Michael's Dispatches

Precision Voting


31 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The historical Afghan elections scheduled for 20 August were days away.   While the west mostly continued to vote for Afghanistan, the big question was, “Will Afghanistan vote for itself?”

The latest media wave splashed into the main voting centers in places like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Lashkar Gah.  The larger cities only account for perhaps 20% of the Afghan population.  Whereas the easy and obvious stories are in the cities, a crucial and larger dimension—the other 80%—would unfold in the boonies.  Most Afghans would have no chance to vote.

The election was to be run by Afghans.  In theory and in practice this would be a recipe for disaster.  The strategic thinkers cannot be faulted for this; after nearly eight years of war, if the west were still running the elections, the elections and government would be a failure to begin with.  By comparison, the Iraqi elections on 30 January 2005 (less than two years after invasion) were run mostly by Iraqis.  In the voting of October and December of that same year, Iraqis had two more runs at the ballots, which were increasingly successful.  Afghanistan, however, is different.  This would be only the second election in history.

There are no good choices here.  Either we run the elections and the central government and in doing so undermine the same central government we are investing in, or we allow that central government to run the elections and probably watch it undermine itself.  But who knows?

We need more troops.  The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country.  Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing.  For example, an excellent British infantry unit that I embedded with in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the “2 Rifles,” is staked out in the “Green Zone” around the Helmand River.  HQ for 2 Rifles is at FOB Jackson near the center of the map above.  There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month).  The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting.  The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.”  FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.”  In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth.  The enemy owns the terrain.

The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made.  The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success.  Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure.  Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy.

We need more helicopters.  Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki that when my embed was to switch from FOB Jackson to FOB Inkerman—only seven kilometers (about four miles) away—we could not walk or drive from Jackson to Inkerman.  Routes are deemed too dangerous.  Helicopter lift was required.  The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements.  It’s common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight.  When my embed was to move the four miles from Jackson to Inkerman, a scheduled helicopter picked me up at Jackson and flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion.  The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th.  About five days was spent—along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time—to travel four miles.  Even Generals can have difficulty scheduling flights.  Interestingly, when I talk with the folks who reserve helicopter space, they say the Generals are generally easy-going about the lack of a seat, but that Colonels often become irate.

A helicopter finally was heading from Camp Bastion to FOB Inkerman, which is cut off from its own headquarters at FOB Jackson only four miles away.  The war and fighting can vary dramatically around Afghanistan.  In Sangin, the enemy uses mostly fertilizer bombs, which, along with normal leave schedules, has rapidly attrited the battalion to the point that replacements have been sent.  Conversely, four miles away at Inkerman, it’s still mostly a gunfight, though the use of bombs is increasing.  Inkerman sits on the desert side of “highway” 611 that goes from Highway 1 (the “Ring Road”) to Kajaki.  The 611 marks the border between the deadly Green Zone and the desert.  The road is almost completely controlled by the enemy.  Only tiny patches of the 611 are under serious NATO/ISAF influence.  Some will take issue with this statement; if they claim to be in control, they should readily accept the challenge to drive in an unarmored car in those areas they claim to control.

To help avoid being shot down, the helicopter approaches Inkerman from the desert side.  (In fact, two days later on the 19th, a similar helicopter was shot down near here.)  The Afghan road system is the human equivalent of ant trails.  After thousands of years of living here, the Afghans have not cracked the code on road building.  Many people will say that geography has been cruel to the Afghans, and that the mountainous, landlocked terrain is the problem.  Yet this does not explain away the success of landlocked, mountainous countries such as Austria and Switzerland, nor does access to the sea guarantee anything more than saltwater.  The meek have inherited this plot of earth because the strong don’t want it enough to take it.

Where liquid water can be found, so too can Afghans.

Some people point back to the “good-old days” in Afghanistan, when hippies could smoke hash and swim naked in the streams.  The good old days in Afghanistan did not leave much evidence of progress in the form of roads, architecture or written history.

The stories of foreign invaders do not explain away the great walls built around nearly every home and every mind.  The problem is not the terrain.  The problem is not that Americans and others supported the Mujahadin when they fought the Soviets.  The problem is not the artificial boundaries penciled in by the British all over Asia and the Middle East.  The people are backwards and many want it that way.  You can fly over a compound in the desert, miles from the next compound, and still it will have walls.  Afghanistan is the land of a million Alamos.

As the pilot brought the helicopter to the yellow pin called FOB Inkerman, an Afghan man had parked his car just near the front of the base on the 611.  He took out a shovel and began digging, hidden by his car, he thought, at a spot where a bomb had recently detonated.  A British soldier fired a warning shot and the man drove away.  An Apache helicopter eventually attacked the car out in the desert.  There he was, just within direct view of Inkerman, digging in a bomb.  This is typical of the larger situation.

Helicopter landing site at FOB Inkerman.

Two platoons are stationed at Inkerman; meaning only one platoon at a time can leave the base.  Using one platoon to cover this area is like trying to water a football pitch with a drop of water.  The enemy fights just outside the base, even planting IEDs in view of the guard towers.  On my first morning at Inkerman, one of the platoons was outside the wire in the corn.  They came across tripwires and other booby traps.  The enemy was so close that soldiers could hear the enemies’ own radios crackling nearby in the corn.  A firefight ensued.  Machine guns and mortars were fired.  The white smoke is a screen launched by the mortars to help the infantry platoon break contact.  There are too few troops to fix the enemy and prosecute attacks.

Cleaning the mortar tubes after the fire mission.

Restacking unfired mortar bombs.

The platoon comes back to base.  Amazingly, despite the dire situation, British morale is high.  My respect for the men and women here only grows by the day.

The soldiers keep streaming in from the mission.  The Pentagon and British MoD spin lies (though I have found Secretary Gates talks straight), but veins of pure truth can be found right here with these soldiers.  The Pentagon and MoD as a whole cannot be trusted because they are the average of their parts.  There are individual officers and NCOs among the U.S. and U.K. who have always been blunt and honest with me.  Among the higher ranking, Petraeus and Mellinger come to mind, but for day-to-day realities this is where it’s at.  Out here.  Nothing coming from Kabul, London, or Washington should be trusted.

A recent controversy was stirred in the U.K. by my photos of British soldiers in the GZ (Green Zone) wearing brown uniforms.  There is some truth to the controversy, but in fairness to the British MoD, only part of the battles take place in the GZ.  Much of the fighting takes place in the deserts.  Even individual missions often alternate between the Green Zone and the Brown Zone, and so neither green nor brown is perfect.  The British SAS and American special operations forces are using camouflage that is more suitable for both environments.  It would cost very little to outfit these soldiers in better camouflage.

These men and women will never get the credit they deserve.

The women are medics, and they brave the combat just like the infantry soldiers.  But again, they will never get the credit they deserve, and so we joked that they should just let people think they spent the entire tour at Camp Bastion.  Who would believe that they were out there in the thick of it?  On this day, an Afghan man showed one of these medics a rash on his arms, but the medic carried no such medicines out into the fighting.  When medic Evans said she had no medicine, a young man picked up a big stone and was preparing to hit her.  Rhian instantly pointed the rifle at the man who put down the rock.

Still streaming in.

Another day in the war.

Finally they are all in the gate and nobody is shot or blown up this time, and I say a quiet thank you for bringing them back in one piece.

After each mission soldiers drop gear and go immediately into a debriefing to discuss what has occurred.  They discuss things that were done well, things that were done not so well, and there is discussion about how to improve before the next fight.  They talk about the performance of the enemy and any good moves or bad tactics used by the enemy.  They talk about any gear that may have failed or performed well.

The soldiers knew they were doing well and I knew it because they invited me on more missions than I could possibly go on while still being able to write.

Some things could have been done better—always the case even among the most experienced soldiers—so the soldiers talked it through, and after it was over they headed back to re-issue new ammo, clean weapons, recharge batteries for various gear, and prep for combat on a moment’s notice.

