Michael's Dispatches

YON: The Greatest Afghan War


Published today in:

01 October 2009

By Michael Yon

The Greatest Afghanistan War has deteriorated so noticeably that one can now feel the enemy's growing pulse. Each month it beats steadier, stronger, and in 2010 it will finally be born.

On Sept. 11 in Kandahar, a South African civilian working without security was visibly upset - not at the Taliban but at the police. The 16-year police veteran recounted seeing Afghan police speeding through crowded streets and hitting a bicycle. The rider gymnastically avoided impact while the bicycle was tossed down the road.

The South African, with whom I spent a week in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, said the police never slowed down. "That's part of the reason the Taliban are gaining ground," he said. "The police are out there recruiting Taliban."

I have searched for answers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with the more strategic questions (for example, should war be pursued?) are those closer to the shop floor: Are we gaining or losing popular support? Is the enemy gaining or losing strength? Is the coalition gaining or losing strength?

The first answer is a common denominator for the rest.

We are losing popular support. Confidence in the Afghan and coalition governments is plummeting. Loss of human terrain is evident. Conditions are building for an avalanche. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the military commander in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are aware of the rumbling, and so today we are bound by rules of engagement that appear insensible.

We must curb civilian losses at expense to ourselves. I believe the reasoning is sound and will share those increased dangers. Erosion of popular support seems reversible. There still is considerable good will from the Afghan population, but bomb by bomb we can blow it. We have breathing room if we work with wise alacrity. I sense a favorable shift in our operations occurring under Gen. McChrystal.

Enemies are strengthening. Attacks are dramatically increasing in frequency and efficacy. We are being out-governed by tribes and historical social structures. These structures are - and will be for the foreseeable future - the most powerful influence upon and within the political terrain. "Democracy" does not grow on land where most people don't vote. The most remarkable item I saw during the Aug. 20 elections was the machine-gun ambush we walked into.

The coalition is weakening. While the U.S. has gotten serious, the organism called NATO is a jellyfish for which the United States is both sea and prevailing wind. The disappointing effort from many partners is best exemplified by the partners who are pushing hardest: The British are fine examples.

The British landed in Helmand province after someone apparently vouched that Helmand would be safe, and they believed it. Helmand is today the most dangerous province in Afghanistan.

British combat tours are arduous and the troops suffer in countless ways. The soldiers sweat and freeze in the desert filth; British rations are terrible; mail can be weeks late; and they fight constantly. Troops endure high casualties yet they keep fighting. These things are true. Some say the British "lost Helmand," but this is not true. Helmand was a mess before they arrived. British soldiers are strong but their government is pitiful, leading to an average effort in Afghanistan.

Example: The British serve six-month tours, minus two weeks' leave. Travel is not deducted from leave. Troops are so few at Forward Operating Base Inkerman that missions are planned around leave schedules. For leave, a soldier at Inkerman must helicopter to Camp Bastion (the main British military base in Afghanistan) to jet home.

Helicopters are scarce, making flight schedules erratic. As leave approaches, soldiers stop doing missions and wait for a helicopter. The waiting can last a week or more. Then they get home, take two weeks' leave, then transport back to Bastion, where the soldier waits to helicopter back to Inkerman.

When I departed Bastion last month, some soldiers waited three weeks to helicopter back to Inkerman, and were still waiting. That's six to seven lost weeks for a soldier on a six-month tour. After other distractions, British soldiers might net three months of focused work. There is zero time to conduct counterinsurgency, and besides, the British military, despite its war-fighting ability, is not good at counterinsurgency. Without change, London likely will be defeated in Helmand within roughly two years, which brings us to the fall of 2011.

Germans had deployed to one of the safest areas in Afghanistan yet today they are staggered by Taliban punches. Berlin is brittle and apt to quit. Smart money says the Germans crumble from any significant role by 2011.

Canadians will quit in 2011. Canadian soldiers have earned respect, but their NATO-partner government has empowered our enemies by quitting at a crucial moment. This likely will be remembered consciously and subconsciously in future dealings with Ottawa.

Other fine partners, such as the Dutch, who have fought well, plan to downsize right when we need them most. The Dutch need to stay in this fight and increase their efforts. We need them.

The key partner in redirecting Afghanistan should be the Afghan government. Yet Afghan President Hamid Karzai's corrupt narcocracy is widely disrespected by Afghans and increasingly combative with the coalition. We are pouring support into a government that we don't want, and many Afghans resent.

On Aug. 26, I was in Helmand with the British when a bomb exploded in Kandahar, killing at least 41 people and blowing out windows in the room I later rented to write this account. There were bombs and attacks on a daily basis in Kandahar but I only watch from the roof as Afghans kill Afghans. Potential for civil war is great.

In this unprecedented moment, dozens of the world's most notable nations have focused on helping one land, yet Western sympathies for Afghanistan already have peaked.

While an Afghan avalanche is poised, our thoughts are growing cold. This is it. Either we will begin to show progress by the end of 2010 or, piece by piece, the coalition will cleave off and drift away, meaning 2011 will begin the end to significant involvement in Afghanistan.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    RangerMom · 11 years ago
    God Bless You and your work Michael. While our son is over there, you're bringing the stories and the pictures to us. I want them all to come home safely.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Russ · 11 years ago
    Canada is not leaving. Canada is rotating out of Kandahar and into a less combative role. The Canadian government warned NATO that we could only keep this heavy combat engagement up for a limited period of time. NATO responded like the spineless entity it is and refused - REFUSED - to rotate out the Canadian military like was PROMISED in 200 and again in 2005. Name another country that purchased Hercules planes and new tanks to support the war in Afghanistan? Don't blame Canada for doing EXACTLY what we said we would do. Blame NATO for squandering the opportunity we gave them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael, It's great to see some real time info without a slant either way. I've done both theatres, working with multi-national forces in uniform and as a contractor, and what I get from you has the feel of realism far superior to any other source. The boys are in for a hard run, but they're up to it. From everything I read political positions and agendas are the worst enemy they have right now; the right bosses are in position on the ground, it's time to take the proffesionals advice.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    The Conservative Poe · 11 years ago
    Part of the problem is that our goals and our strategy in Afghanistan have not been clear from the outset. This is not surprising, because the West in general was not ready for this kind of conflict, and did not expect it. Not only citizens, but many political leaders, were only marginally educated about what goes on "out there". But if many conservatives are turning against the current efforts, it might be partially because of doubts about our overall strategy.

