Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

Afghan Bravery

It’s hard to say how much of this fight belongs to the Afghans, and how much is ours. It should be theirs. It won't succeed until it is their fight -- even if they need some back-up help from us. One thing is certain: We are not “rebuilding” Afghanistan; it was never built to begin with. Centuries of repelling invaders kept the country free. But, perversely, it also meant that Afghanistan never benefited from the advances that most colonial power brought to the remote, primitive places they colonized.  And thirty years of war, from the day the Soviets marched in, in the winter of 1979, though the internecine battles of the past decade, has destroyed much of what was there -- from the roads, to the mud compounds to a certain amount of the culture, generosity and spirit of the people.

Read more: Afghan Bravery

The Clinic

In Iraq, there were always a few journalists who would see signs for humanitarian projects like this clinic, translated into to English, and would wax cynical, claiming that it was just propaganda to mask the uglier side of the occupation.  I've heard people say things like "This is just for the cameras and the journalists who will devour lies.”  Of course, if these signs were not translated into English, an equally cynical person might say, “Look, they aren’t even smart enough to translate the signs into English.  How do you expect people to know about the good things you're doing?”

Read more: The Clinic

Dumb Signs

Published: 14 December 2008

Soldiers and their humor: living at the edge of civilization requires a highly developed sense of irony. Dumb signs all over Iraq and Afghanistan are always good for a chuckle.

This sign just came to me from a friend in Ramadi, Iraq.  Before the war ended, Ramadi was in chaos beyond easy description.  Now, some service members who are in Ramadi complain to me that they are bored.  Apparently some of them even forget their weapons.  (My friend confirmed that the forgetful soldier got his rifle back.)

This story can also be found covered at Pajamas Media.

Sniff Test

Published: 09 December 2008

Here is a rare and curious thing: an antique British [WB-57] bomber flying over Afghan skies. These planes flew in the 1950s and 60s, performing top of the atmosphere reconnaissance. The U.S. Air Force retired the WB-57 decades ago.  But NASA owns two, which it uses for an odd group of missions, including collecting cosmic dust from extremely high altitudes.  It seems doubtful that NASA came all the way to Afghanistan to collect cosmic dust, but this would be an interesting region in which to search for traces of nuclear debris, drifting upwards from Iran, Pakistan, various Central Asian states, China, or India.

This story can also be found covered at Pajamas Media.


Afghanistan: The War Grows

Published: 08 December 2008
Zabul Province, Afghanistan

While Americans sleep tight in their beds, this time of year U.S. soldiers sit shivering through the frigid, crystal clear nights at remote outposts in places most of us have never heard of and will never see.  Often they head out into the enveloping darkness, to hunt down and destroy terrorists, who continue to kill innocent Afghans, Americans, Aussies, Balinese, Brits, Indians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Spanish….in short, anyone who opposes their violent tyranny.  Their greatest weapons are ignorance and terror.  Witness the latest unprovoked attack on our friends in India.

These enemies have no wish to reconcile with their fellow countrymen, or compromise in any way that would diminish their control of the lives of the ordinary Afghans who don't share their feral vision of life.  They throw acid in the faces of little girls whose only crime is that they go to school.  So we must continue to send our toughest men to confront them eye to eye, while performing the difficult balancing act of not alienating those who intend us no harm.  This is particularly difficult in Afghanistan, a proud nation with a deep tradition of antipathy toward outsiders -- even those who are here to help, though I am finding many Afghans clearly do not want us to leave.

The hard work is especially difficult when our troops are spread perilously thin. Over the last nearly two weeks I’ve spent time with teams whose nearest ground support is too far away, and too small anyway, to help them when they get into serious trouble, which happens all the time.  Some of these groups are too far out for helicopters to reach within any reasonable amount of time, and so their only choice often is “CAS,” or Close Air Support: Jets with bombs.  Sadly, despite the extreme precautions I have seen our people taking in Iraq and now Afghanistan, we are bound to make some mistakes, which the enemy exploits to full potential.  In fact, there are reports that I believe credible that the enemy is actively trying to bait us into bombing innocent people.  Such is the savagery of the Taliban and associated armed opposition groups (AOGs).  

Few Afghans can tell the difference in uniform or equipment between Germans, Americans, Brits or Estonians or any of the other dozens of nations here. And similarities in vehicles and equipment can cause confusion among U.S. and Canadian forces, themselves.  So we can't really expect illiterate, Afghan civilians to tell the difference between an American and a French jet at midnight.  But you know the result: when bombs or bullets fly off in the wrong direction, which inevitably happens in a hot war, when there is an occasional overuse of force, it gets blamed on Americans -- or the "U.S. led coalition" -- with the implication that the U.S. engineered the error.  This is partly a function of the expert propaganda machine that the Taliban and its fundamentalist allies bring to bear -- and, of course, of a world media eager to exploit such stories.