About three hours after the firefight, an Afghan man was brought to FOB Inkerman with the note above.  The note was signed with the name Dr. Haji A. Baqi, who the British said is a doctor for the Taliban.  (Not necessarily a “Taliban doctor,” but someone who definitely treats Taliban.)  The Brits said that Dr. Baqi gets medical supplies from the ICRC.  The referral says the patient was “SHOUTED BY GUN,” and judging by the small bullet hole it might well have been a British gun.

Normally, a correspondent would not be permitted to publish photos of a captured enemy (while embedded with British or U.S. forces), but this guy was not captured and he was not being detained.  He was not officially deemed the “enemy,” despite that his hands were soft and he likely was hit during that firefight.

The medical team: Nikole Cunningham, Rhian Evans, Jonathan Richards, Daniel Yeoman, all led by Dr. Gabriel Shaya, going to work on the suspected Taliban.  His only real problem seems to be the bullet hole (entry and exit) in the abdomen.  Luckily for him, he seems to have been hit by the same bullets used in American and British assault rifles (5.56mm), which lack the power to make the definitive hits caused by more powerful weapons.   The man was alert throughout.

Dr. Shaya tries to find a vein, but ends up drilling into the guy’s right tibia to deliver fluids.  This is Dr. Shaya’s first combat deployment.  On August 2nd the monthly convoy was moving up from Camp Bastion to resupply bases that no longer see fresh apples, fresh milk, or fresh anything.  The convoy had been harassed along the way and the enemy already knows the expected convoy routine, so they were busy with ambushes.  When the convoy passed by FOB Inkerman, Captain Shaya was on QRF (Quick Reaction Force) duty.  A nearby IED strike caused a casualty just near the base.  Captain Shaya loaded up with only two other soldiers into the Pinzgauer vehicle.  Darkness was falling when the total of three soldiers launched out of Inkerman and Dr. Shaya thought it was exciting to be on his first mission, but he also knew the dangers, having worked for three weeks at the Camp Bastion trauma center.  Shaya was sitting in the back and realized that if the Pinzgauer got hit with an IED, he might break his neck on the partial ceiling, so he shifted to sit under the open space.  He began to ready his gear to accept the casualty, when about five minutes into his first mission, BOOM!, the front of the vehicle apparently hit a pressure plate.

The explosion did not seem loud to Dr. Shaya.  Dust and smoke filled the darkening air as the vehicle came to a stop, and part of the truck fell onto Shaya.  His arms and legs were still attached but due to a partition he could not see either man in the front.  He shouted to them and they both responded and both were wounded.  The easiest, quickest way to the front was to crawl out the back and open the driver and passenger doors, but there might be IEDs because the enemy often plants bombs in clusters.  Dr. Shaya did not want to walk on the road until it had been cleared.  They were alone in the dark.  He didn’t even want to turn on his red flashlight.  He could climb over the top but did not want to be an obvious target, so he shouted to the front for them to use the radio to call for help.  The truck had no radio.

Dr. Shaya climbed over top to the front, but didn’t want to turn on his light.  Soon he saw a dim light approaching from down the road and he felt anxious.  As the light grew closer and closer the anxiety increased, and it came closer still until he saw it was the company Sergeant Major and some soldiers.  The anxiety evaporated into profound relief.  The soldiers opened the doors and Dr. Shaya saw that the driver’s lower right leg was gone, while the dashboard had crushed in on the passenger who was in great pain.  The driver was trapped by the steering wheel, and while soldiers tried to pull him out, Dr. Shaya, now between the driver and the passenger, tried to lift up the steering wheel and finally they got him out to a stretcher where Dr. Shaya had to screw into his tibia to administer fluids.  Dr. Shaya thought the driver was losing his will, and so he gave a pep talk and tried to keep him in the fight.  The other patient was screaming as he was pulled from the vehicle.  He was a large man and difficult to move, and continued to scream with pain as he was put onto a stretcher and the IV was inserted.  Three morphine doses later he was still in great pain due to a severely fractured femur, and as they drove in another vehicle back to base he screamed on the bumpy road.  Dr. Shaya was painfully honest with his recounting, saying that during the stress of his first combat, he had forgotten his weapon and medical bag on the damaged vehicle.  He was upset with himself that he could not administer more because of that oversight.  “The journey back seemed to take an eternity,” he said.  The British MERT helicopter was circling in the darkness overhead and when it landed at Inkerman, he ran off, helping with the stretcher, when he should have been preserving his strength for other casualties.

Dr. Shaya told me that when he returned to the medical tent, “When I got back, I was shattered (exhausted) and shaken.”  He began to pack another medical kit in case he had to crash out the gate on his second mission, yet now soldiers were arriving for treatment after the initial blast that wounded the first soldier, and only when all of that was done could Dr. Shaya relax, and begin to feel the pain from his own throbbing, bleeding elbow.

Combat is the cruelest teacher.  Dr. Shaya, who makes no pretense of being a combat soldier, had been five minutes into his first mission when suddenly he was alone in the dark with two seriously wounded men.

Dr. Shaya treating the suspected Taliban.  Maybe this was the guy who blew up the vehicle.

Soldiers examine the referral note, signed with the name Dr. Haji A. Baqi, wherein the suspected doctor of the Taliban describes symptoms.

Backside of the referral note.

Call sign 'Pedro': One of the great untold stories of this war.

The 129th ERQS (Emergency Rescue Squadron), flying a pair of HH-60G Pavehawks, launched from Camp Bastion to retrieve the suspected Taliban who was deemed a “Cat A” casualty.  Category A means the patient requires immediate evacuation.  Total flight distance (given the route) from Bastion to Inkerman back to Bastion would be about 100 miles.

Among the British combat soldiers in Afghanistan, Pedro is the only thing more popular than mail.  When friendly forces are in need, Pedro will come anywhere, anytime, during any weather, and their helicopters have gotten the bulletholes to prove it.  The United States Air Force runs the only rescue service that will always be there, no matter what, no matter that there is no moon for flying, or the dust is too heavy for everyone else, or you are in a firefight.  American Army helicopters in Afghanistan fly with the red cross on the side.  Flying with that symbol makes it illegal for our people to carry weapons.  The decision seems ridiculous; the enemy will only use the red cross for an aim point.  While the Army flies armed with a red cross, Pedro flies with miniguns.  And they bring some of the most highly qualified medics in the entire U.S. military–which is saying a lot.  They bring miniguns, and powersaws to cut soldiers out of MRAPs or other twisted hulks, and scuba gear when troops and gear are lost to the water.  If our people can manage to get there, Pedro can manage to get them out.  Pedro rescues people every single day.

The lead aircraft, Pedro 35, brings two pilots, a gunner, a rescue officer, a flight engineer, and two PJs (elite “rescue specialists”; these men are a story unto themselves).

When Pedro 35 landed at FOB Inkerman, the two PJs along with the rescue officer, Captain Dave Depiazza received the patient while British soldiers brought the suspected Taliban toward Pedro.  The PJs like to meet the ground troops outside to make sure the patient is properly categorized, assessed, and loaded.  One challenge with some ground troops is that they will rush the helicopter during a “brownout” and start to load the patient feet first (or headfirst), when the PJs might need the patient the other way; the PJs want the head near the lifesaving airway equipment, and since helicopters vary in configuration, the PJs need to take control early to save seconds.  They want to spend no more than 30 seconds on a hot landing zone; the aircraft do take hits but they have been lucky so far.  (A Pedro from Kandahar Airfield was shot down in July.  Luckily all survived and kept doing missions, but the helicopter was ultimately destroyed during a recovery mission that went awry.)


Sometimes Pedro 36 comes in first, but this time Pedro 36 flies top cover while Pedro 35 loads the patient.

Pedro 36 racetracks low watching for ground threats.  The door gunners can—and often do—return lethal fire in a couple seconds.

Pedro 36 roars low and then both disappear and head back to Camp Bastion.  When the Pedro 35 landed near the Bastion trauma hospital, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman happened to be visiting the hospital as the PJs helped unload the suspected Taliban.  (Just the day before, when I had spent some hours with the Pedros before heading back out with British infantry, one of these same PJs said he would clean the operations center for a week if he could meet McCain.  I said to him, “Fat chance you’ll get to meet with McCain,” and so imagine the PJ’s surprise when he carried the suspected Taliban into the hospital and accidentally ran into Senators McCain and Lieberman, and shook their hands.)

