Michael's Dispatches39 Comments
- Published: Saturday, 06 September 2008 22:00
9 September 2008
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
When I was briefed on the top-secret mission before it was launched, I thought : “Good grief. I might have to report on the failure of one of the largest and most important missions of the entire war.”
After seven years, the war in Afghanistan has morphed from a breathtaking expedition of a handful of special operators—often on horseback—to a sort of lethal day-to-day business. Morale is high among American, Aussie, British and Canadian soldiers. Dozens of other nations are contributing to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, including the French, Italians and Estonians, but I have not seen enough of them to be able to judge their morale. The French recently lost ten soldiers in a Taliban ambush, and many in that country are talking about pulling out, although President Nicolas Sarkozy is standing firm. Other countries, like Germany, have strict rules of engagement that essentially preclude them from joining in combat. The Poles and Danes are strong allies and good soldiers, as they were in Iraq. Yet the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban is done by the Anglosphere (U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia), and, of course, the Afghans.
Among the English-speaking troops, there seems to be a sense of mission. American and British officers with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere—leaders whose opinions I greatly value—do not think we are losing here in Afghanistan. Yes, they will acknowledge that the situation is deteriorating, but they still believe we are making progress. And it’s hard to disagree with them (though I do), given the blow that ISAF forces just delivered to the Taliban.
Operation “Oqab Tsuka”
The top-secret mission was to deliver a new turbine to the Kajaki Dam. The second-largest hydro-electric dam in Afghanistan, Kajaki is designed to operate three turbines, and was originally built with American money in 1953 to provide electricity to Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. But that was another era of the Great Game. Only two out of three turbines were installed, and they fell apart when the Soviet Union pulled out from Afghanistan in 1989.
Since the American-led invasion in 2001, only one turbine was working. The mission’s goal was to drag a second turbine up treacherous roads, and put it online. The operation was of a magnitude large enough to warrant its own name: Operation Oqab Tsuka: Pashto for “Eagle’s Summit.” Some of the younger soldiers, when they heard about the plan to drive a giant convoy straight through Taliban territory, had another name for it: “Operation Suicide.”
In an increasingly successful attempt to discredit the Afghan government and the ISAF, enemy forces have been attacking infrastructure including bridges, power, communications, and dams.
Far up road 611 in Helmand Province, there has been much fighting at Kajaki. If another turbine could be brought online, and power lines stretched from generator to consumer, wide swaths of the population would have electricity. This would not only help the Afghan people, but also support the government, and spur the economy. It was estimated that the new turbine could eventually double the amount of irrigation available to local farmers, allowing them to plant two wheat harvests per year. With wheat prices on the rise, wheat might become more profitable than opium. Helmand Province grows more opium poppies than any other place on Earth. And much of the proceeds go—directly or indirectly, voluntarily or by force—to fund the Taliban.
Even without enemy opposition, hauling the turbine assembly to Kajaki would be expensive and physically challenging. The turbine components were sitting in Kandahar Airfield (KAF), a sprawling ISAF base in the middle of a Taliban stronghold. KAF is home to increasing numbers of foreign troops: American, Aussie, British, Canadian, Danish, French, Italian, Slovakian and others. Transport and combat aircraft from all over the world use the airfield. Harrier jets frequently are launched in support of combat operations, while unmanned Predators buzz off into the night, loaded with sensors and hellfire missiles. Apaches, Kiowas, Hueys, and Blackhawks, as well as Russian-made and French aircraft, trundle down the runway.
The components of the Chinese-built turbine were brought in by an AN-124 Russian transport, operated by a private company. But the turbine cargo was far too heavy to lift by helicopter for the final 100 miles of the journey. There were no runways for fixed-wing aircraft at Kajaki. So the turbine and other critical parts would have to be hauled from KAF to Kajaki by land.
U.S. General Dan McNeill, the top commander in Afghanistan, wanted a combat-experienced group to plan and execute the mission, so he chose the commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who said, “We will take that turbine to Kajaki.”
Several British officers, including Major Howard-Harwood, stressed to me that this was not a “British” operation. Yes, it was led by British troops, but USAID (American taxpayers) paid for the parts, installation, and much more. U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and others would help ensure the convoy made it through. I was briefed on the SOF operations, but will make no comment other than to say that their contribution would be dangerous and essential to success. Afghan, Canadian, Australian and Danish troops also played very important roles. American and British air would provide most of the air cover. The British 3 Para and 2 Para would conduct treacherous and critical combat operations to take pressure off the convoy.
