Michael's Dispatches41 Comments
- Published: Tuesday, 05 April 2011 16:40
05 April 2011
Many Provinces, Afghanistan
As the Afghan war wears on and politicians, diplomats and generals thrust and parry about an endgame, one thing is clear: The outcome of this war will be decided by the last man standing.
Who that will be, and what has to happen before everyone else quits the field, are the questions that remain unanswered.
Today, spring 2011, we are making net progress in Afghanistan. I first began writing from here in 2006. In these five years I’ve brought you unending negative news on the matter of how well the Unites States and our allies have succeeded in meeting our goals in the war. But now, for the first time, the tide may be turning. Different enemy factions in this theater have been taking a brutal beating.
This isn’t the endgame. But the battle for 2011 is unfolding before our eyes. Recent observations suggest that it will be the most deadly so far.
To obtain meaningful information in a war zone, where everyone has something to sell and most people who talk don’t know what they’re talking about, you need trustworthy sources with real, significant information. In war, the closer you get to blood, the closer you get to truth.
So I was lucky to hook up with an old military friend, Steve Shaulis, who has been doing business in Afghanistan since the late 1990s. Today his company, Central Asia Development Group (CADG), has a presence in about twenty of the thirty-four Afghan provinces. Few Westerners have deeper contacts in Afghanistan. I sometimes fly around Afghanistan in Steve’s company airplanes, or visit remote places with CADG personnel. They never use armor, even in places U.S. troops won’t enter without heavy combat power and air support. We can go to these places because Steve has built long relationships with the tribes and other local governing structures. And CADG projects, funded by various governments (US, Australia, Canada), have employed approximately 150,000 native Afghans working in “cash for work” programs. That buys some good will, or at least entre.
I recently accompanied Matthew Goldthwaite, CADG Chief Communications Officer, as we toured twenty projects in blood-soaked battle zones, ranging from Kandahar to Panjwai to Farah and elsewhere.
The morning of 26 February started with the moon overhead. Several CADG employees loaded up our convoy, including Matt Goldthwaite and Kris LeBoutillier. Kris was a photographer for National Geographic Traveler and, years before that, an editor at the Wall Street Journal. Today he is a reports manager for CADG. Leonard Grami, provincial manager for CADG, worked in Africa before coming to Urozgan. He organized today’s trip to a still-contested area called Chora.
During our drive to Chora we passed numerous Afghan police and military patrols along the paved road. Leonard and I drove in one vehicle while Kris and Matt drove separately behind us, while an Afghan security element took other vehicles.
Before we left Tarin Kot, Leonard had picked up the red lid of a plastic garbage pail, and while a cigarette dangled from his mouth, eyes squinting through the smoke, he wobbled the plastic lid in the air. He explained that if attack helicopters swooped down near us, we would wave it out a window. Leonard chuckled as he described an incident where waving his garbage can lid may have saved him and his weapon-laden convoy (which might easily have been mistaken for a Taliban convoy) from friendly fire.
If we were wounded there wouldn’t be anything like the quick medevac that troops get. We’d have to get back to base many miles away, on our own, no matter how badly off we were. We had no backup. Each day at this job carries the health risks of smoking a thousand cartons of cigarettes.
Along the drive, Leonard talked about the many bombs and other attacks that have been used on our route. According to his reading of the copious security reports, over a hundred troops and other people have died during the last fourteen months along this stretch or nearby. Some were killed last week, and one died in a firefight last night.
Leonard talked about a famous local Afghan commander who, when he catches bomb-makers, forces them to sit on one of their bombs and then he detonates it. The commander, a Warlord, is an American ally. Out here in Realityland things are a lot different than back in Idealworld. Later we had tea with him.
Nearing Chora, we drove past a destroyed cell tower station. Guerrilla factions in Afghanistan have love/hate issues with cell phones. The love is obvious. The reason they destroy the networks is that, for the first time in Afghan history, normal, local Afghans can use phones to relay information about enemy movements.