The war is a busy place and far too much happens out there than can possibly be explained.  Llater that night, a platoon launched on a mission to raid several compounds.  I was invited on the mission on 18 August but did not go due to the usual writing-crunch and impending elections, and so during breaks I sat in the ops center and listened to the radio calls.  The raids unfolded, and after half a night the soldiers brought back six suspects, one of whom had run from the soldiers and urinated on his hands to remove explosives residue.  The terrain had been rough and the night was dark and so two soldiers busted their ankles.

Major Ian Moodie, commander of B Coy 2 Rifles, guaranteed me that in the morning there would be a gaggle of locals, including elders, who would arrive to demand release of the prisoners.  Major Moodie said this problem is exacerbated by the helicopter shortage; if he could get the prisoners extracted as soon as they were captured, he would be able to say that the prisoners had already been moved and there was nothing he could do, but already in the past he had decided to release prisoners to cool tensions.

Later in the day of 19 August, locals arrived to demand release of the six.  All were released except for one, who was finally picked up by a helicopter on the evening of the 19th, the day before the latest historical Afghan elections wherein Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai had reached the showdown to decide who would become the President of one of the most primitive countries on Earth, but one that probably gets more international press and attention than Japan and Germany combined.

As the helicopter lifted off with the prisoner, the JTAC who talked the helicopter in said to me that “Axle” Foley, another JTAC four miles away in Sangin, was about to call in a bomb from a B1.  The fighting had begun and it was not even election day.  Taliban in the area were threatening people to stay in their compounds and not vote.

On the afternoon of the 19th, before our election-day mission on the 20th, “Snowy” meticulously cleaned every speck of dust off his weapon.  He disassembled the magazines, cleaned the springs, and individually cleaned each bullet.

Snowy then counted every last bullet—twice—and I joked that if his weapon failed the next day, cleaning would not be the issue.  The weapon was ready, it seemed.... Meanwhile, my BGAN satellite communications gear was malfunctioning on the evening before the election.  Hours would be wasted before it was ascertained the satellite gear was officially broken.  Murphy’s Law was in effect for all guns and gadgets.  I’ve come to a remote base and can report what others are not seeing, and the crucial link was broken at the crucial moment.

At about 2245 a rocket banged and zoomed overhead but missed the base and exploded seconds later somewhere out in the darkness.  Orange illumination rounds drifted down nearby and in the far distance, some casting long, flickering shadows.  Radio chatter at the ops room said that an SAS (British special forces) helicopter had been shot down north of us and one troop was wounded, and that the enemy was moving toward the crash site which was still occupied by British soldiers.  I headed to bed because the mission on election day was likely to include serious fighting.  The alarm was set for 0330, but by midnight there had not been time to get a wink.  Just after midnight, having seen no less than 10 meteors streak through the darkness above, sleep came.  The alarm sounded and I pulled out of the cot, already dressed for the mission, and pulled on the boots in the dark.  Sometime around 0400, there was a distant thud as the helicopter that had been shot down was destroyed.  (An officer later said that two bombs were used, but I heard only one.)

By 0436, the soldiers were ready to launch on the mission and there was time for a few images on this historic day in the middle of nowhere.

The soldiers had erected a memorial for lost comrades.

Metal detectors and other gear were tested.

It was time.

The mission began.

Suspected bombs were marked along the way.  Dozens of them.  The metal could be anything from an old bullet to a nail.  For years, the enemy has seen us with the metal detectors and so are making bombs with LMC (low metal content).

The soldiers on point with the metal detectors have an incredibly dangerous job.  They must watch for all sorts of ambushes, high and low.  The enemy uses command wires, pressure pads, trip wires and radio-controlled devices.  Some people say the enemy bombs are cowardly, as if we are in a gentlemen’s duel.  Others might say IEDs are no more cowardly than our using B-1Bs and A-10s.

Election day begins.

Our mission was to move to an over-watch position to prevent Taliban from harassing voters on their way to Sangin.  Most people in Afghanistan would not have a chance to vote even if there were no Taliban.  British officers told me that between here and Kajaki, for instance, there were no polling stations.

Fatal funnel: the enemy often plants bombs in walls, or simply throws grenades over top.

Often after ground has been “cleared,” soldiers far down the line get blown to pieces.

Open areas make us less predictable for IED strikes, but now we are extremely vulnerable to machine-gun, RPG fire and other weapons such as B10 rockets.  Luckily they are terrible shots with mortars.

If we get ambushed, the only cover is accurate return fire, but the enemy of course tries to hide their firing positions.

Nobody from either side was dead yet.  Not here, anyway.

We reached our objective; an occupied compound that British forces had used three times before and this boy was waiting.  Afghans often stand with an arm behind their back, or they walk up and down steep mountains in the same fashion.

Nearby compound with a possible IED at the corner.

Several sections occupy different compounds giving us better arcs for mutual fire support.

The opium had already been harvested and the poppy bulbs were hard and dry.  How many bulbs does it take to buy one bullet?  The drug dealers are getting rich, and so a strong central government is a natural enemy.

As we occupy his home, this Afghan boy plays like he is killing us with a rifle and then wants to see his photo.

The man of the house says he is worried that on our fourth stay, the Taliban will think he is collaborating and will kill him.  Asked if he will vote, he says no, and that nobody in this area will vote because the Taliban will kill them.

Climbing around these compounds takes its toll.  One can only imagine how many bones are broken.  Often, the entrances of the compounds are laced with explosives, so the soldiers blow a “mouse hole” through a wall, or use ladders to scale, and so the enemy now places booby traps atop walls.  Again, some people will say it is a “security violation” to say that the enemy places bombs atop walls, as if the enemy doesn’t know that the enemy has placed bombs atop the walls.  People will say it’s a security violation to say that we use ladders to climb walls, when every day countless thousands of Afghans see us with ladders.  We’ve been fighting this war for nearly eight years.  The enemy knows we listen to radios, cell phones, and just about anything else we do.  It’s the people at home who do not know.  The enemy has learned our tactics and psychology.

Joseph Etchells had been killed nearby almost exactly a month ago, on 19 July.  “The Kopp-Etchells Effect” dispatch was written partially in Joe’s memory.  Several times, the events of Joseph’s loss were recounted to me, in clear hopes that important details would be told.  I said not to worry, it will be told.  The missing details were that soldiers had complained about not having enough ladders to scale walls to avoid dangerous compound entrances.  During a mission the soldiers needed to get over a wall but were without a ladder, and so Joseph Etchells volunteered to go through the entrance, where he stepped on a pressure plate.

The compound we occupied on election day was littered, partially with batteries.  Soldiers do not throw away old batteries, but collect them in boxes because the enemy digs through trash to collect batteries to make bombs, but just as often something like this is benign.

Afghans in this area typically live with their animals.

Many believe that the Pashtun people are one of the lost tribes of Israel.  If true, some Taliban might actually be descended from Jews, which would be one of the most severe ironies of humanity.  Some branches go off and earn Nobel Prizes and unravel the secrets of the universe while advancing humanity by leaps and bounds, while another turns malignant and doesn’t know how to build a road.

The FST (Fire Support Team) goes into position over-watching a road leading to Sangin.  The mission is to prevent any roving bands of Taliban from interrupting voters traveling to Sangin.

The family keeps two myna birds whose wings have been clipped, and the Hazra interpreter tells me the birds can talk.  I tell him that birds of similar appearance, also called myna, are sold in America.  “What if the bird says, ‘I love Mullah Omar.’” I asked the interpreter.  “Then we must shoot it!” he answered.

The heat increases and the soldiers wait.

The first customers arrive.  Maybe they are a probe.

The men are searched.  If others were planning to come down the road on this day, none do.

A radio call said there was an IED strike nearby, in the area of Patrol Base Wishtan, which would be on or in the area of Pharmacy Road (the subject of the latest dispatch “Bad Medicine.”)

