Michael's Dispatches

New Afghan war: Frontline correspondent says fight has morphed – but we still can't afford to lose

70 Comments

6 September 2009

This story was published in the New York Daily News on 6 September 2009.

Photo: Jacobson/AP

By Michael Yon

Helmand, Afghanistan - The West is losing this war. This has been obvious for more than three years. Less obvious is that in 2009, we are down to the wire. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others will soon recommend to President Obama the latest treatment for a dying patient.

Meanwhile, allies and Americans are asking themselves why we are here. Some are saying that Al Qaeda is still here or is waiting in the wings to return to its home. Yet Afghanistan was never Al Qaeda's permanent home to begin with. Al Qaeda was just renting a little space here, just as it was renting space in places like Germany and Florida.

We must face reality: Our reasons for continuing are not the reasons we came for. We are fighting a different war now than the one that began in 2001. Today's war is about social re-engineering. Given the horrible history of Afghanistan, and the fact that we already are here, the cause is worthy and worthwhile.

The decisions facing us are perilous and immense. On the one hand, we desperately need more troops, while on the other increasing troop levels introduces a host of costs and potential traps.

Yet it seems certain the war will be lost if we do not significantly increase troops. While our enemies grow stronger, years will pass before Afghan forces can replace us. Enemies are gaining ground while we lose the goodwill of the people through disillusionment. In the mostly peaceful Ghor Province, for instance, development is scant and there are no Afghan soldiers.

I just spent more than a month with British combat forces in Helmand. Instead of concentrating on training and operating with Afghan forces, the British are involved in a daily struggle for tiny pieces of real estate.

Last December, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told me in a private discussion while flying back to the U.S. from Afghanistan, Bahrain and Iraq, that his greatest concern is that we will lose the goodwill of the Afghan people. Gates is correct and my confidence in his judgment is high. Gates knows that our stock is still okay here, but clearly it is losing value.

The strongest indicator of progress will come in the form of cooperation from the people. In Iraq, especially in about mid-2007, I witnessed a tidal shift in cooperation from the civilians and largely from that was able to report that the surge was working, long before the statistics would support what might have appeared to be a wild claim.

During 2006 in Afghanistan, I witnessed areas where the population was alienated from Kabul and Western forces. Again, long before the statistics would support what appeared to be wild claims, I published 12 reports saying we were losing here. Analysts cannot feel the pulse through statistics; in this sort of war, statistics lag behind the realities. An observer must be on the ground to sense the pulse.

Pundits who are saying we should pull out of Afghanistan today, to my knowledge, are not here.

Having just spent another month with British forces in Helmand, today I am on my own in the same province. During the last month, our great allies the British lost dozens of soldiers who were killed or wounded. Cooperation from locals is almost nonexistent in many places. Interaction between civilians and British soldiers was nearly zero. The British treat the civilians very well, but being polite and respectful is not enough.

Without significant reinforcements, the British likely will be defeated in Helmand within a couple of years. My respect for British soldiers is immense. I have been in combat with them many times in Iraq and Afghanistan, including during the last couple of weeks and would go into battle with them today. Yet it must be said that the average British soldier has practically no understanding of counterinsurgency.

The enemies here cannot defeat the United States, but they can dissolve the coalition. Some allies are ready to tap out, while others are learning that counterinsurgency is difficult. The Germans, for instance, are losing in their battle space. To avoid watching the coalition melt away, we must show progress before the end of 2010.

Today, the war is still worth fighting, yet the goal to reengineer one of the most backward, violent places on Earth, will require a century before a reasonable person can call Afghanistan "a developing nation." The war will not take that long - but the effort will.

There are no short-term solutions to fix this place. We are planting acorns. Oak trees grow slowly.

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 10 years ago
    "A statement made in complete ignorance of British military history"

    So, if the average British soldier understood counterinsugency *then*, they must understand it now?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nels · 10 years ago
    The UK own senior commander General Dannat has called the UK military arrogant, the UK can execute a successful COIN operations as has been shown in Malaysia etc. But Northern Ireland was not preparation for Iraq or Afghanistan. Applying the same techniques will not work, ultimately N.I was resolved when the UK government was forced to seriously negotiate after the Canary wharf bombing. War merely buys time. The UK military has been starved of money, lost experienced personnel and poor strategic and tactical planning has resulted in unnecessary deaths and poor results. The retreat from Basra and Musa qala was a defeat not a tactical withdrawal, the UK military needs to wake up to the fact that they currently are not successfully executing a COIN operation in Iraq or Afghanistan. The strategic plan is wrong, and this is poisoning the entire campaign, the direction needs to come from the top and that includes politicians, and with that in mind, they do not have a hope in hell of making this a success, get out now.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cris · 10 years ago
    Iraq remains the consequential center and our withdrawal there may have more significant consequences than what may result from wining or losing in Afghanistan.