Many people take technology for granted. It’s a little more complicated in places immersed in civil and tribal wars, where the technology is totally new. In Nepal it was the government that shut down cell towers because the bad guys (who often were my porters) were plotting against the government with those same phones. But when the Nepalese government cut off the phones, it alienated the ordinary people even more.
As in Iraq, some Afghan cell phone towers are built on the military bases to guard from attacks. Mobile phone workers have been threatened, tortured, and killed. In places under Taliban control, the enemy often forces the mobile operators to shut down the towers at night. A map of areas where mobile service is safe, versus enemy controlled, might be a useful metric of real local control. Americans love “metrics.” Well, the metric here was that there was one cell tower and it was 100% not working.
Just before Chora, I asked Leonard to stop for a panorama, and in 29 seconds the camera recorded 28 images for this pano.
Please click for high resolution Chora Panorama.
And then we kept driving.
Zooming past a police post, Leonard mentioned that it had been attacked the night before, with one Taliban killed. There was a mangled ANP truck, which had been destroyed in a separate IED attack.
Americans hide away the twisted carnage of the IED-stricken vehicles in “bone yards.” After you walk through a few bone yards in Iraq and Afghanistan, you understand why they hide the vehicles. You don’t want anyone—your own guys or the enemy—to see the toughest armor in the world ripped apart like a soda can blasted by a shotgun. There is nothing confidence-inspiring about a vehicle torn in half, or a small pile of parts that used to be a Humvee. And that’s not to mention the terrible smells that stick in your sensory memory, creating a direct path to visions of burning hulks and screaming men, every time you sniff anything like it. But the Afghans just drag the vehicles back and leave them anywhere.
We crossed the Dehrashun River and soon were among hundreds of men working with pick-axes and shovels provided by AusAid and put to use by CADG (called the “implementing partner”). A key difference between CADG and many contractors in Afghanistan is that CADG “implements” directly. Many contractors merely shuffle paperwork, make heaps of money, and contract someone else to do the work. So, for example, say that USAID has a million dollars to spend, so they hire someone in Washington who hires a contractor on the ground in Afghanistan (like CADG), who then hires Afghans. The guys in Washington might have a tiny office in Kabul (so they can emblazon it on their letterhead), but in reality are just holding the paper, taking a cut, and doing exactly the same thing that makes us call the Afghans corrupt and ineffective.
The Afghans working in Chora were not friendly. Most of the workers I’ve seen at the dozens of projects over the past five years in Afghanistan have been friendly or even welcoming. The feeling this time was more like quiet hostility. I’ve seen dozens of CADG projects, including about twenty on this trip alone. The atmosphere has varied from overtly welcoming (“let’s have tea”) to subdued acceptance. Chora and Panjwai (Kandahar Province) were the only projects that felt dangerously creepy.
Few contractors would dare operate in a place like this without expensive security, which in turn puts local populations on edge, all while draining away the aid money. CADG has always used an approach akin to a “Special Forces” philosophy: go in with a small footprint, befriend the local people and they will become your security. More recently the Taliban has stepped up attacks on foreign contractors. As a separate matter, Taliban troublemaking has helped CADG’s growth because the company has a “last man standing” work ethos.
For instance, in 2010, a neighboring compound filled with heavily armed and armored contractors was practically flattened in Kandahar City (the night before I was to arrive) by a lethal and impressive truck bomb.
This article described that attack:
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A suicide bomber targeting a compound shared by foreign companies set off a massive explosion late Thursday in the southern city of Kandahar, blowing out windows across the city and killing at least six people, the president's powerful half brother said.
The blast came hours after another car bomb exploded outside a Kandahar hotel and injured at least eight people.
Fighting in the north of the country, meanwhile, left four German soldiers dead, officials said, while insurgents carjacked U.N. vehicles elsewhere in northern Afghanistan.
The Thursday night explosion occurred when the suicide bomber managed to get his car past one barrier leading into a compound shared by a number of western companies, then set off the explosion at a second barrier…The blast blew out windows as far as 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) away. The compound includes the offices of the international contracting company Louis Berger Group, the Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative and the aid contracting company Chemonics International.
