Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

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

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6 September 2009

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

Photo: Jacobson/AP

By Michael Yon

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

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

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

Precision Voting

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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.

Read more: Precision Voting

The Kopp-Etchells Effect, Part II

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27 August 2009

My embed with British forces has ended.  Will be out with U.S. forces for the foreseeable future.  After that, will strike out alone into the wilds of Afghanistan.  There are two more stories in the pipeline about the British soldiers I was with, who were in a couple of firefights.  The bullets got pretty close.  The events are worth recounting.  Unsure if I will be able to complete those dispatches due to the time wasted with the sudden ending of my embed.  Am attempting to publish at least one.  The soldiers deserve both, but time is cruel when its wasted.

Read more: The Kopp-Etchells Effect, Part II

Bad Medicine

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On Pharmacy Road

Captain Henry Coltart on Pharmacy Road

24 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The British soldiers of 2 Rifles had a mission:  clear and hold Pharmacy Road.

FOB Jackson is currently home to Battlegroup headquarters for 2 Rifles.  The area around the river is called the “Green Zone,” but just as appropriately could be called the Opium Zone.  During season, the area is covered with colorful poppies, whose 2009 products are probably showing up by now on the streets in Europe.  European money flows back here and buys fertilizer in the Sangin Market, which can be used to make bombs, produce more opium, get more money and make more bombs and grow more opium and make more money and bombs and grow more opium.  Sangin is at once an ATM and weapons bazaar for the enemy.  Nearly all fatalities in this unit have been caused by fertilizer bombs.  The decision to mostly ignore the drug dealers has been a strategic blunder.

This mission was about tactical exigencies created by the strategic realities.  Though FOB Jackson is small enough to walk from one end to another in a few minutes, it is the main base in Sangin, with smaller patrol bases spread around the Sangin area of operations.  Two of those bases are Patrol Base (PB) Tangiers and PB Wishtan.  Tangiers is an Afghan National Army (ANA) PB often used by 2 Rifles, while PB Wishtan is manned by C Coy of 2 Rifles.  (“Coy” is British for “Company.”)

Read more: Bad Medicine

Afghanistan Elections Spot Report

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20 August 2009

This dispatch has been dictated by satellite phone due to communications difficulties.  My satellite gear has failed on election day.  I do not know how well the elections turned out in other parts of Afghanistan.  Here in North Helmand Province, near Sangin, I am told that less than 300 people voted.  In this area the day was marked by serious fighting.  Apache attack helicopters were firing their cannons throughout the day.  The howitzers fired many times.  The mortars were firing.  Various bases were attacked.  On the mission I accompanied the snipers were firing.  We got into a firefight, and the soldier beside me had his antenna shot off.  I would not characterize this as a failure of the elections, it was a local setback.  We saw the same in Iraq in early 2005, where some people boycotted the elections.  The situation here is not good, but this is only one area of Afghanistan.  I do not know what happened elsewhere.

Michael

 


Do Americans Care about British Soldiers?

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19 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

A gunshot ripped through the darkness and a young British soldier fell dying on FOB Jackson.  I was just nearby talking on the satellite phone and saw the commotion.  The soldier was taken to the medical tent and a helicopter lifted him to the excellent trauma center at Camp Bastion.  That he made it to Camp Bastion alive dramatically improved his chances.  But his life teetered and was in danger of slipping away.  Making matters worse, the British medical system back in the United Kingdom did not possess the specialized gear needed to save his life.  Americans had the right gear in Germany, and so the British soldier was put into the American system.

British officers in his unit, 2 Rifles, wanted to track their man every step of the way, and to ensure that his family was informed and supported in this time of high stress.  Yet having their soldier suddenly in the American system caused a temporary glitch in communications with folks in Germany.  The British leadership in Sangin could have worked through the glitch within some hours, but that would have been hours wasted, and they wanted to know the status of their soldier now.  So a British officer in Sangin – thinking creatively –asked if I knew any shortcuts to open communications.  The right people were only an email away: Soldiers Angels.  And so within about two minutes, these fingers typed an email with this subject heading: CALLING ALL ANGELS.

Read more: Do Americans Care about British Soldiers?

The Kopp-Etchells Effect

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17 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The roads are so littered with enemy bombs that nearly all transport and resupply to this base occurs by helicopter.  The pilots roar through the darkness, swoop into small bases nestled in the saddle of enemy territory, and quickly rumble off into the night.

A witness must spend only a short time in the darkness to know we are at war. Flares arc into the night, or mortar illumination rounds drift and swing under parachutes, orange and eerily in the distance, casting long, flickering but sharply defined shadows.  The worst that can happen is that you will be caught in an open field, covered by nothing and concealed only by darkness, when the illumination suddenly bathes you in light.  Best is to stay low and freeze and prepare to fire, or in the case of a writer, to stay low and freeze and prepare to watch the firing.

Explosions from unknown causes rumble through the cool nights while above drifts the Milky Way, punctuated by more shooting stars than one can remember.  The Afghanistan nights will grant a wish to wish upon a shooting star.  And while waiting for the next meteor, the eyes are likely to catch tracer bullets.