Later we learned that two soldiers were killed at Wishtan: Sergeant Paul McAleese, 29, and Private Jonathan Young, who was 18.

According to the BBC:

They were killed while on a routine foot patrol near the town of Sangin, in Helmand province, on Thursday. Their families have been informed.

Their deaths bring the total number in Afghanistan since 2001 to 206.

Lt Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "It is with deep regret that we report the deaths of two soldiers in Helmand Province.

"Our deepest heartfelt thoughts and sympathies go out to the bereaved family, friends and comrades of these brave soldiers."

The MoD said the deaths were not connected to Thursday's presidential elections in Afghanistan.

Every mission here on the 20th was connected to the elections.  The idea that the losses were not connected to the elections seems off, not that it would make a difference to the fallen.  Yet the slights and spins, often for no apparent reason (even if not the case here), undermines the messengers.

There would be much fighting around Afghanistan this day.

Men were watching us and roving around at a distance of about 900 meters.  Sniper Keiran Jones is told to fire a warning shot.

Fighting was kicking up in the distance, and FOB Inkerman was starting to get attacked.  Out in Sangin the fighting would last all day.

Rifleman Keiran Jones keeps his eye on the target while rolling the foam earplugs.  The man watching us is wearing a white dishdasha and a white turban.

BAM!  Keiran Jones launches a bullet from the .338 rifle, which cracks just a few feet away from the “dicker.” (Watcher.)

Another FST member has already recorded coordinates for targets and is ready to start a fire mission using mortars or the 105mm howitzers.

Rifleman Keiran on the scope.  The snipers would fire about half a dozen times this day, and not all were warning shots.


BAM.  Dust fills the air and reflects off the morning sun.



BAM.  More dust.

The snipers are cleared to kill a man, the same one who has been watching us, as he peeks his turbaned head around a corner about 900m away.  The shot is difficult because Keiran is in a tough and painful position to shoot from.  I joke that they need to do “sniper yoga” and Jones replies with a chuckle, “No shit.  It’s a stress position.”  Both snipers stayed in positions that were agonizing for their legs and backs.  There were no good places to get a relaxed shot.

Keiran Jones aimed for the man’s head and BAM!  The supersonic bullet that could kill an elephant raced toward the target.

Keiran was very upset, thinking he may have missed, though others thought he might have hit the man.  The shot would have been an easy shot if Kerian were prone, but the muscle stress in the growing heat was adding up.

The snipers stayed for hours up in that sun, sometimes taking alternating breaks, but they were in competition to get the enemy.

Like dueling banjos.

I sat in between them for about 20-30 minutes and all three of us were aching from the positions, though my position was far easier and shaded by one of the snipers.

They stayed at it.

Jones, drenched in sweat, takes a micro-break.

Fighting continued in the distance over in Sangin.  We saw bombs drop and the mortars and howitzers were firing dozens and dozens of rounds, while the Apaches were hammering away with their cannons, and launching about 30 rockets through the day.

The compound and our soon-to-be ambush spot.

CPT Ed Addington keeps an eye out.  We could hear firefights but other than the snipers peeling off some shots, we were not in contact.

We were not trying to hide.  The Brits wanted everyone to know we were there.

A jet drops a bomb in the Green Zone.

Down inside the compound, soldiers began to try to compress themselves into any sliver of shade but the shade kept shrinking.  Though we had occupied the compound, soldiers respected the house by staying outside.

The dog looked thirsty but when I tried to give him water, he launched out like the Killer Rabbit on Monthy Python.  If not for the rope around his neck, there might have been a death match.  The dog seemed completely insane, as if he had been attending al Qaeda seminars.  The soldiers couldn’t believe that five minutes later, little Cujo was still viciously growling.  I slid the water close enough but by several hours later he still never took a sip.

Medic Nikole Cunningham goes into firefights in the middle of bomb-laced country.  Nikole said her family thinks she never goes on missions.

The family was long gone, but two boys came back and fed their grandfather (apparently) who was very old and stayed with us.

The plan was to stay all day, but we were told that by late afternoon, only 245 ballots were cast.  And so it was decided that we should head back before dark, which would make it easier for us to avoid IEDs, but more difficult to avoid ambushes from machine guns and RPGs.  No matter what you do. . . .

Everybody expected an ambush.  The enemy had had most of the day to cook up something.

Off we went, down the middle, taking chances with the machine guns, RPGs and other rockets, but avoiding the more likely IEDs for the first leg.

The Taliban is in complete and uncontested control of the nearby power station.  We don’t even have enough soldiers to take and hold the power station, and so the enemy controls the on/off switch, and they charge locals for power.  While we generate electricity up at Kajaki, the Taliban makes money off it.  It’s no wonder why the Taliban laugh at the idea of negotiating.

The thought went through my head, “If I were the enemy, I would ambush us right. . . . ”  ZIP, SNAP, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!

Their machine-gun fire was accurate and we all dove to the ground.

ZIPT!  SNAP SNAP! Some bullets hit between this soldier and me.

There’s Snowy, who had cleaned his weapon with surgical care.  He had wiped down every bullet and every millimeter of the magazines.  His weapon was working just fine.  For now.

Sapper Cameron Baldry starts to get up, and I think, “Why is he getting up?” Bullets were snapping by.

The soldiers often complain that when they hit the dirt, some of the bulky radio frequency gear they carry gets in the way of their helmets.  When soldiers are down in the dirt they cannot aim their weapons because their faces are stuck in the ground.  So Baldry rolled into a sitting position to return fire.

Meanwhile behind me, Snowy’s weapon began to malfunction.

I was making video when a soldier fired a Javelin missile which impacted close to the nearest compound.

This is where untrained fighters usually crack and run away in a jumble.  British soldiers, however, are well-trained.  While some provided covering fire, others peeled off in an organized fashion.

At this point another Javelin was launched and can barely be seen in this photo.

Impact: I’d never seen a Javelin explode like that.  Usually they are like gigantic hand grenades, but this one looked like a bomb from a jet.

What in the world did he hit?

A fireball gathered and left a mushroom cloud.

None of us knew what had been hit, but of course there was speculation that the Javelin had found ammunition or bomb-making material.  Maybe a tractor, I thought.

We went to a nearby compound that was empty and I stayed low near the front thinking this was the real ambush and that a cluster of bombs was about to kill half of us.

A soldier dropped his pants to see where he had been hit.  Apparently a bullet had sent a rock into his thigh.  The fire truly was accurate.  We truly were lucky that several of us did not get hit.  Meanwhile, other soldiers were checking ammo levels and doing redistribution as needed.  After every firefight, the Brits (and Americans) check for wounds, redistribute ammo, and check critical gear.  Two or three British soldiers asked if I was okay.  Meanwhile, leaders would consult maps, develop SA and figure out what they wanted to do next.  It cannot be stressed enough to check your buddies for wounds.  Soldiers have often died because in the adrenaline rush and cascade of survival juices, or sometimes simply because they are still fighting, troops don’t realize they are badly wounded, and so they bleed out and die.

Being just a writer, it’s not my domain to intrude, but after every drama I closely watch their uniforms and hands for blood.  All the soldiers are well trained, but some are still just teenagers and so you start to feel responsible for the younger ones, especially.

'Did you see those bullets hitting between us!?'

Sapper Cameron Baldry, a twenty-three-year-old soldier from 2 Troop, 11 Field SQN of the 38 Engineer Regiment, pointed at me exclaiming something like, “Did you see those bullets hitting between us!  They were striking right between us!”  I chuckled, saying yes, it was close, and those guys are good shots but we got lucky.  Baldry’s antenna had been shot off but he didn’t get shot.

We headed back to FOB Inkerman, avoiding many markers for potential IEDs.

Aircraft could still be heard, and there was fighting in the distance.



Fighting continues to our left, but it’s in the far distance.  To our right about a thousand meters away someone is using a signal mirror, probably tracking our movements.

The heat and the weight cause some soldiers to pause, and finally we are back on base and somehow got away with no fatalities or even injuries.