I was not able to go to the office because the bomb had exploded the night before. In early March this year, we had a BBQ on the same Kandahar rooftop of the now-repaired CADG building that had taken heavy damage in the blast.
The list is long and growing. In Paktika Province on 28 March 2011, the Minister of the Interior reported a complex attack led by three suicide bombers who shot their way into a compound of Zahir Construction Company, where a bomber named Ali Ahmad detonated 4.5 tons of explosives inside the compound, killing perhaps 24 and wounding about 50.
When it comes to big truck bombs, there is no safety in numbers, but at least you’ll have company when you die.
War is like a field full of land mines: You never know what’s next. Back in America, a preacher set out to provoke those who are easily provoked, and he succeeded by burning a Quran in Florida, and this continues to play out in Afghanistan in April 2011:
KABUL – An angry mob killed at least seven foreigners in northern Afghanistan and set fire to a United Nations compound, as a protest over a Koran burning in Florida swelled into chaotic violence Friday, according to Afghan and Western officials.
It’s amazing that a shot fired in Florida can hit and provoke fragile minds in Afghanistan, causing them to stampede and overrun security and commit murder of the very people who are pumping money into their pockets.
Until Chora, I had never seen a CADG project where Afghan soldiers guarded workers. But in this case, I wasn’t sure who was being guarded from whom. Were the soldiers guarding us from the workers? Or maybe they were guarding the workers from the Taliban. (I could go back and ask, but won’t.) The photo above shows villagers working a few steps from the CADG compound wall in Chora.
The projects are normally mundane but important, such as karez refurbishments we’d visited in Kandahar, and previously in Nangarhar. Karez are old, primitive but highly functional underground irrigation tunnels. When they silt up or collapse the crops die. The karez refurbishments I’ve seen have been successful, and that’s where you hear a lot of thanks. Other cases, as here, villagers are starting with drainage work. There is the impression that Afghanistan is always dry, but when it rains and the snows melt, there can desert tsunamis. The floods can be sudden and final. Afghanistan has two main problems with water: Far too little, or far too much.
The Australian PRT is few hundred meters down the unpaved road, but that might as well be a thousand miles away for Andy, a courageous Brit who has volunteered to singlehandedly manage CADG affairs in Chora.
Several local leaders conducted a meeting with CADG’s Matt, Chris, Leonard and Andy. As per usual it devolved into a percolating but not boiling transaction as the Afghans stirred the air with raised voices and wild hand gestures.
No US, Aussie or any foreign military was present, though the man in camouflage is both a military commander and sort of a local mayor. Imagine a US Army commander who is also a mayor in the United States. Meanwhile, the NDS officer gesticulates and argues about something. Again, imagine a CIA or FBI officer participating in contracting work for local drainage.
After the meeting, we walked out into courtyard of the compound.
The guy on the left threatens that Andy could be killed if contracting is not handled a certain way. Everyone dismisses him. But who knows? One thing is certain: people frequently die in my dispatches—including this one—so it sounds plausible. I asked the guy in the middle where he got the Aussie camo and he said he interprets for the Australians. “Are the Aussies good to work with?” Yes, he said, he likes them. “Are they any good? Do the Australians do good work?” He answered that the Aussies are great and do very good work.
Andy, our courageous Brit, brushes off the death threats and keeps on rolling; meanwhile, the angry tribesman finally quiets down for a few moments. I say to Matt Goldthwaite, “If Andy can last three months out here with all these people bothering him, while living like this, he deserves a Medal of Honor.” Matt agreed.
These stressful and somewhat surreal conditions are the Twilight Zone of Afghanistan contracting. Those who succeed in completing their projects are helping to create the necessary conditions for normal access—and peace.