During the many weeks that the complex convoy took to plan and assemble, potential routes were meticulously reconnoitered. Combat leaders checked vulnerabilities and choke points, while engineers assessed roads and bridges. The route chosen was in poor shape to support the convoy, so a team of combat engineers would build and shore up roads just ahead of the convoy, possibly while under enemy attack. There were obstacles to blast, wadis to fill, and bridges to test before the key vehicles rumbled in. As in Iraq, the combat engineers working in Afghanistan are one of those quiet groups of essential personnel, without whom the war would fail. I’ve never seen them properly credited for the work they do or the sacrifices they make.
The convoy of about 200 vehicles included seven absolutely critical trailers, along with an eighth trailer that was not absolutely critical, just extremely important. That trailer contained an 80-ton crane for lifting the other seven parts off their trailers. If the crane were destroyed, the engineers could make a work-around using “Foden” trucks but that would be fraught with risks and cost precious time.
The loss of any one of the seven critical trailers would constitute mission failure. A second mission of equal magnitude could be attempted, but it would probably have to wait until spring. This mission was one of the largest logistics operations during the entire war and certainly one of the most important civil affairs efforts. Although it was top secret at the time, news of mission failure would quickly spread. In terms of propaganda value, failure would be a major victory for the enemy.
Of the seven critical trailers, four contained transformers, two held stators, and the last one carried the upper bracket assembly, which itself weighed about 15 metric tons. The smallest transformer weighed about 25 metric tons, and the other three about 29 tons each. These would be driven along bumpy roads replete with beautiful ambush opportunities for the enemy. I asked a British mechanical engineer, Major Mark Howard-Harwood, just how he thought they could pull this off. Even without the imminent threat of ambush by every means imaginable, the route itself could easily tip the scales in favor of Murphy’s Law. If any of the four transformers were destroyed, they could be easily replaced, but delivery would require a separate mission. Yet if one of the two custom-made stators were destroyed, there would be a two-year delay before a replacement could arrive.
Major Howard-Harwood went on to explain some of the other challenges facing the convoy. The transformers were filled with oil, but there were no baffles, so even in the smaller of the four transformers, some 7.5 tons of oil would slosh around. The moment a transformer was hoisted, the center of gravity could change quickly and dramatically. Taking these sloshing loads up treacherous, unpaved roads would be difficult and risky. In favor of success, the army transport vehicles are made for hauling heavy loads, like tanks, so the trailers have sophisticated self-balance systems to smooth the ride. The roads were so rough that the convoy brought 84 spare tires. (If the mission failed, likely it would not be due to lack of a spare tire.) Major Howard-Harwood put his mechanical engineering skills to work, designing stabilization frames, which two British soldiers, metalsmiths CPL Houghton and SSG Tindall, then built. Houghton and Tindall also designed and built metal enclosures that would protect the precious parts from small-arms fire, adding at least some protection against IEDs, although one direct bomb strike on one of the seven critical trailers would likely doom the mission.The enemy is plenty smart enough to wait for the heavy cargo before detonating one of its bombs, so the PsyOps folks designed what they thought might be a prophylactic: Koranic verses written on the trailers holding the precious cargo, in hopes that the enemy would not attack the words of the Prophet. Some soldiers sneered at the idea, but I thought it was smart. Iraqis had told me that Saddam put “Allah u Akbar” on the Iraqi flag so people would stop desecrating it. And besides, the cost of the signs was almost nothing, while the mission was of great strategic importance.
The convoy would be self-sufficient for a ten-day mission. With British helicopter assets already stretched far beyond anything that could be termed acceptable, resupply would cut into operations elsewhere. In other words, they would have to get by with what they had.
Many of the villages along the route are under Taliban influence or complete Taliban control. CPT Jim Crompton, Brigade Media Ops, told me that “lots and lots of foreign fighters” had flooded into the area.
The enemy could see them coming from literally a hundred miles away. About half of the convoy would launch from Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, while the critical trailers would leave from KAF. The convoy from Camp Bastion would head east, while the convoy from KAF would drive west, where they would link-up at Maywand, and head north.
The route is like an inverted T. It was believed that the enemy would think the convoy would head up the obvious route, HWY 611, and straight to the Kajaki Dam. To help nurture this misconception, the British would launch deception operations up 611, and also launch attacks on known enemy strongholds.