    A map says it all. Afghanistan is a geographic death trap. Pakistan is unstable, possibly hostile and the Russians are positioned to humiliate the United States.

    Bombing Afghanistan beyond the Stone Age is fine, but recreating a primitive Muslim country into the image of a pacifist secular Japan is impossible. And then I go back to looking at the map, very dangerous endeavor.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mel Hoffman · 10 years ago
    Approximately three per cent of U.S. citizens are Jewish. Virtually no part of the fighting forces of the U.S. are Jewish. Yet, we have been involved in wars as a proxy for Zionist Jews and Israel for nearly a half century. Maybe Michael Yon should volunteer to actually fight instead of just using his mouth to continue to foment violence against those of another religion in a foreign land. We have NO BUSINESS in Afghanistan. GET OUT. Let the Zionist Jews fight their own wars for their radical religious beliefs. They are of course the "chosen people of God" and entitled to their "promised land" by stealing and occupying the land of others they torture, imprison and kill.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joe · 10 years ago
    Thank you Michael. Your observations are critical when trying to make sense of everything that is happening there.

    Please keep your head down, and let the soldiers know we care and are not forgetting about them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sgt Dave · 10 years ago
    Michael-what do we at home need to do? I don't want to see us do to the Afghans what we did to the S Viets. We pulled out in "73 and the Democrats cut off their ammo and support in "75. What do they need?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    madproff44 · 10 years ago
    I agree with almost everything you wrote, and appreciated its heartfelt quality, But on the HBO version of Generation Kill must respectfully disagree. To this ex-GI, as to your Vet friends, it seemed yet another Hollywood attempt to portray soldiers not so much crueler (for which we must be thankful) as profoundly unintelligent. The book was excellent, so much so that I handed it out liberally to people who haven't experienced life in close-knit ground units, especially the running wit and humor. Much that made the book work so well was dropped. The only people portrayed as moral, insightful, and smart - people so often found in the military - were the reporter and one junior NCO who constructed to reflect ordinary American values without turning the reporter into the sole exemplar. Although much was dropped, everything that reflected the standard Hollywood view of the war was amplified to the point of exaggeration. As a movie it failed too: the characters were cutouts, their actions predictable, the effects of intense conflict unnoticeable save when they learned to repent and put themselves on the path of the saved.

    If you haven't read the book, consider doing so: it is one of the best accounts of the first phase of the war. But in the movie you'll find none of its real moral dilemmas, The good guys do everything but wear white hats, while the bad guys smirk, swagger, and speak in militarese. The book's finely-drawn character portraits became a chance for didacticism - what attitudes should be approved, what condemned. And there is no sense of how people who go through war together change in their interactions with one another. The movie portrays all missions as absurd mistakes drawn up by absurd people. True, this is the usual response of lower enlisted to everything, but HBO widened their view, one supposes to make sweeping didactic pronouncements, without broadening the context of the events they covered. Finally, the humor of small unit life captured so well in the book must have been gone over their heads, can't think of another reason why it should have been reduced to tiresome individual character quirks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Larry Ross · 10 years ago
    It appears to me that Mel Hoffman has forgotten what happened in 2001. It wasn't his so-called "Zionist Jews" that flew the planes. It was a cancerous group of fanatics. I would rather fight al-Qaeda on Afghan soil than in the U.S. A word to Mel. Join the military and found out for your self.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 10 years ago
    Sgt. Dave.
    A republican pulled us out of vietnam so making this a rep. vs. dem issue is absurd. They are all politicians. They tend to vote according to polls. We end up fighting wars by majority rule which is no way to treat our folks in uniform. The Powell Doctrine says war is a last resort when diplomacy has completely failed. If the decision to go to war is made, turn the military loose to win it by overwhelming force. Let them decide when enough is enough, and when it is time to leave. Unlike VN, these recent wars have top leadership who are experienced and not just in it for another star.