The security detachment used red ribbons mitigate fratricide. In Iraq, local insurgents who temporarily turned to our side against al Qaeda used to do the same, though one day they did not wear their ribbons and came speeding by us during a nearby firefight and our guys shot them dead while I happened to be making a video. Our guys killed two or three, as I recall. Case of mistaken identity fair and square.
Afghanistan is loaded with “green zones”—the little green veins along riverbeds where land is fertile and most people live. Notice the sharp line between the desert and the green. Terrain in green zones (as in Arghandab) often looks mild from the sky, but the micro-terrain can be a punishing obstacle course and the moment you take the easy way—BOOM.
While Andy was enduring death threats, I walked around to talk with any Afghan who could speak English. A man reported that the police had just dumped the body of a Taliban who had been killed in the firefight last night. Often this is how Afghan authorities return bodies so the family can recover them for proper Islamic burial. Last year, an Afghan official told me they had beheaded or slit the throat of a guy they’d caught during a failed suicide attack (ironically helping him succeed in ending his life), and the police dumped his body out in front of the district center at Shah Wali Kot. And now another dead Taliban apparently had been deposited for pickup in Chora.
“Let’s go see,” I said. Matt, Leonard and Kris loaded up along with security in different vehicles and we drove the short distance to “the steeple.”
Boys and men were gathered so close to the body that it evoked a vision of vultures picking over a corpse. But that’s not what was happening. Some of the men were paying respects while others seemed to be gawking. A local Afghan said the dead Taliban had come from a nearby village, but that most are trained in Pakistan. The atmosphere was even grimmer here with the dumped body than it had been at the unhappy work project.
Across Afghanistan, men are mostly happy to have their photos taken. But tension continued to mount here. The air had that electricity you often feel just before life reaches an exclamation mark.
Our small security detachment was no match for this crowd, but that didn’t matter. The security walked out and said something, and the pond of men and boys spread back into a semi-circle, leaving the body there alone, and dead.
The following images show the mood exactly as I felt it. In 14 seconds, my camera captured 19 photos. Please click through: Dead Taliban Panorama
We pulled back and got into the trucks.
Within seconds, the crowd had huddled back around so closely that their feet must have been touching the corpse, and we drove away.
[Postscript: Just before I forwarded this dispatch for publication on 05 April, an IED detonated about 2km before the bridge leading into Chora. The target may have been CADG, or another crew building the road to Chora. This is breaking information and those details remain unclear. Two Afghans were badly wounded. Both had skull fractures and blast wounds to their back and legs. One had spinal fluid leaking from his ears. Both apparently were evacuated to the Coalition military facility at Tarin Kot (one definitely was evacuated there). The police are holding at least one suspect for interrogation. Nothing follows.]
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This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoAlways love reading what you've got to say because it is honest.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThank you Michael for another fantastic post. The realism and depiction of what Afghanistan is actually like makes your posts the most worthy of reading. Keep up the good work and stay safe!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks as always, Michael. Stay safe.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoWonderful photos and article. Sincerely appreciate your work and insights! Be 'as' safe as possible.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoI donated a little bit (I don't have a lot) for this one -- I think the work you do is incredibly important.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoJournalism at it's BEST!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoYou are doing an AMAZING job, Michael! I can't tell you how meaningful this is to those of us who have family there.
I'll be making another donation for you to continue your work and photography... the pictures tell such a story. I especially enjoy the panorama photos. THANK YOU!!!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks Michael for some of the only real news coming out of Afghanistan. Your pictures say volumes,, best of luck to you as you continue to tell us all the real stories.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoMichael,
These photos are lovely, just remarkable
in several cases. Congratulations!Thank you for all you are doing!
With admiration ands gratitude,
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoSoon I will be attending the deployment ceremony for the 1-25 Stryker Brigade. I adopted the 1-24 Battalion in 2005 during their first deployment to Iraq. The maps and photos you provide in your posts help me to better understand what and where my "sons" will be. Please keep your posts coming. You're the only one in the press I trust. My sincere thanks!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoMike, I've been following you for years now and you still amaze me with your dispatches, photos and brutal truth. When are you going to have some book signings stateside? The beers will flow!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks Michael,
A thorough and compact dispatch that underlines the cycle of "needs met" by the creativity of Steve Shaulis, uncommon courage and respect for the culture and people from Mathew, Andy and Leonard and all and then your honest reporting. Our small part in that cycle is faithful prayer for each of you and continued support. A joint venture of heaven and earth.
