afghan National Army and their British counterparts from the Welsh Guard, and down to each 2 Rifles platoon involved.  So for any mission there might be literally dozens (or more) orders and rehearsals until each man and woman knows the perceived enemy situaton, their specific tasks, and much more.  While soldiers here at FOB Jackson received orders, undoubtedly pilots and others, stationed far away, perhaps on an aircraft carrier or even farther afield, were finalizing related plans.

Read more: Night Into Day

SatComms for Soldiers

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25 July 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Have been out with British forces in the area of Sangin in northern Helmand Province.  This area appears to be turning into the main effort of the current fight in Afghanistan, but this is unclear to me at the moment.  I do know that air assets are heavy.  During our mission yesterday, a B-1 could be seen overhead, though it was miles high.  On the ground, this place is loaded with IEDs and there were many firefights during yesterday’s mission.   My section of eight soldiers did not fire a single round; we did not come into direct contact, though bullets sometimes zipped overhead.  Nearly all missions are conducted on foot and the soldiers like it that way.  I am with the British battalion called 2 Rifles.  The last mission I did with 2 Rifles was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 JAM members during that fight.  Yesterday they only killed two Taliban (Predator actually made the shot), but the mission was well run, and morale here is very high.  Everybody is ready to roll again and missions are near continuous.  I’ll ask British commanders to let me stay, though that might not be necessary because there are so few helicopters.  More likely I am stuck here.  FOB Jackson is probably going to be my Hotel California, but that’s all good because these are great soldiers, in the thick of it, and I want to stay.

Read more: SatComms for Soldiers

Some Photos and Captions

31 Comments

22 July 2009
Filed from Sangin, Afghanistan

(This dispatch is from Ghor Province, though I am now with British forces down south.)

Lithuanian soldier on Swedish C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar and finally to Chaghcharan.   On his left are Filipino workers.  Filipinos are like birds; the only place that an American has stepped that a Filipino hasn’t is the moon.  Yesterday was a special anniversary for space travel: man first landed on the moon.  I watched the launch from our family boat when I was five years-old.  Apollo 11 was bright, and loud.  Many people think that the Russians also walked on the moon, but this is untrue.

Read more: Some Photos and Captions

One Giant Leap

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20 July 2009

Yesterday, a helicopter crashed on base at Kandahar Airfield, killing sixteen.  Later that night we had a minor rocket attack which caused me to roll out of bed onto the floor, while this morning, I got up to the great pleasure of watching Neil Armstrong on the BBC, talking about this historic anniversary, when man first stepped on the moon.  I remember that launch as it roared so brightly into space.  It remains perhaps the most spectacular day in the history of man.   Every worthy endeavor comes with a cost.

Around the same time Mr. Armstrong was speaking this morning, roars from war jets rumbled through base as they rushed down the nearby runway.  A British Tornado lifted off but did not get far before it crashed and burned. The two crew members successfully escaped and are recovering from ejection trauma.  The cause of the Mi-26 crash last Tuesday that killed five is unclear, but a military source mentioned that the helicopter was shot down by an RPG.  At least six aircraft—two jets and four helicopters—have gone down this month.  Two Americans were lost in a jet crash.

Read more: One Giant Leap

Sangow Bar Village

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Sangow Bar Village

Some Notes and Photos

16 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

On a per capita basis, Afghanistan is becoming more dangerous for British and American troops than Iraq ever was.  For those who fought in places like Anbar, Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh, that’s saying a whole lot.  On a per capita basis, there are strong indications that Afghanistan will prove more deadly than Iraq during 2006-2007.  One can only imagine how many days and nights Secretary Robert Gates and his advisors must have agonized over troop levels here.  On the one hand, we have a fraction of the troops we need, but on the other, increasing troop levels increases hostility toward us.  Secretary Gates has made it clear to me that his biggest concern is that we will lose the goodwill of the people and they will turn against us.  This happens to be my own biggest concern.  The agony is in knowing we need more medicine and the medicine can be highly toxic here.  Many people have complained that the new restrictions on air strikes will hurt us, but from my boots, General McChrystal (the new boss here) has fulfilled the intent of his boss, and that the decision, though tough, was wise; if we lose the widespread assent of the Afghan people, it’s all over but for the bleeding.