For our part and to the credit of our leadership, the U.S. is reluctant to publicly correct the record, since finger-pointing can only cause friction in the coalition.  At a moment when Afghan policy is hanging in the balance, with a new Administration thinking about what they ought to do to move toward stability, we walk a tightrope between offending our allies by criticizing their actual shortcomings -- and the even more important problem of overstepping very sensitive boundaries in Afghanistan. If we are going to be able to finish the job we started, we can't afford to create problems for the Karzai government.

Rules of Engagement, discipline, training and moral boundaries vary drastically between nations.  Sophisticated readers should know that “U.S. led” does not necessarily mean that an American called in the target, or had anything to do in dropping the bomb.  But I will say that a small American team told me recently that it was a French jet who came to their aid during an ambush, and expertly dropped a bomb straight onto a Taliban position.

This story can also be found covered at Pajamas Media.

The Art of the End of War

The Art

of the

End of War


Published: 01 December 2008
Zabul Province, Afghanistan

(Travel from Iraq to Afghanistan, and needless bureaucratic delays, nearly killed this dispatch.  Though many photos were made during the recent journey in Iraq, none are included here.  Bureaucracy unrelated to our combat forces continues to steal frontline photos and words from your screen. We seem to have two Armies: One Army of true soldiers moving mountains to win wars, while the other Army does everything possible to break the machine while playing soldier.  Though I am with excellent U.S. forces in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, this dispatch describes my final “mission” with outstanding soldiers in Iraq.)

Read more: The Art of the End of War

Down with Barriers, Up with Iraq

25 November 2008

On November 13th I covered a mission in south Baghdad with soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division.  General Petraeus once told me during the height of the fighting, back when violence was the lingua franca and victory was very much in question, that this area was the canary in the mineshaft.  In his exact words regarding what Lieutenant Colonel Pat Frank had to deal with in one of the toughest places in Iraq, “SW Baghdad...has every challenge imaginable -- AQI, JAM, micro-fault-lines, good/bad ISF partners, good/bad neighborhood leaders, and Route Irish!  It will be the canary in the mineshaft; if they can pull it off, this will be doable....”

Read more: Down with Barriers, Up with Iraq

Happy Thanksgiving

24 November 2008

Michael called by satellite phone.  He is in a remote area of Afghanistan with US and Afghan forces.  Michael reports that his satellite internet gear is non-functional.  He has no access to internet.  Please see his dispatch in the New York Post today.  Michael did mention that morale among US and Afghan forces is high.  More Later.



Happy Ending

Published: 19 November 2008

Between 2007 and 2008, I got to know a man in South Baghdad whose codename was “Bishop.”  This is the short story of his life.

His parents were Kurdish Sunnis.  They moved to Baghdad 34 years ago – recently married and excited to make a new life for themselves and create a family.  Bishop’s real name was Bashar Akram Ameen; the name given to him when he was born on October 6, 1978 in the Abu Ghraib apartments in Baghdad.  Bashar had three sisters and one brother.  His schooling included graduating from a Baghdad high school in the class of ’96 and attending the Agriculture College of Baghdad University from 1997 until 2002 when he graduated.  America had just set its sights on toppling Saddam.
Shortly after graduating, Bashar began service in the Iraqi Army Reserve, but that lasted only three months, because the U.S. crushed a great part of the Iraqi Army and then officially dissolved the rest.  For three months, Bashar was one of those unemployed young men we worried about.  He got a job in October of 2003 as a bodyguard for an Iraqi judge.  His first job didn’t last long because insurgents assassinated the judge.  Feeling lost and a bit frightened, Bashar decided to look for a “safer” job, and began interpreting for, as he called it, “the Sally Port Security Company” in al-Mansour, Baghdad.  Insurgents in his neighborhood figured out that he was working for an American company, and on February 21, 2006, as he left his job at 6:00 pm, they started shooting at him in his car, “…but I miraculously survived,” Bashar  explained to me, “and that was the reason to leave my job at that company.”