Read more: The Kopp-Etchells Effect

Stars & Stripes

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13 August 2009

Reporting from Afghanistan: Not your typical job

Posted August 12th, 2009 by Leo Shane in Stripes Central

Back in 2006 I spent six weeks traveling around Afghanistan with various U.S. Army units and reporting on what troops were dealing with in the "forgotten" war. Filing stories and calling my editors was always a tricky prospect, even without any of the heavy fighting that reporters there now are seeing.

So it's humbling to me to listen to this live interview with Michael Yon from his latest travels into Afghanistan, this time with British troops.

Yon has already made a name for himself with his freelance work in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and his latest work has given an up-close view of the tension and danger in Afghanistan right now. But this interview may top all that.

At just about the 7:30 mark, you can start to hear gunfire in the background as he talks with Military.com's Ward Carroll about recent violence in the area. A few minutes later, he pauses for a minute to get to a safer location as machine gun fire intensifies and a rocket whizzes overhead.

Read more: Stars & Stripes

No Young Soldiers

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10 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Daily dramas unfolded, including the bangs, booms and small-arms fire that punctuated the times.  At 1800, I was preparing to go to orders with 1 Platoon, A Company of 2 Rifles, when shots from a large-caliber rifle began cracking low over base.  I passed by sniper, Kris Griffith, and said, “Hey Kris, why don’t you grab your rifle and go shoot that guy?”  Kris replied that two other sniper teams were on it.  “He’s close,” I said, and Kris answered, “About 600 meters.” Then we went our separate ways.

Orders were given and then the soldiers performed final checks on their gear and tried to fall to sleep in the sweltering evening heat.  Some nights I would go to sleep using the sleeping bag as a pillow, only to wake up with it drenched in sweat.

Read more: No Young Soldiers

Pixie Dust

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Thursday night, 06 August 2009
Afghanistan

I made this photo last night in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  This Landing Zone is very dangerous.  A few weeks ago, another helicopter was coming into this LZ and was shot down at the last minute, killing all passengers and crew.  Two children on the ground also were killed.  The sparks coming off the rotors occur when the helicopters land in hot, dusty conditions.  The landing itself occurs in a dangerous "brownout."  Brownout danger is compounded by the sparks which light up the dust and can confuse pilots who are wearing extremely sensitive nightvision goggles.

Michael


Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

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Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

from

Common Days & Nights

 

A helicopter roars into FOB Jackson in Sangin, Afghanistan.  Medical tents are just next to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) so casualties can be quickly loaded.

05 August 2009

The helicopter pilot wearing night vision goggles roared in so fast it looked as though he were crashing.  The four green Cylums (Americans call them Chemlights) mark the HLS.  While the helicopter is above the dust cloud, it melts into the dark, but as it approaches the HLS, dust swirls high, setting the stage for an amazing light show.  The Chinook descends through the dry dust and the rotors glitter brightly, creating an eerie glow as if sparklers are attached to the rotors, which in reality appeared brighter to the eye than in the photo below.  If the helicopter were not so loud, the millions of static discharges might be heard crackling and popping.

Read more: Common Scenes & Common Thoughts

Resurrection

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Spraying for bugs on FOB Jackson, Sangin.

03 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The bugs are not bad in this part of Afghanistan.  The scorched terrain is biologically boring.  Mice and ferret-like creatures dash around in the evenings when sparrows and doves and a few other sorts of birds flutter through the cool air.  But even at sunrise, I cannot make out the songs or see in flight more than ten types of birds, one of which is the rooster.  There are no wading birds, not here anyway: no kingfishers, no cormorants or ducks.  The dominant hue of land and bird is desert brown.  Maybe a bird or two with black feathers, but never one with sharp, primary colors: not even a red wing tip or a white tuft.  There are no ornamental birds with glorious plumage or fancy dance, only drab designs, though the lucky ones have short golden legs.  There is not a single inspiring song among them.

Read more: Resurrection

Night Into Day

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Sangin, Helmand Province
Afghanistan

Finding the Enemy

29 July 2009

Orders are given before every operation.  The orders filter down through various unit levels involved, until each platoon finally recieves its specific mission.  The concept for this mission came down from the 2 Rifles Battlegroup (battalion) to the  companies, including elements of the Afghan National Army and their British counterparts from the Welsh Guard, and down to each 2 Rifles platoon involved.  So for any mission there might be literally dozens (or more) orders and rehearsals until each man and woman knows the perceived enemy situaton, their specific tasks, and much more.  While soldiers here at FOB Jackson received orders, undoubtedly pilots and others, stationed far away, perhaps on an aircraft carrier or even farther afield, were finalizing related plans.