Today our chances are not good, but there remains a real chance to succeed.  Those chances improve dramatically when we take a no-kidding inventory of the situation and refine our goals to align with reality.

Read more: Sangow Bar Village

Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards

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Lithuanian Soldiers Prepare Humvees under the glow of the Milky Way

13 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

The wake-up alarm sounded at 0345, and by 0430 the Lithuanian soldiers were ready to roll.  The Lithuanians had always arrived early, prepared for action before every mission, but this time we relied on an Afghan guide.  The first part of the mission was to find the Kuchi.  Normally, Lithuanian soldiers perform a reconnaissance before a mission, but they decided to skip the recon to find the Kuchi nomads because, well, they are nomads.  Even if the recon were to locate the camel caravan in a specific location, the Kuchis would likely have moved by the time we got there.  So we were relying on the local guide who had a cell phone number for the Kuchis.  He was 21 minutes late and held up the mission by 27 minutes.  One guy holding up about three dozen soldiers and a mission should be flogged.

The base at Chaghcharan sits at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level, so at night the Milky Way hovers in magnificence above the clean, dry air.  But come morning, the stars fade as the sun rises with blinding vengeance.

As we rolled to find the Kuchi nomads and their camels, the six vehicle convoy kicked up “moon dust,” which reflected the bright sun, causing instant blindness as if driving through white clouds.  The convoy had to space out, else the vehicles would be driving dangerously close through the arid fog of dust.  As we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields.  The Afghans are a hard-working lot.  The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.

Read more: Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards

Lithuanians on the Moon: Lithuanian Translation

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08 July 2009

For Lithuanian speakers, please see:

Lietuviai mėnulyje
tardamas šiuos žodžius

2009 m. liepos 1 d.

Čagčaranas, Goro provincija, Afganistanas

Lietuvis vyr. leitenantas Marius Varna palydėjo mane aplink nedidelę stovyklą ir prieš mus atsivėrė didžiulė Afganistano erdvė. Platybės, dulkės ir gniuždantis rudos spalvos pojūtis, beveik nėra gaivinančios žalumos, tik dangaus mėlynė ir spiginanti ryški saulė. Matyti vos keletas skurdžių medžių. Vienas kalnas atrodo žalsvas, tarsi jį kas būtų iš toli apipurškęs dažais. Ltn.Varna paaiškino, kad žolė ten pasirodė po prieš keletą savaičių nulijusio lietaus. 

The Village

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Some of the Navy folks talked about bringing out a veterinarian.

08 July 2009

(Filed from Afghanistan)

The fight in the southern Philippines varies in intensity and technique.  Commanders in the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) will say that the fight consists of about 80% carrot and 20% stick.  The relationship between U.S. and AFP forces seems good but there are differences of opinion.  Our folks fully understand the 80% part, but on the 20% we often know the whereabouts of the enemy and would like to see faster action.  Nevertheless, my gut instinct after having a tour about the place is that progress is being made.  A guerrilla commander told me that he had been fighting since 1976, but came out of the jungles with 34 fighters on 20 April this year.  Publicly it’s called a “surrender,” but on the ground it seemed more like a mutual agreement to stop fighting and do something constructive.

Read more: The Village

Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations

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06 June 2009
Filed From Chaghcharan, Afghanistan

Overview

Until recently, Afghanistan was called “The Forgotten War.” The dramatic domestic, regional, and international politics of the Iraq war largely eclipsed the fact that our people were fighting just as hard in Afghanistan. Although we’re paying attention to AfPak now, off the radar screen an important and related fight has been unfolding in the Philippines.

Read more: Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations

Lithuanians on the Moon

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Lithuanians on the Moon

and
Speaking the Language

Mohammad Jan Kendewalli points to ‘nearby’ villages.

01 July 2009
Chaghcharan, Ghor Province, Afghanistan

Lithuanian Lieutenant Marius Varna walked me around the perimeter of the small camp and we scanned the massive desolation of Afghanistan.  The expanses, the dust, and the overwhelming sensation of brown and near-absence of refreshing green, under blue skies and squinting-bright sun.  Only a handful of scrubby trees to be seen.   One mountain wore a tint of green, as if it had been spray-painted from too far.  Varna said it had sprouted after a rain a few weeks ago.

Read more: Lithuanians on the Moon

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