In the early morning of 28 August 2008, the convoy from KAF, with the eight vital trailers, began streaming out. The convoy was led by Canadians who would clear the route and fight through any resistance. I wondered which of the Canadian vehicles might be left in flaming shreds, veiled in the pitch-colored smoke, thick with the heavy smell of burning fuel, and the popping and booms of exploding ammunition. On the ground, the sights and smells would be horrific, and often these scenes play out with soldiers trapped in burning wreckage while comrades are under direct fire trying to save the wounded. On the video feed from the Predator UAV above, the scene would be black and white, flames flickering, images of soldiers running around, hot smoke glowing as it floats away in the darkness, where brave Canadians might perish. Everybody here knew the perils.
The convoy left in about four distinct parcels. Large convoys are difficult to control; they have a tendency to stretch out and bunch together like a “slinky,” especially when driving without lights on treacherous roads. The convoy commander will attempt to maintain a constant speed, attempting to mitigate the slinky effect that can leave vehicles sitting still and vulnerable to ambush. Dozen after dozen British and Canadian vehicles streamed out, most of them heavily armed. Some of the vehicles played loud music while still on base. Soldiers checked and re-checked comms, electronic warfare devices, and untold numbers of other systems. A Predator launched in the darkness. A British officer said he knew it was a Predator by the flashing lights, while most other aircraft are blacked out.
As the last of the Canadian security vehicles left the marshalling area at KAF, I gave a thumbs-up to a Canadian soldier manning a big gun. He saw me, and gave a thumbs up, and that was it. They rumbled away into the dusty darkness.
As the convoy drove away, I prepared for a flight back to Camp Bastion, where I would get on a helicopter to a tiny, dusty FOB called “Gibraltar,” which was surrounded by Taliban. (More on that in the next dispatch.) Meanwhile, every day I asked about the fate of the Kajaki convoy, hopeful that it would succeed in its mission, and have no casualties.
Some excellent British combat photographers went along for the Kajaki mission. SGT Anthony Boocock, RLC, shot the photos below, and gave them to me after he returned safely from the mission. These photos are property of the British MoD:
The mission was a brilliant success against substantial odds. The British press was justifiably proud of what has been called their largest logistics operation since World War II. These are precisely the sort of large-scale civil affairs/information operations, backed up with military strength and tactical ingenuity, that are required to turn this war around. Digging wells is nice, but pushing electricity to over a million people is even more effective. Yet as impressive as Operation Eagle Summit was, it will take more than just one civil affairs project, however dramatic, to defeat the Taliban, as The Economist notes in this editorial. I found the editorial a bit downbeat considering the unchallenged success of the mission, but we must be realistic that we are in for a long war.
Whether the Kajaki Dam is a turning point in the war, or just another brilliant success on the road to defeat, only time will tell. But for now, let us praise USAID, and the courageous soldiers who went where only eagles dare, to deliver power to the Afghan people. Operation Eagle Summit was a brilliantly planned, brilliantly executed, unqualified success. It was a giant step forward, and a demonstration that ISAF leadership is willing to undertake the type of difficult and risky projects we need to win.
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This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoAn amazing story. I don't know how to describe it, I'm at a loss for words. An incredible story of teamwork and determination perhaps? Thank You Michael for sharing this bit with us, these pictures are incredible as well.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThanks again, Mike, for a compelling story. BZ to all involved!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI'm glad you're back. As you know there's a dearth of real news coming out of Afghanistan. We can't have this AO becoming another 'forgotten war'.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
Great story and thank you for going where none of our MSM dare go; NOR will they even report these encouraging results--probably afraid to let the world know of their cowardice.
You are one of a kind and many of us are grateful--will pass your latest along to others. Thanks again
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoWonderful post.
I don't put much faith in "The Economist".
But if you say their appraisal of our struggle in Afghanistan is reasonably accurate: that is good enough for me.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael, thanks for putting this inspiring story out there for the world to read and see. BZ to the combat photographers.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoJeffrey Blue,
What I like about The Economist is people on the left say that it leans rightward, and people on the right say it leans leftward, meaning it's probably about in the middle.
Back to topic: great report as usual. It's pretty shameful that the mainstream media doesn't pick up on this.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoSuccess! And it's a miracle it happened. We should never forget that for all the negatives stories we hear in the mainstream media, there are stories like this that go largely unreported (especially here in the States).