Read more: Night Into Day

SatComms for Soldiers

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25 July 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Have been out with British forces in the area of Sangin in northern Helmand Province.  This area appears to be turning into the main effort of the current fight in Afghanistan, but this is unclear to me at the moment.  I do know that air assets are heavy.  During our mission yesterday, a B-1 could be seen overhead, though it was miles high.  On the ground, this place is loaded with IEDs and there were many firefights during yesterday’s mission.   My section of eight soldiers did not fire a single round; we did not come into direct contact, though bullets sometimes zipped overhead.  Nearly all missions are conducted on foot and the soldiers like it that way.  I am with the British battalion called 2 Rifles.  The last mission I did with 2 Rifles was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 JAM members during that fight.  Yesterday they only killed two Taliban (Predator actually made the shot), but the mission was well run, and morale here is very high.  Everybody is ready to roll again and missions are near continuous.  I’ll ask British commanders to let me stay, though that might not be necessary because there are so few helicopters.  More likely I am stuck here.  FOB Jackson is probably going to be my Hotel California, but that’s all good because these are great soldiers, in the thick of it, and I want to stay.

Read more: SatComms for Soldiers

Some Photos and Captions

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22 July 2009
Filed from Sangin, Afghanistan

(This dispatch is from Ghor Province, though I am now with British forces down south.)

Lithuanian soldier on Swedish C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar and finally to Chaghcharan.   On his left are Filipino workers.  Filipinos are like birds; the only place that an American has stepped that a Filipino hasn’t is the moon.  Yesterday was a special anniversary for space travel: man first landed on the moon.  I watched the launch from our family boat when I was five years-old.  Apollo 11 was bright, and loud.  Many people think that the Russians also walked on the moon, but this is untrue.

Read more: Some Photos and Captions

One Giant Leap

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20 July 2009

Yesterday, a helicopter crashed on base at Kandahar Airfield, killing sixteen.  Later that night we had a minor rocket attack which caused me to roll out of bed onto the floor, while this morning, I got up to the great pleasure of watching Neil Armstrong on the BBC, talking about this historic anniversary, when man first stepped on the moon.  I remember that launch as it roared so brightly into space.  It remains perhaps the most spectacular day in the history of man.   Every worthy endeavor comes with a cost.

Around the same time Mr. Armstrong was speaking this morning, roars from war jets rumbled through base as they rushed down the nearby runway.  A British Tornado lifted off but did not get far before it crashed and burned. The two crew members successfully escaped and are recovering from ejection trauma.  The cause of the Mi-26 crash last Tuesday that killed five is unclear, but a military source mentioned that the helicopter was shot down by an RPG.  At least six aircraft—two jets and four helicopters—have gone down this month.  Two Americans were lost in a jet crash.

Read more: One Giant Leap

Sangow Bar Village

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Sangow Bar Village

Some Notes and Photos

16 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

On a per capita basis, Afghanistan is becoming more dangerous for British and American troops than Iraq ever was.  For those who fought in places like Anbar, Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh, that’s saying a whole lot.  On a per capita basis, there are strong indications that Afghanistan will prove more deadly than Iraq during 2006-2007.  One can only imagine how many days and nights Secretary Robert Gates and his advisors must have agonized over troop levels here.  On the one hand, we have a fraction of the troops we need, but on the other, increasing troop levels increases hostility toward us.  Secretary Gates has made it clear to me that his biggest concern is that we will lose the goodwill of the people and they will turn against us.  This happens to be my own biggest concern.  The agony is in knowing we need more medicine and the medicine can be highly toxic here.  Many people have complained that the new restrictions on air strikes will hurt us, but from my boots, General McChrystal (the new boss here) has fulfilled the intent of his boss, and that the decision, though tough, was wise; if we lose the widespread assent of the Afghan people, it’s all over but for the bleeding.

Today our chances are not good, but there remains a real chance to succeed.  Those chances improve dramatically when we take a no-kidding inventory of the situation and refine our goals to align with reality.

Read more: Sangow Bar Village

Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards

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Lithuanian Soldiers Prepare Humvees under the glow of the Milky Way

13 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

The wake-up alarm sounded at 0345, and by 0430 the Lithuanian soldiers were ready to roll.  The Lithuanians had always arrived early, prepared for action before every mission, but this time we relied on an Afghan guide.  The first part of the mission was to find the Kuchi.  Normally, Lithuanian soldiers perform a reconnaissance before a mission, but they decided to skip the recon to find the Kuchi nomads because, well, they are nomads.  Even if the recon were to locate the camel caravan in a specific location, the Kuchis would likely have moved by the time we got there.  So we were relying on the local guide who had a cell phone number for the Kuchis.  He was 21 minutes late and held up the mission by 27 minutes.  One guy holding up about three dozen soldiers and a mission should be flogged.

The base at Chaghcharan sits at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level, so at night the Milky Way hovers in magnificence above the clean, dry air.  But come morning, the stars fade as the sun rises with blinding vengeance.

As we rolled to find the Kuchi nomads and their camels, the six vehicle convoy kicked up “moon dust,” which reflected the bright sun, causing instant blindness as if driving through white clouds.  The convoy had to space out, else the vehicles would be driving dangerously close through the arid fog of dust.  As we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields.  The Afghans are a hard-working lot.  The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.

Read more: Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards

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