There is no telling how much ammo was fired by 2 Rifles elements in Sangin, Wishtan and elsewhere, but the soldiers from Inkerman fired at least 1,100 rounds of 5.56 (rifle and link), 800x 7.62mm, 3x Javelin, 133x 81mm mortar, 172x 105mm howitzer.  The Apaches fired about 500x 30mm, 28x flechette rockets and a Hellfire.  Someone dropped 2x 500lb bombs and a British Tornado strafed, while American A-10s and Belgian F-16s also joined up.

Too much was going on to keep up, and in fact the base had been hit while we’d been gone, destroying someone’s sleeping space.  Soldiers on base had identified at least one firing point and kept eyes on, and we got back just about the time I saw John Loughday and Simon Wagstaff trying to kill someone with a Javelin as the enemy occupied a firing position with what soldiers identified as a B10 rocket laucher.  The first Javelin failed, and so they grabbed another and launched.  With six seconds of flight time to that target, the single enemy saw the messenger coming his way.  Instead of praying he made a run and I heard the explosion.  The men radioed down from the tower, “Hello Two Zero this is crow’s nest.  Good strike one enemy dead.”

The day kept going but a man can only record so much.  My sat-gear was broken and so there was no way to file a detailed account of the election day, which in this area was a failure.

The next morning, on the 21st, ten men showed up to the FOB to talk about the generator that he said had been hit by the Javelin missle during the ambush yesterday.  The soldiers had previously been to his compound and confirmed that he had a nice generator, which now apparently was the victim of a Javelin missile and had gone out as a fiery mushroom cloud.  As a heat source, it would have stood out as a nice target to lock the Javelin onto.  As a side note, the man said they had gone to Sangin to vote and had voted for Karzai.  Yet we had watched his compound all day and nobody had left it to travel to Sangin.  Furthermore, three days later, I was present when the same platoon occupied a compound of the man wearing blue (above).  On the 24th, he said he had not voted.  We occupied his compound on the 24th because British soldiers thought it was being used by the enemy.  Yet here he is on base on the 21st, part of the party asking for money for the blown-up generator.  On the 24th he said he didn’t know any Taliban and had only been here for a month.  He spontaneously said he knows that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, but when asked, did not know who Michael Jackson was.  On the 21st he was on base, while on the 24th I sat with him for about an hour while we waited for the enemy to square off for a fight.  (And there came another firefight.)

On the 21st, the elder said the generator cost about 70,000 Afghanis, or about $1,400, but the most that could be paid from this base was $300.  The inanity of it all is difficult to fathom in one sitting.  We were taking machine-gun fire, apparently from his compound or that area, but he had no information about the Taliban.  Probably because he is Taliban.  We blew up his generator and now he wanted to get paid.

Later the evening of the 21st, soldiers held a ceremony for recently lost comrades and the next day they were right back out there in combat.

On the 22nd there was business as usual.  A patrol was out on the road and a man was driving toward them on a motorcycle.  The daylight was fading and a warning shot was fired but the man kept coming so a soldier went lethal and shot to kill, grazing the man’s arm.   The man didn’t realize at first that he had been shot, or where it had come from.

Dr. Shaya and crew treat another gunshot wound on FOB Inkerman.

As with young American soldiers, nobody seems to believe that a man cannot hear a warning shot while he’s riding his motorcyle, or that he can’t see soldiers wearing camouflage during the last rays of daylight.  Despite being in countless firefights wherein we often have great difficulty identifying firing positions (such as two days earlier when machine guns were nearly hitting us), many young soldiers think that firing a warning shot is enough.  We all know that snipers who are in hiding fire only one shot to avoid conveying their firing position.  Warning shots mean nothing to an old man who needs glasses, who is riding a motorcyle at twilight in an area where gunshots are more common than frogs.  So a small piece of flesh was stripped from his arm and the man got off light.

The world kept turning and on the 24th “Bad Medicine” was published just after midnight Eastern Standard Time, and that morning before sunrise the soldiers were going on a dangerous mission and I went along.  The result was a firefight and much mortar and cannon fire using prox fuses, delay and airbursts into the enemy position.  Though we had information that the enemy was trying to get us with IEDs, we escaped getting blown to pieces.  When I got back to base, there was a message from British MoD that my embed had been canceled (about one month before we had agreed it would end) without warning.  The message and timing were clear enough.  “Bad Medicine” was published, and I was out.  The soldiers at 2 Rifles were astonished.  The MoD gave the reason that it was unfair to the journalists who were clamoring for spots, but my sense was that MoD had created a convenient excuse that was kept in the chamber, and now they had pulled the trigger.

I responded to the MoD:

Thank you for the message.

The precipitous decision by the MoD to cancel my embed after today's dispatch is unfortunate.

The sudden reversal after today's dispatch -- apparently a publication that did not sit well with the MoD -- will cause me significant headaches.  As you know, there are many balls in the air, and the MoD has effectively shoved me out of the way.

Please forward to Ltc Richardson that the message was received.


And so that was it.  My last day with the British 2 Rifles had ended the same as it had ended in Iraq.  In combat.  I’ll miss the British soldiers.  They constitute a truly professional force–if dangerously underresourced.  It has been my honor to accompany them in combat.  In theory I would do so again anytime, but in practice this will be the last time MoD will have a chance to cut me off in mid-flight, wasting much time and resources that should have been devoted to telling the story.  Barring a guarantee from a British General Officer that something like this will never happen again, my days of covering British operations are over.

On Sunday morning, 30 August, the United States Air Force “Pedros” took me on three missions.  Please stand by.  This is very interesting.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Blackwater · 12 years ago
    Treating and releasing the people that kill and wound your comrades must drive the coalition soldiers there insane. That needs to stop immediately. I bet the islamist taliban and al queda are somewhat dreading the day when coalition forces eventually leave since I doubt the Afghan military would show them similar levels of mercy.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lance R. Peak · 12 years ago
    "American Army helicopters in Afghanistan fly with the red cross on the side. Flying with that symbol makes it illegal for our people to carry weapons."

    Is this a theater specific guideline?

    I am a former USAF Master Instructor and taught course sections on the Geneva Conventions and how they affect medical personnel for the Medical Red Flag course at Sheppard AFB, TX. The interpretation of the Geneva Conventions we instructed stated that US Forces medical personnel were allowed to carry small arms in order to defend themselves and their patients from hostile actions. While a medic could not legally use their weapon in an offensive manner while wearing the Red Cross, it was in no way illegal for them or their vehicles to carry weapons (rifles or pistols only) for protection.

    A combat medic usually gives up their right for protection under the GC because they do not wear the Red Cross into the field for the "aim point" reason you mention. We even had an official DoD level text with the quote "The best medicine in a combat situation is application of overwhelming firepower" directed at combat medics. However medics wearing the Red Cross are not restricted from carrying weapons, they are only restricted in type of weapon and when they are allowed to use it. (Again, unless something has changed since my separation from Active Duty but that was definitely the ruling when I was instructing.)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AAnderson · 12 years ago
    The comment has to do with weapons that can lay down supressing fire when used by the door gunners, whether M60s, M240s, or mini-guns. For example, if a ground ambulance (wheeled or tracked) had a turret, it would be against the Geneva Conventions to put a M2 .50 cal in it if it had the red cross panels open.

    Michael, keep your head down. Those of us REMFs & freon junkies rely on your reports for SA would hate to lose a voice of sanity & realism amongst the blathering from the 5-sided puzzle palace & the alleged 'journalists' filing from afar.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David M · 12 years ago
    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/ 1/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

    http://www.thunderrun.us/2009/08/from-front-08 12009.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doc Watson · 12 years ago
    In my opinion, your best work to date. I can't quite explain it but as the value and strength of your work becomes more evident I become less concerned for your safety. It's as if the significance of your "art" has transcended your physical presence. That's not to say I don't want you to be safe and continue for another 50 years, but I have more of a sense of peace about your working in such a hazardous environment. Probably not making much sense as my head spins from this last dispatch. It's just a GREAT piece of work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graeme · 12 years ago
    Sad to hear this will be the last time you embed with the Brittish Michael. I love your reporting. I am about to start my basic training with the British army. Good luck with your future missions.
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    Vanessa · 12 years ago
    I sent a email to MOD letting them know what I think of how they treated you and by extension 2 rifles.
    I am always amazed at how "weasels" always manage to gain power, the same in our US government.
    It seems the lot of them a good 99% need to be run out of government and start over.