God bless all who made this happen!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHow would we know about these amazing achievements without your detailed dispatches from the theatre, Michael?! These efforts will no doubt significantly improve the lives of many Afghans and possibly give them the confidence to rise up against the Taliban and have an "awakening" similar to that in Iraq against Al Qaeda. What brave men and what intricate planning this mission must have required. Thanks to our coalition forces who carried out such a dangerous, yet amazing and successful mission!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoKaren - "How would we know about these amazing achievements without your detailed dispatches from the theatre, Michael?!"
Reading the news would be the obvious solution:
Results 1 - 10 of about 53 for Kajaki Dam turbine. (0.05 seconds)
This report is there as #53 of 53 for reports about this.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"Kilo" I looked at all those links you found in your google search but I'm sorry, I don't see the other articles as even being in the same league as Michael's article. I didn't see one photo in any of those other writers articles that would even give the appearance that they were there, and had first hand knowledge of what happened. Although I appreciate their writing I would much rather read it from someone who was there, not the regurgitated words of some PIO. So for this one I will have to second Karen.
Michael you keep charging hard brother and keep the stories flowing
Watch your six,
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"Operation Eagle Summit was a brilliantly planned, brilliantly executed, unqualified success. "
About which I had heard absolutely nothing. Since only the bad guys got killed it is beneath the attention of American press, apparently. They are much too busy reporting rumors about Sarah Palin and trying to get The One and his grandpa elected. So glad you are in Afghanistan, Michael. Two of my boys may be there in a few months. I appreciate knowing what's going on there. Praying for you!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoSirs,
without breaking rules etc, I am a Australia Serviceman who also went on this op.
I am a sniper assigned "overwatch" meaning to travel ahead a few Klicks, setup, spot and if needed , Neutralise the opposition. then repeat when the "charlie team" ( teams, 1 set, one moving, one setting up)
and after reading this i am so happy to say its spot on. Truth in reporting at last!!!
Now people can see what we do and why. 60% of the Afghani folks want us here, the rest are scared of the Talibs but when its dark offer us tea or water before running away before another Afghani see's them.
One day they'll hopefully not be so scared and i personally think when this day come the Talibs are done for , they play on fear and intimidation. remove the fear and they are nothing but rabble with guns.
Full marks to the reporter! I'll buy you a beeer for this one mate!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoTo the Brits, Canadians & Aussies: HUAH! WELL DONE IN EVERY RESPECT! To the taliban 200+ causalties, see above, and I hope for more of the same. Good for the reporter and photographer as well. An old US soldier renders you all a brisk hand salute.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHi Michael,
how come you never mention the Dutch soldiers. We are there, not many, but I think we are doing a good job. Many of our boys died. Just today (8 sept) Jos ten Brinke (21 years old) lost his life due to an IED. It would be nice for our boys if you could mention them.
Thanks for the reporting, keep your head down!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael -- I made a mistake and first posted this on another story ("Many Taliban Dead") but my comment was on this story. What a tremendous job! Your piece was like reading National Geographic, but the subject matter was much more penetrating. I am glad that it appears our Afghan Theater allies are taking you into their confidence (of course it helps when you're serious and have the background to fully empathize - not necessarily sympathize with what they're doing). Most interesting is your comment about the seeming dedication and commitment that English speaking coalition components have to genuinely helping another people. Definitely in the spirit of De Oppresso Libre. Time to sign off and hit the Donation button and send your latest to all my buds.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoGreat read. I just about fell out of my chair when I saw your picture of the hockey rink at Kandahar IAP. Quite a change from when Bravo Company, 1st LAR of BLT 1/1 (15th MEU) rolled onto the airfield in late 2001.
Thanks again for everything you do every day Michael. America would have no idea what is really going on if it wasn't for you.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
I have missed your wonderful reports from Iraq but not enough to wish it was still a war zone. Thank you for giving us the true reports on Afganistan. God bless you and all the wonderful soldiers who stay in harms way to keep the rest of us safe.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMan, I was so pumped when I found out you were going to Afghanistan that I emailed your web address to all my best friends and family. Glad that you are now in Afghanistan and giving us Canadians a glimpse of what our soldiers are doing there.
Thanks for detailing what our boys did on this particular mission. I only subscribe to one Canadian newspaper, so maybe I'm just "out of the loop", but most Canadian media seems to simply keep us apprised of the body count (we are now, officially, at 98 brave Cdn soldiers killed in Afghanistan). I don't get to see much reporting about exactly what it is that our troops are *doing* in Afghanistan although I continually read quotes from troops saying they think that they are making a difference; and so many of them go back for a 2nd or 3rd tour it makes me wonder what's their motivation for going back in spite of the danger. Your reporting will help me to understand.
