Michael's Dispatches

Hurricane Afghanistan

28 August 2008
Michael Yon

The long journey back to Afghanistan is complete.  Starting in the mountains of Nepal, with several days’ walk to Pokhara, then a long drive to Kathmandu, a flight to Bangkok where I bought some combat gear (my regular gear is in Iraq and Washington), then to Dubai, and a circuitous journey from India and finally Kabul, where I landed several days ago.  I hired a taxi to the British Embassy, passing horse-drawn carts, vendors selling sunglasses, and old men who looked older than time.  The streets of Kabul are not war-ravaged like Baghdad, but the fact that there is a war on is unmistakable.  The weather was clear, bright and cool, and Afghan and foreign troops were all about, armored convoys could be seen.  After a meeting at the British Embassy, I asked for a taxi to the Serena Hotel, but one of the Afghans working the embassy gate suggested there was a kidnapping threat if I took a random taxi.  Since I do not have a private car, taxi it was, through the Kabul traffic where kids begged for bakseesh at intersections and the horse-drawn carts clopped by.

Arriving at the Serena Hotel, my driver stopped at the front gate just as two armored vehicles with Turkish markings rolled up behind us.  A hotel security guard came out excitedly, asking why we stopped.  Meanwhile, heavily armed Turkish soldiers were piling out of their vehicles, guarding the armored car of a hotel visitor.  The Turkish soldiers wore patches that say “ISAF,” or International Security Assistance Force. The soldiers were on high alert, and I wanted to be away from them in case of any drama, and so I unloaded the gear and headed to the front gate of the Serena Hotel.  Earlier this year, according to an eyewitness who works as a waiter at a restaurant inside the hotel, two suicide bombers detonated themselves at the gate, killing four guards.  The restaurant was a nearly perfect vantage point from which to see the attack unfold.  The waiter told me that after the suicide bombers detonated at the gate, two men wearing police uniforms shot their way into the hotel, killing two people in the lobby, and then over to the health club where they killed two more before disappearing without a trace.  The attack garnered international attention: Click Here to read story.

Today the lobby was full of customers, and I saw no signs of the murders.  The Taliban are making a play for Kabul.

Some folks are asking how much it costs to run these web-operations.  Since that information is proprietary, I will not lay out a detailed budget.  But I will say that from inception in 2004 to about July 2005, the entire operation was funded from my pocket.

Now the site itself costs about $5,000 per month to maintain (this includes labor), no matter whether I am in Iraq, Afghanistan, or hiding for some precious quiet out in some jungle.

Communications costs are more difficult to estimate, as my operations are shifting from Iraq-centric to Afghanistan-Pakistan-centric (AfPak), and the costs will be higher through the remainder of 2008 and 2009.   I spent approximately $5,000 over a 15-day period this year for communications from Iraq.  My communications costs in Afghanistan could run $5-10k per month while on the ground, and I plan to spend most of the year here.  That means perhaps $80,000 for communications in 2009.  Sat-gear is expensive, and so I beg readers to send me precious little email; it costs piles of money to receive photos of cute puppies.  It’s best to send non-essential letters to my PO Box.  I plow through the letters at Christmas time, and greatly enjoy reading them.  Knowing that there are letters waiting for me at the end of the year help recharge my batteries.  Please mail to:

Michael Yon
PO Box 5553
Winter Haven, FL 33880

All non-critical correspondence should go to the PO Box.  The box is checked daily.

Hardware: I break cameras constantly, and just broke the screen on my latest laptop.  If there is no catastrophe such as an IED taking out my gear while in transport, it’s safe to budget about $10,000 for gear in 2009, though I haven’t bought new body armor yet, and so there will be some additional expenses.  But I imagine 2009 will be a cheap year for gear since I have nearly everything needed, except for what I break or lose in the war.

Just hours before boarding the flight from Dubai to Kabul, my laptop broke.  It had been repaired once before but the repairs did not hold.  Luckily, I had just enough time to FedEx the bad computer home, hail a taxi downtown, spend about 30 minutes computer shopping, and get to the flight. 

Transport and flights:  Maximum $20,000 for 2009.

Legal expenses:  I pay approximately $100,000 per year to fight copyright infringements, conduct business development, handle licensing and other contracts, and address other legal obligations.  Much of this has been offset by the actual copyright settlements, and I have paid my legal counsel roughly a quarter-million dollars in the last three years.  Interestingly, most photographers I talk with would never dream of taking on a behemoth, but will not hesitate to crack on the smaller folks.  I’m the opposite: if a grandmother uses my work to support troops, or in her church group, or in some way that benefits humanity, I just wink and nod and feel a sense of joy that she felt my work was good enough and appropriate enough for such good work.  Contrary, if giant and very powerful entities—the U.S. Army, magazine publishers, newspapers and television networks, for instance—take my work and think it’s free domain, then they can mark an expensive fight on their calendar.  These days, I don’t actually have to fight much; the reputation has gotten around and so mostly the big companies just settle and go on about business.  To date, when I get settlements, those settlements have gone toward legal expenses and operations.