    Great dispatch your photos bring it all to life. G*d Bless all our troops fighting the good fight. G*d bless you Mr Yon for telling their stories.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    6x6x4 · 12 years ago
    Based on your articles these Brits clearly do not have the manpower or resources to win or even reach a credible stalemate. For one thing, their situation cries out for UAV coverage.

    So why are they out there? Is this some kind of "show the flag" bull? Some political demonstration?

    Because if I was a Brit reading this, I'd be mad as hell!

    As for choppers and red crosses ... our medevacs in South Vietnam were flown by the 4 6th Medical Detachment out of Danang. Their Hueys wore red crosses in small white fields and their crews (if memory serves) carried only sidearms, if that. They were never on the ground long enough for me to look. In hot LZs their skids sometimes did not touch, especially if the LZ was a flooded rice paddy.

    We sometimes treated people we believed to be Viet Cong wounded, but the NVA we encountered had their own medical personnel. And the Vietnamese often asked for compensation for real and imagined damage ... sometimes inflicted by the VC or NVA.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Webster · 12 years ago
    Mike, long time no talk. Good to see you are still in the shit, but my worries for your safety are growing each day you are in Afghanistan. The Brits lost a very good and accurate reporter of their fight. I look forward to your reports with our guys. And for God's sake, keep your head down. (like you need to be reminded)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Acers · 12 years ago
    I've found your reporting to be the witness my teenage children need from time to time of this war. I shared this report with them. They don't have to read everything, just follow the report through the pictures....Helps us stay diligent and focused in our prayers, and humbled in heart.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Papa Ray · 12 years ago
    Ive suggested to Michael many times to remember that he is not bullet proof. I think that sometimes he tends to forget that. But that is the mark of great men be they warriors, writers or just average joes that have to do what they must to survive.

    I used that same warning about being bullet proof to another great writer, Steven Vincent, a few years ago. To our great sorrow and anger he was murdered in Basra in 05. A great loss to the world and to his loving wife and also to his long time translator, Nour al-Khal who was wounded but survived.

    Afghanistan will take many more of our young, our strong, our warriors and our writers. It has consumed millions over the decades and will consume many, many more in its quest to become part of the modern world.

    Many say Afghanistan will always be five hundred years behind the rest of the world.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas · 12 years ago
    In for $50 via Paypal.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barry Sheridan · 12 years ago
    You have taken some mighty big personal risks to supply interested Briton's with some honest idea about what is happening to our soldiers in Helmand. I am glad you have survived these dangers intact, which is of course a better fate than that levied on others. This conveys the feeling that to me we are losing far too many good people because this nation is not supplying them with what will make a difference.

    The short answer to this, when it comes down to it is that is we no longer produce and elect capable leaders who get into positions of genuine authority where they can do some good. Of course some talented individuals do make it, but unfortunately many appointments end up going to people without the necessary ability to carry out the necessary duties. This maybe because they are weak, ignorant or perhaps just ill served by those tasked with supplying briefs on which proper judgement can be made. These fundamental failings run throughout our political classes, their supporting civil servants (bureaucrats) and even to some extent our military leaders.

    The sense of outrage that has grown within me listening to the utter nonsense some speak is almost unbearable, for example I saw one report recently that claimed we did not have enough hard standing to support more helicopters. This blatant rubbish, if true, is all too typical. Hard standing can be laid within a day, a suitable building to shield that aircraft within a week. If that is, there is a will. What is patently obvious even to me is that we need more airlift capacity, just as we need protected vehicles, armoured bulldozers and anything else that will help (UAV's). The discussion should be about getting it, not making endless excuses that lead nowhere.

    The latter comment of course tends to reveal all, for much of modern Britain is consumed with talking about how and why they cannot do this or that. Assuming that is the people responsible talk about it at all, for as you know most of the political class here spend their time engaging in cheap point scoring. Attitudes that leave little time to think in terms of what we can do.

    Knowing this makes your experiences all the richer, for you have been privileged to work with some of the best of this old land. We still produce plenty who are the match of any, alas too few of these chose politics and even fewer gain real authority, which says much about our corrupt political system and the sentiment of the electorate. I am indebted to you for reminding me via the sacrifice of our service men and women of how we used to be in better times.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nate B, USA · 12 years ago
    Thank you for one of the most compelling and informative reports that I have read to date regarding the mission in Afghanistan. Well done.
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    PhilM · 12 years ago
    Many thanks, Michael. The clarity and exposure you are providing for our troops from all freedom-loving countries. The pernicious undermining by and of their leadership is at the least, disheartening. That common folks are standing up against the socialist elites in their leadership gives me hope that Western Civilization will survive. If not, them Afghanistan could well be its repository as the light of freedom is dimmed once more.

    Stay safe, stay strong, and God bless you and your friends, our men-at-arms.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Louise Platt · 12 years ago
    Thank you so much Micheal - my sons at Inkerman and I can see him clearly in one of your photos - made me smile, even though my son looks shattered...I think you are amazing and doing a fantastic job - now (after the excitement) I can sit down and read it.... bless you xx stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pave Low John · 12 years ago
    Here's what Gates thinks of the "Pedros" and all the capabilities they possess. Not exactly the 'vote of confidence' the Jolly Green community was looking for from the new boss....


    And in case you're wondering why there is a helicopter shortage, I can give you one small piece of the puzzle. USSOCOM closed all the MH-5 J/M (aka the Pave Low) squadrons under Gen. Doug Brown's reign of terror at that organization (200 -2007). Why did Brown hate Air Force helicopters? Why, he used to be the regimental commander for the 160th SOAR, a fine organization by all means, but prone to intense spasm of parochialism and turf wars, especially with the Air Force.

    So with 40 heavy-lift special operations helicopters retired (and all the crews scattered to the four winds), and the 160th handcuffed to JSOC, what is the next move for U.S. rotary wing operations? The above link to Gates and the CSAR-X gives a good clue (ie. get rid of Air Force Rescue and farm it out to whoever happens to be nearby). The U.S. Army is still having problems fielding an OH-58 replacement (RIP Comanche), especially with something suited for Afghanistan. With only one production line for CH- and MH-47s in Philly, good luck producing more of those anytime soon. The Navy has some great crews and aircraft (HH-60Hs do some great work, kudos to the 'Firehawks') but they don't have nearly the assets to make a big difference. The Marines have bet the farm on the MV-22. So has AFSOC (with the CV-22). Currently, the tilt-rotor is impressing very few people here at Hurlburt Field (home of Air Force Special Operations Command), so I foresee a lot more heartache and frustration for units like 2 Rifles, that are doing an outstanding job (keep up the good work, Tommy!) but aren't 'high-speed' enough to have their own rotary wing assets (gotta be a Special Mission Unit for that level of support).

    Helicopters aren't sexy. They're slow, ugly and a pain in the ass to maintain. So of course, the Air Force loathes helicopters and the crews that fly and fix them. They aren't F-22s or F- 5s or even C-1 0s, for that matter. We've always been the red-headed stepchild in the Air Force and it doesn't get much better in the other branches of the DoD. Every helicopter pilot, no matter where they are or what branch they fly for, knows the feeling I'm talking about - risking your life, year after year, only to be told "Hey, you're not that special, so don't even think about asking for newer helicopters or more personnel". It's all part of the job but that doesn't make it any easier to take sometimes.

    So here we are, coming up on the 8 year anniversary of 9/11. We actually have less rotary wings assets now than when the WTC and Pentagon got hit, it's one of those little secrets in the DoD that is easy to prove (just count the number of helicopters, nothing to it) but hard to justify (closing the Pave Low squadrons and getting rid of 25 years of corporate knowledge is akin to that old metaphor about works of art - it takes an artistic genius a decade to create a statue, but it only takes an idiot with a hammer seconds to destroy it).