I will be waiting impatiently for the next dispatch!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoCould an MV-22 Osprey have handled the load of components? When will (if Ever) the third turbine get put in? I hate half measures. Like the Russians...Soviet II
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThanks to all involved in this mission, great success. I love to hear stories of the bad guys losing with the good guys not only defeating them but at the same time moving the Afgans forward. Very inspirational.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThe top commander in AFG is not U.S. General Dan McNeill, but General David D. McKiernan.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoSo pleased you were in 'Stan for this.
The good news spread quickly to those who were looking, but even then, it was scarce. So very pleased you have moved in.
I understand you will be moving on up with our guys farthar north and east upon your return from Iraq.
Post the good news of all the changes in Iraq, and get back up here. We need YOU.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." (George Orwell)
Thanks to all who willingly stand ready in the night!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThank you Michael for reporting what the MSM overlooks. I keep recommending your book on Iraq to people - even offering my copy as a loan just to get them to open your eyes.
Hey J - happy hunting. Keep up the good work and that 60% will work it's way up.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
Thank you, thank you, thank you for some excellent reporting on what our brave Canadian soldiers are doing to help the Afghani people. Your report and the superb photos are far superior to anything I've seen published in Canadian newspapers.
I don't know if the Canadians told you, but a federal election campaign started here 2 days ago and Afghanistan may very well become an issue. You already know what the usual suspects on the left will say: "We need to get out now. Our soldiers are dying for nothing. They must only be involved with peacekeeping." Naivety to the extreme, of course - welcome to Canadian politics. :-(
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoNo, the Osprey can't carry anywhere near enough. It can only carry about 7 tons, the transformers weighed 25 and 29 tons. Even the CH-53 can only carry about 10 tons. So it had to be a ground operation.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoNice Dispatch, as ever. Thank goodness for punctuation! I originally missed the colon in the caption for the first photo.
Some of the details that may be otherwise lost lie in those weights. I'll ignore the 80-ton crane, because that probably refers to a crane that is capable of lifting an 80-ton load, without saying anyting about the weight of the crane itself. The average reader should understand that a fully (legally) loaded semi-trailer is maxed-out at 20-tons (40,000 pounds); That's for something rolling over smooth highways. Some of these described loads greatly exceed those weights and they were being dragged over hills, very rough terrain, and roads being blasted out in front of the convoy. Just getting the loads there, without opposition, was a tremendous feat.
Cor van der Linden , MY does mention the Dutch, near the top of the article. However, they did not appear to have been involved in this operation. Also, it must be doubly-difficult to report from the given conditions, in English, regarding troops that may not easily be able to put out information in English. It always bugs me, a little bit, when reporters have to rely on translators.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHow come you didn't mention the Dutch in your introduction? The Dutch have several thousand troops in Uruzgan, Apaches and F-16's, PFz2000 etc. So far 17 have been killed in action.
As far as I know they are doing a great job, not so much restricted by ROE as the Germans for example.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoWhat a fabulous dose of reality reporting. What exactly is the MSM's role? Thank you for brilliantly enlightening us with this reality check.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHave you done anything on the Canadians in Afghanistan? We get very poorly served by our media in Canada. The only news we get is when one of our soldiers gets killed. I'd love to hear some of your reporting on what the Canadians are doing in country.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoObviously, they are not available or in service still, but in Vietnam we had a flying crane, a super heavy lift helicopter that looked more like a spider then anything else, quite large. Wonder if they could have handled this.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agothanks michael
great story telling
and so far as i can tell
"speaking truth to power"
has one name above all others
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael, your photographs are unbelievable!!! If you weren't such a great writer, I would say drop everything and go into photography - however, you must keep doing both.
Thank you, Thank you,
The MSN is doing nothing on the real battle.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI have bought and am reading your book, Michael, 'Moment of Truth in Iraq'. I encourage others to GET THIS BOOK!! This is a book that amazes and overwhelms and causes the reader to feel all sorts of emotions. This book should be a 'must read' for all Americans and definitely for those who seek the truth.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agohttp://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123116826
Another great post from Michael Yon. Here is a related article about Air Force involvement in this operation.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agoThank you so much for telling this story so beautifully! My 70 year old dad is over there now, working on the dam to get more water and electricity to the people. Learning about the risks and hard work of all the allied troops to get the turbine where it had to go puts everything in perspective. Thank you all for sacrificing so much.
This commment is unpublished.· 5 years agoI drove the truck carrying the crane,
it was critical to me!
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