    For myself, I think the fat lady should sing of Afghanistan. Good news coming out of Pak is that their army is handing the AQ leaning taliban their lunch. With the Taliban controlling 80% of AF, clear, hold, and build is simply stupid. We are back into the VN body count business, again stupid. We have seen how effective the Iraqi army and police have been after years of intensive training and quality equiping. ANA and ANP are even in worse shape.

    No light at the end of this tunnel, sorry to say.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jacuarand DuQuesyne · 10 years ago
    I'll keep this comment short and to the point:
    This website contains some of the best writing I've read in decades.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brandy · 10 years ago
    Is Michael prepared to spend the rest of HIS life in Afghanistan? Is he willing to have HIS children and children's children rolling the same damn rock uphill eternally like Sisyphus?

    Where have I heard this before?

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    Send forth the best ye breed--
    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives' need;
    To wait in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild--
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half-devil and half-child.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    In patience to abide,
    To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
    By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain
    To seek another's profit,
    And work another's gain.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    The savage wars of peace--
    Fill full the mouth of Famine
    And bid the sickness cease;
    And when your goal is nearest
    The end for others sought,
    Watch sloth and heathen Folly
    Bring all your hopes to nought.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper--
    The tale of common things.
    The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    And reap his old reward:
    The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard--
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
    "Why brought he us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?"

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    Ye dare not stoop to less--
    Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloke (1) your weariness;
    By all ye cry or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
    The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your gods and you.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    Have done with childish days--
    The lightly proferred laurel, (2)
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
    Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years
    Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

    I say PHOOEY!

    The best way to solve our terrorism problem is to eliminate Muslim immigration to the West and release ourselves from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

    It's their world and their culture. If they want it to change, they will change it. If they don't want to change it, let them live with the consequences in THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. Let them keep Sharia and honor killing and murder of apostates and oppression of women and oppression of infidels and all the other lovely things that come with Islam. Just don't let them bring it here.

    Pull the troops. Close the borders. Build lots of nuke plants. Research the heck out of alternative fuels.

    Don't waste the best of our lovely young men and women in the wasteland of Afghanistan!

    We need them here in the United States.







  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg · 10 years ago
    Hi Mike,
    I've pretty much given up on other media sources in-country since you are just streets ahead of them! I'm still reeling from the news that MOD stopped your embed with Rifles...
    Not sure I take your point about why we're all here though - I don't think "social re-engineering" is the whole story.
    Fascism always looks to export itself and democracies always forget that fascism seeks to export itself. This generation's big wake-up call was 9/11 - before that we were all just hoping (as in the 1930s) that if we left just them alone to oppress and exterminate their own minorites they'd be happy with that and we could just get on with living our lives.... But that's not the way it works - Hitler, Tojo and Bin Laden will always want more: remember these are "Men of Destiny", "Men to whom God has spoken". Whilst I certainly appreciate the point that the Taleban are not quite the same as AQ, they are coming from the same ideological place and their vision of the future is the same blood-red hell as Bin Laden's - they are a part of the forces that would plunge this world into darkness.
    I don't want to bang on about it too much, but does it matter where we fight them? They are happy to butcher our people wherever they are. We need to recognise that and meet them wherever they are - better they meet our weapons in Afghanistan than our folks in our home towns.
    Maybe a snappy example from US history: the Battle of Midway. Would anyone seriously consider that that glorified sandbar would be worth the life of a single Marine or sailor? Of course not; but the point is not the geographical location of the battle, what matters is the result. The US stopped Japanese Fascism at Midway, the Brits stopped German fascism at the English Channel. America's young men and women stopped Islamo-fascism in Iraq, where the cream of international Jihadism met their match against better men. Now we need to continue the fightback in Afghanistan. Sure, there's going to be more bleeding in other dusty places but ask the lads at the pointy end of the battle - would YOU rather bleed here than have your people bleed at home?
    Stay safe mate.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 10 years ago
    O.k. Midway was a key strategic base providing a base for submarine ops extending thier range some 1200 miles, as well as an air base.

    I get very weary of the Rumsfeld litany of fight them over there or they will come here. Absurd. The tribal taliban have neither the capability or desire to "come over here". They are entirely focused on consolidating local power and expanding it to the next cave. Al Qaeda has been neutralized, for the most part, in Afghanistan and are just holding on in Pakistan and....much of the taliban see AQ as a problem.

