Michael's Dispatches

Last Man Standing

IMG_6387-1000-webKuchi Girl in Farah

05 April 2011
Many Provinces, Afghanistan

As the Afghan war wears on and politicians, diplomats and generals thrust and parry about an endgame, one thing is clear: The outcome of this war will be decided by the last man standing.

Who that will be, and what has to happen before everyone else quits the field, are the questions that remain unanswered.

Today, spring 2011, we are making net progress in Afghanistan.  I first began writing from here in 2006.  In these five years I’ve brought you unending negative news on the matter of how well the Unites States and our allies have succeeded in meeting our goals in the war.  But now, for the first time, the tide may be turning.  Different enemy factions in this theater have been taking a brutal beating.

This isn’t the endgame.  But the battle for 2011 is unfolding before our eyes.  Recent observations suggest that it will be the most deadly so far.

Afghan-Feb-March-2011-webTrace of latest Afghanistan research journey (captured by Trackstick).

To obtain meaningful information in a war zone, where everyone has something to sell and most people who talk don’t know what they’re talking about, you need trustworthy sources with real, significant information.   In war, the closer you get to blood, the closer you get to truth.

So I was lucky to hook up with an old military friend, Steve Shaulis, who has been doing business in Afghanistan since the late 1990s.  Today his company, Central Asia Development Group (CADG), has a presence in about twenty of the thirty-four Afghan provinces.  Few Westerners have deeper contacts in Afghanistan.  I sometimes fly around Afghanistan in Steve’s company airplanes, or visit remote places with CADG personnel.  They never use armor, even in places U.S. troops won’t enter without heavy combat power and air support.  We can go to these places because Steve has built long relationships with the tribes and other local governing structures.  And CADG projects, funded by various governments (US, Australia, Canada), have employed approximately 150,000 native Afghans working in “cash for work” programs. That buys some good will, or at least entre.

I recently accompanied Matthew Goldthwaite, CADG Chief Communications Officer, as we toured twenty projects in blood-soaked battle zones, ranging from Kandahar to Panjwai to Farah and elsewhere.

Moon-IMG_8971a-1000-webMorning Moon over Urozgan.

The morning of 26 February started with the moon overhead.  Several CADG employees loaded up our convoy, including Matt Goldthwaite and Kris LeBoutillier.  Kris was a photographer for National Geographic Traveler and, years before that, an editor at the Wall Street Journal.  Today he is a reports manager for CADG.  Leonard Grami, provincial manager for CADG, worked in Africa before coming to Urozgan. He organized today’s trip to a still-contested area called Chora.

IMG_9023a-1000-webDrive from Tarin Kot to Chora.


During our drive to Chora we passed numerous Afghan police and military patrols along the paved road. Leonard and I drove in one vehicle while Kris and Matt drove separately behind us, while an Afghan security element took other vehicles.

image011-webRoute from Tarin Kot to Chora (Note: armchair analysts may be tempted to call such maps 'security violations,' yet this is the common route. The enemy knows it. That’s why people often die here.)

Before we left Tarin Kot, Leonard had picked up the red lid of a plastic garbage pail, and while a cigarette dangled from his mouth, eyes squinting through the smoke, he wobbled the plastic lid in the air.  He explained that if attack helicopters swooped down near us, we would wave it out a window.  Leonard chuckled as he described an incident where waving his garbage can lid may have saved him and his weapon-laden convoy (which might easily have been mistaken for a Taliban convoy) from friendly fire.

If we were wounded there wouldn’t be anything like the quick medevac that troops get.  We’d have to get back to base many miles away, on our own, no matter how badly off we were.  We had no backup.  Each day at this job carries the health risks of smoking a thousand cartons of cigarettes.


Along the drive, Leonard talked about the many bombs and other attacks that have been used on our route. According to his reading of the copious security reports, over a hundred troops and other people have died during the last fourteen months along this stretch or nearby.  Some were killed last week, and one died in a firefight last night.

Leonard talked about a famous local Afghan commander who, when he catches bomb-makers, forces them to sit on one of their bombs and then he detonates it.  The commander, a Warlord, is an American ally.   Out here in Realityland things are a lot different than back in Idealworld.  Later we had tea with him.

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