    Who pays the price for that kind of neglect and poor planning? Sadly, it is units like 2 Rifles that pay the price. God bless them and all the other frontline units like them and save them from the foolishness of their leadership...

    Pave Low John
    AFSOC helo guy since 1995

    P.S. This was posted in memory of Lt Col Wendell Lee Collins, Pave Low pilot and ROTC instructor, who is being buried today following a tragic civilian aircraft crash last week in Louisiana. Lee was an awesome pilot, a terrific husband and father and one of the best human beings I've ever known. I'll really miss him. Blue Skies Forever....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Christin Helander · 12 years ago
    Could only do $ 0 this month but want you to get to the Marines so I can get a glimpse of what my son is up to...
    Mom to Graham
  • This commment is unpublished.
    81Alpha · 12 years ago
    I note you constantly describe the problem of fertiliser bombs made from various inorganic fertilisers.
    Here in Australia and I'm sure elsewhere there is much use of organic (animal manure, seaweed etc) fertilisers.
    The Afghans could ban inorganics (hell I'm starting to sound like a hippie) and replace them with manure derivatives.
    You cannot use these in fert. bombs and as an aside they enrich the soil, which by the look of it would be an added bonus.
    Manure based ferts are also cheap.
    It may be a solution to that particular problem.
    Take care mate.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Aaron A. · 12 years ago
    Thanks for doing what you do Michael. As always, outstanding. Keep your head down. And... HOOYAH Pedro!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff · 12 years ago
    Thanks for your reporting of the British involvement. I was based out of FOB Tombstone and worked with the British on several occasions. I have the utmost respect for them. You do an outstanding job of conveying their morale and mission execution. Keep up the good work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Isaac · 12 years ago
    Best dispatch since Arrowhead Ripper.
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    DonK · 12 years ago
    It's not much (4 kids in college) but I hope the donation from a fellow journalist helps. You do us proud!

    But after reading your dispatch and admiring the brave men and women who are doing heroic work in Afghanistan, I really have to wonder what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish. I think a lot of Americans are wondering the same thing.

    Establishing a democracy will never happen. Afghanistan is like the land that time forgot. There appears to be little in the way of effective centralized government, and no likelihood that one will be established any time soon.

    The Bush administration had the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein in Iraq and trying to build at least the basis of a democracy. It took several years and a doubling-down (the surge) to get to a point where that might become possible. In Afghanistan, we would appear to have little hope of eliminating the Taliban other than on a one-by-one (well, maybe two or three at a time) basis.

    There is talk that the Obamans want out, despite the fact that Obama has followed the Dem line that this was the "right" war. I think many Americans are reaching the point of wondering what we hope to accomplish -- and have the feeling that Obama and his merry men have no clue.

    I would be grateful for your perspective. Stay safe,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mika. · 12 years ago
    Seems to me, Mike, that for all your observation(s), you've missed the most important observation to be made. And that observation is that this war is a fake war. Everything about this "war" practically screams this. I'm sorry, but until you tackle this issue, you've really have not been doing your job. Unless, your job is that of a mindless idiot (and I mean idiot in classical sense of not wanting to know) propagandist for the military industry and its graft on the public purse.
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    NC · 12 years ago

    I've been following your dispatches for a few years now but have never commented. I have to say this one takes the cake. It's a shame your embed was cut short.

    Have you spent any time with the Australians out there? It would be great to see what they are doing!

    Keep up the great work and stay safe!

    P.S. Money coming your way
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SPC · 12 years ago

    Just a thought real quick. I would recommend not having things such as call signs or other sensitive information like that out on the web. If the Taliban were to see this and connect the dots it is possible they could cause some major damage. Stay safe
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephanie M. · 12 years ago
    I just wanted to thank you for not only reporting on this, but living and breathing one of the harshest parts of military life. I was deployed to Afghan in 2008 and played a part in Op Oqab Tsuka, though I was lucky enough to be able to do my job from the comforts of a base in Kabul. It's great to see such personal visuals of areas I supported. I spent a majority of my deployment working with and spending leisure time with British men and women. Im am closer to some of them now, a year later, than many of my local friends (Im American). I wish you could have continued with this but hey, you know how The Man works (or better yet, doesn't!). I plan on saving this photo essay to reread in the future. I have recently started schooling to become a nurse in hopes to return to the military to work in the capacity that Dr. Shaya has been. This will be good re-motivator for me when times get tough. Again, thank you very much!
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    Mary · 12 years ago
    It is insane to patrol back and forth and back and forth and be picked off day after day after day. We have forgotten our own country's history! The enemy hasn't. If we are to use our numbers as a strength, we need to flood into small sites where the infrastructure is being built and rebuilt by our Army Corps of Enginneers along with local workers (electric plants, dams, etc. which should be our ONLY form of "restitution" and financial aid) and slowly spread out from there, leaving enough troops to secure those sites until the end. Think of a force entering a small village with engineers and hiring local workers to dig wells and set up wind combines and solar panels and, accepting the village's hospitality, staying to secure those new benefits until jihadists see that their desparation is a poor choice. Now, that would be a different kind of war.
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    William Mann · 12 years ago
    Michael - Fantastic reporting as ever - I'd put you up with Michael Herr. I'm disappointed to hear of the MoD's position, but not unsurprised, as I have seen from a point about reporting a glum situation. Thank you for telling us the truth... I only wish more people could hear about it. - A former soldier.
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    CC · 12 years ago
    shouldn't be posting the marked google maps.
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    Jill · 12 years ago
    Thanks for the great reporting..it was really interesting and informative. I wish you and all your buddies a safe return home.
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    Road Builder · 12 years ago
    Click a camera. Take a Picture. Can you Build that Camera? probably not. Drive on a road. Look at a road? Can you build that road? probably not. Any man who leans upon his own understanding is a fool. Take it easy. Nice Pictures. Sniper Yoga is probably a damn good idea. Peace in the Mideast. Peace in your heart. Peace on Earth.
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    News Shooter · 12 years ago
    Folks, I know we all want to be a part of things, and we all want to contribute, and be helpful. But Please. A little thought before posting comments.

    The enemy already KNOWS where the British troops are. So does every child and goat. Years-old Google Earth maps tell them much less than they already know.

    Also, the BRITISH there on the ground, the people he lives and eats with know what Michael is posting. Hello?

    Road Builder, Michael's point about building roads is clear, and, in my opinion, correct, and needs saying if we are to understand this war, and this culture.
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    KP · 12 years ago
    Wonderful work Micheal, the photos are stunning! Keep your head down!!

    A bit of a shakeup in the whole news 'handling' by the look of it-

    ""U.S. military authorities in Afghanistan have terminated a contract with a company that was producing profiles of reporters seeking to cover a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular with the American public.

    The media analysis work being done by The Rendon Group had become a "distraction to our main mission here," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communications for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said Monday in an e-mailed statement.

    Smith and other U.S. military officials have denied that the Rendon profiles were used to rate coverage by individual reporters as positive, negative or neutral or that the scores influenced decisions on whether a journalist would be embedded with a military unit... etc""
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    MM · 12 years ago

    Great work and great reporting. As a Brit, I'm truly sorry to hear that you wont be reporting on UK troops due to the fall out from the MoD. I can fully understand your position and they really have scored an own goal here. Sadly, they can be our own worst enemy some days. I and many colleagues have huge respect for you, value and look forward to your dispatches. All the very best for the future and keep up the great work.

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    monkeynuts · 12 years ago
    great story mate and thanks for spending a bit of time with us to tell the people back home how things are. Tiny innacuracy, turns out it was a bullet that went in my thigh not a rock (no difference at all really except it will sound a hole heap better when im spinning dits back home in the pub!!!!) chee s mate take care
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    Scott Dudley · 12 years ago
    Have just read your tweet with your plans. Having questioned whether or not it is a good idea twice before, I will simply believe you know what you are doing and wish you well.