    Now CJCS Mullen is asking for 2-4000 aditional troops because of the jump in IED attacks. What are these guys going to do, put their fingers in their ears, shut their eyes, and stomp down the roads? Get serious. Go all in (150K troops) or fold. We have neither the troops or the equipment so I say fold.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mike · 10 years ago
    thanks michael! be careful in your journey!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pinoypharmacy.com · 10 years ago
    Your the best michael! I'll subscribe to all your post!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg · 10 years ago
    Hi Scott,

    I know that Mike's comments page is not really the place for a debate but I had to come back on what you said. I do appreciate your point and, being a fairly typical well-educated liberal Brit, before 9/11 would have shared it absolutely. I think there's a tendency in Europe and perhaps also in the US to assume that "Neo-conservatism" is a kind of rogue philosophy that has sown disaster in response to terror but my personal opinion is that that view is unfair and simplistic. The global situation post-9/11 is radically different from any experienced before and I think that the Bush administration (and the Blair administration in the UK) were swift to realize the scale of the change and the response it required.
    As I said before, Fascism always seeks to export itself - I think that can be said fairly safely; the historical examples are manifestly there. The Taleban are certainly primarily a "local" problem, but they share a philosophy with AQ which knows no compromise, no mercy, no borders, not even a sense of reality. Maybe this wouldn't matter, but we now live in a world teetering on the cusp of a WMD proliferation nightmare - the weapons are there, they do exist, and whether we like it or not, if we sit back in masterful inactivity there is a chance (maybe slight, maybe not) that one day, one group or sub-group of the Islamo-fascist diaspora will get hold of one. I personally feel that the cost in blood and treasure of fixing that problem then is too agonizingly high to contemplate and the US and its Allies are doing now what should have been done in Europe in 1938 - confronting the Beast before the rampage really begins. Surely, the brutality and determination of the philosophy which spawned the 9/11 attacks, coupled with the intense hazard of proliferation are a set of circimstances that really cannot be ignored as "a local issue" in the hope that they will just fade away. It is also not a threat we can only half deal with - "neutralizing" AQ is simply not enough; they and their allies must be defeated and seen to be defeated, and their philosophy exposed for the web of deceit and evil it is. If we do not achieve this, then we are merely postponing the date of their return to our cities.

    Best Regards,

    Greg (does believing in democracy and liberty make me a Neo-Con?)

    P.S: We can argue about the strategic value of Midway island some other time!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 10 years ago
    Greg,
    We can agree to disagree regarding the Taliban agenda. They loved us when the Russians invaded and hated us when we came. I believe the invasion of Iraq did more harm than good in diverting resources from AQ and resulting in recruitment of scores of enemy. I believe we gave AQ too little credit and the Taliban too much. While one group may one day get hold of a WMD, I cannot fathom that it would be the Taliban. That weapon will likely enter the US across a border or thru a seaport. A better use of resources would be to secure those entry points.

    And no, believeing in democracy and liberty does not make you a Neo-Con, (tho Neo-Cons would like to wear that mantle) just rational. There are other metrics.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Walnut · 10 years ago
    To succeed in a counter insurgency operation you need to give the people what the insurgents cannot give them: roads, clinics, schools, water and a way of safely making a living. You cannot wait for a secure internal situation before starting this but must make military forces available to ensure this can all be done and as swiftly as possible without insurgent interference. It appears that this is not being done or at least not fast enough (no local medical facilities in some Helmand towns after 8 years). It was done in Dhofar and it could be done again but only if government makes the effort and this is not apparently happening. Karzai and his 'national' army and 'national' police are the problem, not the solution for people who want to be governed in the traditional way, locally and tribally. General McChrystal has the right idea but it woukd appear no way of getting the national NATO contingents to do what he wants: get out of your armoured vehicles, take off your tin hats and live with the people.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    r4 ds · 10 years ago
    Very touching.... I was moved ... keep posting. Will be visiting back soon.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paradoxymoron · 9 years ago
    Making someone's country a warzone isn't effective social engineering. Let's feed, water, clothe and shelter all of them, even the suspected Taliban. Let's work at permaculture in their country so that food can be easily grown. Let's stop giving money to 'defense contractors' (mercenaries) and military supply providers and start giving it to the people we're supposedly trying to help.

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