Persevering in such desolation of land and soul is part of the integrity of each of you men, those Afghanis must see the difference in this respectful, helpful work that benefits their basic needs. This is the very heart of free courageous men, we do honour you.
“Last Man Standing” is the fit title.
The maps and photos reinforce your dispatch because they capture the moment of danger there. Great shot of the moon!!! That gigapan photo compliments and opens up such a world.
Many, many thanks.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoWow. What a dispatch Michael. I worry about you but am thankful for all the powerful photos and insight you provide.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoReally outstanding work! I don't know of any other writer who brings so much. Your expertise and experience, contacts and access, and the PHOTOS! Thanks for giving us such unique insight. You are one of a kind, Sir!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoBeautiful work Michael,your work helps an old soldier see the big picture of what our folks deal with. Keep your helment on and powder dry.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoI found you during the course of some other research. Without sounding like a "groupie", I will just say that I admire your work - your writing, your photos, your outlook. Thank you. What you're doing is important to more people than you can imagine. I am a grateful American - Susan Herrin
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoHi Michael,
I sit at my desk in Auckland, NZ, eating my subway lunch. Your words and images transport me to where you are, I can smell the sweat and taste the dirt. Stay safe! keeping posting the real stuff from where its happening! keep the lens clean and the head down!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoMichael:
Amazing pictures, amazing stories. Your clarity of vision and ability to slice through all the levels of filler, to showcase the facts of life on the ground...are enlightening to say the least. Didn't realize I was holding my breath, as I was reading and poring over the gigapans...til I exhaled. Then, all I could think to do for you, and for them...is pray, for safety, and peace, and an end to the Taliban. Unlikely on the latter, but confirmed in faith on the former, that you walk where others simply will not, and have not.
Thank you for bringing us to where you are. More need to see, and they are able to see through your eyes.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoSomehow your reporting begins to seem more important and your writing grows to meet the demands of the story; just as the story grows. I'm afraid we will be seeing truly excellent work from you in worse and worse and worse places and conditions. Reporting from those places and conditions, of course, is what makes you so very highly treasured. I hope powerful and actually important people listen to you.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoDear Michael,
I clicked the link on the story of the massive truck bomb and suddenly got a script notice then my virus program gave notice of a sudden jump in memory use. I tried to click out but it was locked. Then I hit the off button. Some hackers may be following your story line then installing programs on the links. Maybe not. But most I discover are mal-ware.
Jack E. Hammond
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoDear Michael,
On another note, John Masters book "Bugles and Tigers" on his time with a British India Gurkha regiment before WW2 in what is now Pakistan and the North Western Frontier, tells of how the job he feared the most was when religious seasons came and how a peaceful crowd could become totally insane. But the message was simple. Always be armed, never give up your weapon even if ordered, don't be taken alive. Lesson #2 was the Sikhs hate the Afghans and the Afghans hate the Sikhs.
After 9/11 many (arm chair, British veterans of the NWF, the Russians, etc) warned those in the US Army and US Marines to worry about Afghan Muslim culture big time and to read "Bugles and Tigers". They were totally ignored. Now that book is almost mandatory reading for officers going to Afghanistan.
Jack E. Hammond
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoSuperlative work, as usual, Mr. Mike. I always learn something from your dispatches. Thanks for the "straight skinny".