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    A Person · 12 years ago
    Hey Pave Low John, maybe you should get over yourself. This article was discussing UK helicopter shortages so why the fuck do you sideline on and start talking about the shoddy state of affairs in the US air force? Oh, thats right, you're American and everything must revolve around your country.
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    derek · 12 years ago
    i am only halfway down the page and haven't looked at most responses, but that dog you met was most likely rabid. rabid animals fear water because the infection makes swallowing extremely painful (and of course they don't know why). you're lucky that you weren't bitten - the necessary series of shots might not have been in your base.

    yes, compelling, but your contempt at their lack of civilization and public works (like roads, sewage, electricity) should not be attributed to racial qualities. you seem to insinuate that afghan people are most likely descendants of weakest people of the now more civilized and industrious surrounding cultures. for example, you mentioned that the descendants of the Jews you observed being backward in afghanistan had found much more prosperity elsewhere. that's irresponsible in light of their scattered population centers and lack of vibrant agriculture. afghanistan certainly has shown a capacity for considerable agriculture, but it is much different from austria and switzerland. all three have probably had very similar difficulties in terms of road construction, but afghanistan's european counterparts have always had the ability to sustain the soil-taxing cereal crops necessary to maintain large population centers of people with a sedentary lifestyle. the afghans' ability to sustain enough cereal crops vanished with dessication. even if the afghans weren't planting poppies, they certainly could not reach the level of agriculture ideal for the intellectual and technological advances that modern civilizations and their sedentary peoples have utilized so well.

    you could argue that they had long since dessicated their lands and attribute that to their cultural or racial weaknesses...but the same dessication has happened in the less hostile mediterranean climates along the same latitude, and climate change has just as much to do with it as overfarming. afghanistan has been extremely unlucky - dessication occurred in n. africa, parts of the european mediterranean and areas outside the river valleys in the middle east long after modern civilizations had developed, but afghanistan's terrain, low starting agricultural capacity, and the resultant lack of population centers meant that the climatic and overfarming dessication made it barely inhabitable and unable to afford to become "modern."

    i don't want to get too much into paleontology because it isn't my strongest subject - but keep in mind that some of the first humans to enter the neolithic period (early agriculture and society) and certainly develop civilization (the sumerians), lived very close geographically to afghanistan and indeed settled there in considerable numbers. its peoples actually had a bit of a head start on civilization, but circumstances stunted its growth. the people of afghanistan are backwards because they are stuck on a landscape that barely provides sustenance - they surely didn't come in that way.

    i should mention that i would almost certainly have an even more contemptuous attitude towards them if i could see what you are seeing, because i don't think i have the temperance necessary to see them in a fair light in those surroundings. but i'm not in those surroundings, i am comfortably separated from them, and i hope you don't hold it against me.
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    derek · 12 years ago
    you certainly are putting your ass on the line and i appreciate it. you also have an excellent ability to write succinctly and let the pictures do the talking. stay safe and keep getting the truth out there - hopefully citizens and lawmakers in the u.s. and across the pond will take notice so more lives can be saved. your contributions are invaluable.
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    Colin · 12 years ago
    Just read your tweet about ending your embeds. I, like the rest of the M.Y. followers I'm sure, are pissed at the MoD/ DOD.. Give serious thought about coming home and doing a "Moment of Truth" sequel on what is happening in A-stan. You've been in the thick of things before, so must know what the risks are by going back to Helmand bare. The comms are slim/nonexistent and dispatches will be a huge problem. Damn....
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    Scott Dudley · 12 years ago
    What Pave Low John was saying is that the USAF rescue helos that save the lives of British soldiers need to be updated. In the massive rescue effort to save that one British soldier, there was no British involvement since there are limited, nay negligible British rescue helo assets. If you have anger issues, direct them at MOD. Otherwise, just be grateful that "Pedro" crews are willing to risk their lives to save anyone, regardless of nationality. Jeez
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    Pattie · 12 years ago
    Your photos in this dispatch are awesome! The close up shots say so much about the snipers and their task. You are re-defining the art of photo-journalism, not to mention that of war reporter. Kudos!!!
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    WCOG · 12 years ago
    I saw the post on Twitter about going it alone in Helmand.

    I know you probably aren't in the mood for advice or anything of that sort, but I feel like I need to ask you to reconsider whether this is such a great idea this time. You've been out there and seen how messed-up the place is. It won't help anyone if you get snatched up by one ACM group or another, Mr. Yon.

    There must be some armed westerners in Afghanistan who you can work with. If RC-SOUTH has been turned against you you could look at a different part of the country, or maybe work with a non-military group instead. Or just call it a tour and come home for a few months. Or go back to Iraq, whatever. Calling Helmand 'lawless' is an insult to anarchies everywhere; it doesn't seem like the kind of place you could just move about anymore.

    You know what you're doing, but you should stop to consider whether you would be doing it if things hadn't turned out the way they have in the last couple of days.
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    alison · 12 years ago
    Well I for one am very proud of the British there and hopeful about their mission and future successes. I don't have the clout that Yon does to convey stories about how we treat US soldiers in the Field Hospital there but Ill link it all the same (see comments)


    We, unlike other Nato contributors, stepped up to the plate. Even if this war being winnable no matter who is the biggest swinging dick out there and no matter the equipment, looks unlikely according to Yon.

    Sorry you feel that way about us and our chances out there Michael.
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    alison · 12 years ago
    I'm sorry - i didn't mean to put my blog in the subject title - misunderstood what that bit was!!
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    Don65 · 12 years ago
    Supporting your efforts to report it as you see it, as the troops you are with see it is an honor. Keep up the work ,but be safe, your voice is to valuable, your reports have to get out. I will support you with a donation, that is one way I can show my support and I will forward you links to to my mailing list here in the states. Thank you!
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    Evan · 12 years ago
    Michael, thanks for another revealing look on the ground at this war. This report paints a particularly dark assessment of Afghan's readiness for democracy and modernity (the sooner they embrace this, the sooner our troops can leave their country). The prognosis for Afghanistan seems really bleak. It seems to me Iraqis are more generally educated and had a semblance of government in the recent past but Afghans seem to live in the Stone Age and are not ready for what the west expect of it even if we kill more of the so-called "bad guys". Perhaps at some point you can do a comparison between Iraq's and Afghanistan's readiness for democracy, self-government and end of violence, as many people in the west don't seem to appreciate the difference these 2 theaters of war aside from geography.
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    Pave Low John · 12 years ago
    ...if a 'person' gets the wrong impression from my response. Hell, I was stationed at Ali Al-Saleem (fine location in Kuwait0 in 1998 with 27 Squadron (GR1 Tornados) and even gave them periodic PR (personnel recovery) briefings and updates, so I well aware of how vital the RAF, RN and RA truly are. When it comes to the lion's share of the airpower picture, though, the US has been doing a fairly shitty job of holding up our end of the bargain. Instead of buying the aircraft that could make a difference to our fellow NATO, and some not-quite-NATO units (the Pave Lows opened the Iraq War in 0 by launching a direct action with the Polish GROM, of all people), the USAF would rather sit there and whine about how much it needs the F-22 or F- 5 or whatever the gripe is this month instead of buying Chinook or Blackhawk or even Mi-17s, if it comes to that. Will this happen? Probably not. Units like 2 Rifles will complain, military leadership types will shake their heads and solemnly promise to "Do our best to support our brave men and women in the field", and not a fargin thing will get done. Except promotions, those always happen on time and to the 'right' people, funny how that works out.

    Okay, enough from me. 'Person' is right in one respect, this is about 2 Rifles. Everything else (including helos and anything else in the air) is all about supporting them and those like 'em. So, send money to Michael Yon, send your prayers to 2 Rifles and send a kick in the ass to the REMFs who are dragging their feet with just about every support issue they should have resolved by now.

    Keep up the good work Michael, I'll hit the jar on my way out...

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    Rich · 12 years ago
    Hi Michael,

    seems all countries have issues with the Truth eh...

    Stay safe with those crazy ass Air Force Guys lol...!!

    God Bless our British Heroes. God Bless our Heroes, God Bless you brother.

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