    One of the strategic problems is this: who are our enemies and allies, not only in Afghanistan but in the Muslim world in general? If we define fundamentalist sharia law as an enemy, the conclusion is that we are training the army of our enemies against some other enemies, as they both support Sharia law. Another is the means we have and need to do what we choose to do. We more or less 'won' after we routed al-qaida and the Taliban. We could have left then, and used military force again only if more enemies arise (preemptively or not). We didn't, and so this 'war' has lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined.

    Direct military force is our strength, and we should use it to our advantage. But long-term counter-insurgency means using troops and more than high-tech weapons, it means sustaining long-term casualties, and the having long-term political will to sustain the effort. Are the latter part of our strength or weakness?

    If our goal is to create a modern free democracy, we haven't gone about it the right way: a stronger occupation, almost a soft colonization for a willing population, would have been necessary. That means creating a permanent presence and building permanent alliances. If it is done freely, it shouldn't be overly criticized, but we will need to use Machiavelli's principles more than the principles of multiculturalism. For example, one of Machiavelli's lessons is to understand how much force and damage must be done to obtain victory and peace, and apply it all at once. We haven't done that sufficiently against the Baathists in Iraq, or against the Taliban-supporting tribes in Afghanistan. Another lesson is to enforce peace and order brutally, especially against real criminals, as that will only gather you respect. Failure to do that will mean that you look weak, and lose the respect. Machiavelli teaches that in war it is better to be feared than loved, but one should avoid being despised. Another thing that Machiavelli advises is to defeat the strongest force, and rule using the second/third strongest forces as counter-weighs and you as the deciding factor, setting yourself as the arbiter. Have we done that?

    Other things we should learn: do not be overly generous with the foreign leaders, as that will only corrupt them, as does the oil money with middle eastern societies. One of the problems with our 'development' models is that they are often based on more or less socialist philosophy of government development projects. The people of Afghanistan will support us if we develop them and improve their lives, but we seem to be helpless in this area, other than building a few roads and bridges. To improve their lives is to change the rules they live by. We know what the best 'development' model really is, and it is business and capitalism. Have we utilized it? Do we understand what causes and reduces corruption in a government? i.e. if a government official is not in a position of power, he will not demand a bribe. Have we demanded or at least politely asked our new allies to enforce economic freedom, property laws, etc? What about religious freedom, do our 'allies' in Afghanistan or the middle east even grudgingly accept it or not? If not, why are we training them? Would it not be more prudent to rely on our own forces for whatever needs to be done? What kind of government are we creating in Afghanistan?

    Our long-term allies must share with us not only interests, but values, respect and trust. Do we trust the people we are training? Do they trust us? Have they proven worthy of our respect? Have we proven worthy of their respect, in the way we have behaved? And finally, how much money would it have taken to at least provide a gun to the head of each christian or animist family in southern Sudan, to stop the continuing genocide, compared to how much we are spending in Afghanistan?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rifleman H · 11 years ago
    You wrote:

    "Micheal you spoil awesome work by saying us Brits are poor at counterinsurgency, where do you think your country learnt it from, perhaps if you had paid more attention to what we did in Borneo and Malaya, you would not have been defeated in Vietnam"

    Drop the arogant BS my friend and stop comparing apples and oranges if you want your comments to be taken seriously. As one British soldier to another I concur that we are NOT perofrming counter insurgency well in Helmand, neither did we do so in Basra. As you rightly identitfy this is primarily due to a shocking lack of resources and tied in with that, the absence of any political understanding or will. However, our senior military leadership have NOT served us well and have been too releuctant to present the Government with strong critical analysis of what we can and cannot physically do with the tools and manpower at our disposal. Also where we have made mistakes at the strategic level it is all too often covered up with bluster and spin, unlike our American cousins who are somewhat more self-critical and able to acknowledge their own mistakes.

    If you have served in Afghanistan (I assume you have as you comment with apparent authority) you would be the first man I've come across who expresses disdain for the Yankees, in the absence of our own resources US CAS has kept very many of us alive in difficult circumstances. A little humility goes a long way my friend.

    Given the right tools and sufficient numbers we can and do perform at the level our closest alliy would historically expect us to, we CAN do counter insurgency very well indeed. Without them (as we are and will doubtless remain) we are on a slow boat to humiliation and Michael's analysis - painful as it is to admit - is entirely correct.

    Here's a thought, stop buggering about in Afghanistan and come and 'liberate' a more civilised land where US soldiers are seen as brothers in arms, not mortal enemies.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tim · 11 years ago
    Although I've heard of Michael's name mentioned before in various newspapers I've only just found his website and what a fascinating read it is! As a Briton it heartens me to hear good words said about our soldiers who are fighting in some awful conditions. I just hope that when the history books are written that it is made clear that they were limited in their capabilities by the current government. Hopefully Michael will be the one to write those words. I do hope he intends to publish something that will rival Michael Herr's 'Dispatches' and if he does I'll be one of the first to grab it off Amazon! Keep up the good work and stay safe.

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