Oh yeah, your last piece, "Calling BS..." made me laugh. I was transported back to the tank park at Camp Schwab when we were told our live fire exercise was postponed and we all "called BS" on the reason.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years ago[From Webmaster] Hello, the problem with the link is actually at the other end. apparently the webpage that the article is going to is running a script that doesn't play well with some browsers. I have contacted them about the issue but have received no response. To view the article i found when you are prompted to continue running the script or not choose to stop running the script. This happened to me twice and then I was able to view the story with no problem. Sorry for the problem, I hope this helps.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoOH BOY ! "This ain't no place vacationing...no BS either ! ! Just DANGER CLOSE,CLOSE .
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agomike
anything else you need to keep up the work brother? surefire batteries? lights? pvs14? if you need gear or anything special please let some of us old wounded dogs help out since we are no longer in the fight
i sit here in snowy montana, collecting the disability pay from my TBI addled brain and so miss being on the ground
your posts are like a song from one's youth recalling all the good and bad heightened experiences ... and though i cussed it while there i'd give anything to be back as that seemed real, and this not
so, please let me know what you need and i, and those of us on the shelf, will get it to you
god keep you Michael Yon, and semper fi
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoAn excellent post... It is great to see you back in the field and I hope we can look forward to more of these soon.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThe way you write and the photos that follow always seems to get the message across in a more potent and surreal way. It's almost as if we are seeing the way things are through your eyes and heart. Thank you for sharing and for being such an amazing man!
Blessings and Hugs,
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoMichael, posts like this continue to impress. Keep up the diligent, tough work and keep dancing between the rain drops.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agojake macgregor -- Your post is the very best in all of us, I think. Willing to go to extremes to help where you can, being completely unselfish. To everybody, send a dime or send a dollar and you have to believe it does a lot of good. I say Michael Yon is important to America.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoTo R. Bradley this is very selfish my offer to Mikey - thank you for your kindness :>)
I want the very best telling us what is going on over there to our men & women ... they are our best, guided by very poor decisions from a terrible Commander in Chief
I want those kids, and Mike, to come home in one piece (unlike myself and so many others)
someone needs to tell this, to convey what is really going on vs the Frobbits and bar flies phoning it in
Mike has a brass pair and deserves every ounce of support we can give him
because the better he reports, the better chance those kids have of being saved from command ignorance and incompetence
i know, i know, not politically correct, b wtf are they going to do, send me back? (i wish)
like Joe Galloway Mike needs all the tools to do the job well and get it out so we know what is really happening, and I will get him anything within my power
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoEXACTLY Shelby, well said !
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoI like the commander who puts bomb-makers on their own bombs and detonates the whole worthless pile.
The Afghans need more like him.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks for doing "gods work" my friend. I always enjoy your work because it is as close to the truth as one can get. Please continue doing an outstanding job.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoAmazing dispatch Michael. Thankyou! Thanks for the tip on Bugles and Tigers I will definitely read it!
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoGreat, honest, and gritty work. Thank you.
I notices when scoping the Dead Taliban panorama that one individual in the middle of the pano, just to the left of the bicyclist, is hiding his face. He also has fresh blood on his shoe. Taliban?
In general, they all have bad shoes. I am reminded that someone once said that you can tell how advanced a civilization is by the quality of their footwear. I now realize how correct that sentiment is.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks Michael for all your hard work and news that we do not see or hear about in the paper or on TV. What a really great job o are doing.
Take care and keep your head down,
All the best to you and your group.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThanks Michael for all the news and photos we do not see on TV or in the paper. Keep up the good work and keep your head down.
All the best to you and your group.
This commment is unpublished.· 8 years ago[quote name="Diggs"]I like the commander who puts bomb-makers on their own bombs and detonates the whole worthless pile.
The Afghans need more like him.[/quote]
They have plenty of these. That exact attitude is why there is a war going on.
This commment is unpublished.· 8 years ago[quote name="Shelby Melban"]Always love reading what you've got to say because it is honest.[/quote]
don't know if i'm in the right place, however that fella on the slab appears to be, wonder if those virgins were a hook jus like mohomomomohoma dead DEAD that is, (thanks mike lov ya)
This commment is unpublished.· 7 years agowell done... may i ask u where u are and how long u will be into the land of karen
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with thee project.
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