Insurance: I have two policies for coverage overseas.  One is specifically for combat, and both are due this week.  These policies, for this billing cycle, are about $5,600.  Good grief. 

There are other expenses, like hotels, but bottom line is that this operation costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year just to keep breathing, and that provides no funding for growth.  There are opportunities to reach millions more people in the United States and abroad.  Last year, I wanted to have the site translated into other languages but that proved to be too expensive.  The operation could greatly benefit by having an assistant accompany me, which would allow me to publish more dispatches.  The right person, and all the associated insurance, travel and other expenses, would likely cost another $75,000.  Many people volunteer, but after consideration, I have decided there would be far too much training involved to rely on volunteers.  I need someone full-time for the long-term so that I can focus on the war and the writing.

More importantly, this entire operation would greatly benefit from a CEO-type who can oversee all the myriad responsibilities, so that I can focus completely on the war.  That person would come with a big price tag, but the right person could help transform this site into an international powerhouse of reporting from AfPak.

Of further benefit would be to have a presence in Dubai for at least the next two years.  Again, many people offer a room or other short-term assistance, which I greatly appreciate, but that’s not the way to go.  I am not a “blogger” who is content to live on shoestring for a couple weeks at a time, always seeking ad hoc solutions, but a methodical writer in it for the long haul.  To maximize productivity, clear and consistent systems need to be in place, and truly this would be the domain of a CEO-type—skilled in fundraising and management, as well as creative and innovative thinking.  Already, the site reaches up to a hundred countries per day.  But if we, meaning the engaged readership along with me, are to reach millions of people in places such as Europe and Asia, there should be a man or a woman with great business sense and energy who can take the wheel of this ship and sail it around the world while I focus on what I do best.

The AfPak war is not going away; it’s coming at our windshield at a hundred miles per hour.  More than 40 nations are involved.  No matter who is our next President, the challenges will be enormous.  At this point, some of us are wondering which of our allies will quit first.  It is highly unlikely to be the Canadians; they are too tough and are fully engaged.  Definitely not the British.  But what about the French or the Spanish?  Al Qaeda and the Taliban are busy trying to split off the weaker-spirited member-nations.

One thing this war terribly needs is more long-term, firsthand reporting from combat as well as non-combat areas.  Many journalists argue that embeds give only the Public Affairs vantage point, but—counter-intuitively, perhaps—the opposite is true.  The closer writers are to the action, the less interface they have with Public Affairs.  I can go for weeks sometimes without much communication with Public Affairs, because I don’t need official statements.  The journalists who rely almost completely on Public Affairs statements are the ones who are not there to see events with their own eyes.  And so, it’s the un-embedded journalists (the other 99%) who are most at mercy of the Public Affairs machine.  In AfPak, my intentions are to balance embedded with unembedded work.  When I came to Afghanistan in 2006, it was completely without the military, but that was fantastically dangerous.  British soldiers can hardly believe that a friend and I drove back roads, winding through unpatrolled villages, from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion, and back, without the military.  There was no drama (save for the suicide bomb we barely missed on 8 April 2006 at the Lashkar Gah PRT), and the unembedded time with normal Afghans, farmers and such, was very helpful.

If we thought the reporting from Iraq was atrocious, please look at what is (not) coming out of Afghanistan.  At the current rate, reporting to the American public will be almost completely secondhand, regurgitated from email and phone interviews, and most embeds will be like the war tourism we so often saw in Iraq.  There are British and Canadians doing more firsthand reporting, but the Americans seem to be leaving it mostly to the winds.

And so this is not a tropical storm warning.  This is not a warning about high seas ahead.  We are talking about Hurricane Afghanistan, without weather reporters.  But if there are no cameras there to record the damage, will it really have happened?  We have a military that is now very experienced in counterinsurgency.  The military knows what it’s doing from the NCOs up the 4-star generals.  These are among the few people I trust to know what we need in Afghanistan.  They are our best, and we cannot allow them to be fed into some political meat-grinder.

As I wrote in 2006, Afghanistan is the new hot war.  We are on a collision course with heavy fighting in the near future.  Victory is crucial.  We have our best people fighting.  But we also need our best journalists and writers here.  Our political process cannot be trusted.  We must have public auditing in the media, or many politicians will not support our commanders, and those politicians will mangle Afghanistan like they did Iraq.  Without top-notch journalism, Afghanistan could become America’s forgotten war.  After we lose it.

I am with British combat forces in southern Afghanistan.  Please stay tuned for some interesting reports.  The situation is more interesting than I am currently permitted to report, but the embargo will soon be lifted.

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