Read more: Happy Ending

In Time of War

10 November 2008

The Iraq war is over.  Barring the unforeseen, the darkest days are behind, though we are still losing soldiers to low-level fighting with enemies that are true “dead-enders.”  Last month we lost seven Americans in combat in Iraq.  Peace, however, is not upon us.  Another thirty or so Iraqis died today in suicide attacks.  Nobody suffers more at the hands of Islamic terrorists than other Muslims.

A new President will soon begin to make critical decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis at home, and countless other matters.  While the Iraq war began, then boiled and finally cooled before President-elect Obama will be sworn into office on January 20th, 2009, the Afghanistan-Pakistan spectacle is just getting started.  He was always a fierce opponent of our involvement in Iraq.  And, as with so many Democrats in the Senate, he argued frequently, during the campaign, that we should have been focused on Afghanistan all along, because it is the real incubator of the international terrorist threat.  Timing being everything, our new President will get his wish.  Afghanistan now moves to center stage.  The conflicts in Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan have the simmering potential to overshadow anything we’ve seen in Iraq.  Here are a few things I hope he understands:

Read more: In Time of War

A Moment of Opportunity for the New Media

30 October 2008

Big Media is taking a big hit during this global economic avalanche. As New York Times reporter Richard Perez-Pena noted in the October 23, 2008, paper of record, “The New York Times Company reported a 51.4 percent decline in third-quarter profit on Thursday and swung to a loss on continuing operations as deeper-than-expected expense cuts could not keep pace with falling revenue.”

Read more: A Moment of Opportunity for the New Media

Bloody Border, Messy Politics

27 October 2008

Yesterday, U.S. special operations forces struck positions across the Syrian-Iraq order, inside of Syria, apparently killing nine people, most of whom were non-Syrian Arab fighters on their way into Iraq. Of course there is a great cry rising from the Syrians today.

For years, tons of explosives and a long line of foreign terrorists have streamed across the Syrian border into Anbar Province and Nineveh Province, Iraq.  I must have spent a total of about nine months in Nineveh, about eight of which were in the capital of Mosul, and another month in Anbar.

Read more: Bloody Border, Messy Politics

Are You Connected?

Published: 26 October 2008 

In a war where information can be more powerful than massed forces, the cellphone is a weapon.  Insurgents the world over use cellphones to transmit messages, record photos and videos, and sometimes just to chat.  They can record video of an attack, and transmit that video within a minute.  U.S. and other technologically adept forces use machines to target cell phones.

This is no secret.  Not to the enemy, at least.

I am especially careful not to compromise operational security (OPSEC).  There are many photographs and potential dispatches that will never be published here because I do not want to risk jeopardizing our effort.  The military forces with which I embed have clear guidelines to protect OPSEC.  But war correspondents can learn just as much, or even more, while unembedded, and those times are not covered by guidelines.  Still, I am just as cautious while unilateral.  Often OPSEC is compromised, not because journalists knowingly publish sensitive information, but because they don’t know what the enemy might learn from the news they share with their audience. Others just don’t care, or publicize sensitive information for one-upmanship or profit.

Read more: Are You Connected?

Brother, Can You Spare an Afghani?

Published: 22 October 2008

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

William Faulkner

Traveling along the roads of Afghanistan (when there are roads) provides a different perspective on life back home.  Folks in the U.S. are worried about the economy, and while I can understand that many are struggling, it’s easy to forget how much we still have.  In Afghanistan, and other countries all over the world, there are many people who literally beg for their next meals.

Read more: Brother, Can You Spare an Afghani?

Jurassic Trailer Park

Road from Kabul to Jalalabad
20 October 2008

Afghanistan is like time traveling.  Vast expanses of rugged landscape, mostly unadorned by man-made structures, all framed by stories of savagery and conquest, create a picture of forever.  A sense that human and geologic changes occur at nearly the same pace.  Many of the people remain arguably “pre-historic” in the sense that illiterate people do not chronicle their knowledge and experience into writing or durable art.  Moving around the countryside, a man could half expect to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex come stomping over a ridge.

My friend Tim Lynch, a retired infantry officer who has lived four years in Afghanistan, had mentioned there are caves near Jalalabad, and when the sun sinks, bats take flight by the thousands.  That sounded fun to watch; I did some caving (amateurs call it “spelunking”) in North Carolina and Tennessee, and was always amazed at the swarms of bats down in the bowels of earth.  In Florida, I would sometimes venture onto the campus of the University of Florida, just as the squawking flocks of white ibis were settling into their rookery on Lake Alice.  The night shift would come out and tens of thousands of bats would take flight right over my head, then over the lake, while the alligators began their evening hunt.

Read more: Jurassic Trailer Park

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