Life Before Death

Published: 6 October 2008
From four Provinces, Afghanistan

I left embed with British forces in Kandahar, and flew to Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand Province.  Helmand is the biggest opium source of the world today.  I write these words from Nangarhar, where bin Laden had made his home.

British officers warned me not strike out on my own, but the temptation was great.  A friend of mine has a private airplane, which I took from Kandahar Province to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.  As we landed, some cars arrived to pick up other passengers.

The airplane dropped us off, but security waited for the airplane to safely take off again before they left.  The aircraft is exposed on the runway, and an RPG had recently sailed over the field.

The airplane rumbles away.  Days after the last time I flew from this “airport” in 2006, three people were killed when a plane overran the runway trying to avoid a truck.  The plane crashed into a house.

The road from the airport into Lashkar Gah is newly paved, and we drove in an unarmored pickup truck.  (The security guards in the new, armored vehicles picked up other passengers.)

Lashkar Gah: The tall kid in the back had some very big ears.  The people in “Lash” were very friendly in 2006, and again on this trip, but Afghans kindly warned me not to go shopping in the market.

Lashkar Gah

Western attitudes about the Afghans are interesting.  There seems to be a general feeling of affection towards most Afghans, and I find the Afghans approachable and easy to get along with.  The food I’ve eaten in different provinces is excellent, and I also enjoy talking with Afghanis.  Many soldiers, journalists and foreign workers have expressed similar experiences here.  Tom Ricks, the outstanding American journalist who authored Fiasco (a very important book about the Iraq war), spent some of his childhood years in Afghanistan.  Tom emailed me about Afghanistan, saying: “I love the country…”  On another occasion, Tom wrote to me about his childhood here:

“When I was a kid we used to go down to the Helmand for Christmas, stopping in Kandahar for milkshakes at the American USAID outpost there.  It was lovely that time of year. Lashkar Gah was a Little America out in the desert. The big dams north of there were built by the Americans in the '50s--the subject of James Michner's novel Caravans.”

(Tom is holed up working on a new book: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, which I am looking forward to reading.)

President Hamid Karzai has little clout outside the major cities of Afghanistan.  In some parts, his influence is about as big as his photo.  In Washington and London, however, he is seen as being very powerful.

The US poured great resources into Afghanistan during the 1950s.  Americans built large houses from brick (such as this one), and hired local staffs.  A house-boy who worked in this building in the 1950s learned English from Americans, and he missed them badly after they left.  I’ve talked with him for some hours in 2006 and again in 2008.  For years he searched for the American woman who helped teach him English.  Finally, through a journalist, he was reunited with her family.  He showed me recent letters from America, which letters indicated a great fondness on both sides.  The “house boy” is now a cook, in the same house, and it’s clear that those letters are among his prized possessions.  The Americans built Kajaki dam in the 1950s, and supplied electricity to places that never had it, and helped build a large irrigation system that later was used to grow massive amounts of opium poppy, which of course funds the Taliban who support al Qaeda.  Strange how that played out.

During the sweltering days, these huts can be comfortably cool.

Just sprinkle water on the shrubs and you’ve got a makeshift air conditioner.

Friendly people.  Heavily armed.

Afghans say that in the old days, there were no walls around the houses when the Americans were here en masse.  But then the Soviets invaded and walls went up.  I asked several Afghans who was worse, the Soviets or the Taliban.  One man said the Soviets were far worse.  The Soviet approach to counterinsurgency bordered on genocide, but that strategy backfired.  The Soviets left under a hail of bullets, and their loss of the war in Afghanistan helped bring down the entire Soviet Union.  British soldiers told me that they held joint patrols with some of the Eastern European troops, who still use Soviet-style vehicles.  When the people saw the Soviet vehicles coming, they threw rocks at them, though they did not throw rocks at British vehicles.

Other Afghans told me the Taliban, and years of civil war, was even worse than the Soviet invasion.

Lashkar Gah.  There are many nice gasoline stations in Afghanistan, but still some roadside stands like on the right, selling fuel in plastic jugs.  I overnighted downtown, which the British had told me was “crazy,” but I had no problems.

If you can’t read this, don’t worry, neither can most Afghans.  Still, they keep erecting road signs.

Paved roads are a visible sign of progress and security.  But Afghans, British and Americans who are paying attention tell me that government influence ends where the pavement ends, which means most of Afghanistan.  Worse, many of our (NATO) folks never leave the bases.  There were people at the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Lashkar Gah who did not even know this road was paved.  That might not sound like a big deal, until we consider that this road runs straight to the PRT.

The Afghans really load down those rickshaws.  An Afghan in Jalalabad told me there is a ricksaw factory in that city, which I thought would make a fun story to write.  How is the ricksaw business?

Rush hour in Lashkar Gah.  Over in Kandahar, an officer from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who is working with our Special Forces, told me that his country is putting $50 million dollars into an Afghan road project.  Talking with citizens from UAE makes me want to skip town and head to Dubai where it’s safe and the Arabs are very hospitable, though many Afghans I talk with don’t seem to like Arabs.  When my western friends talk bad about Arabs, I think of places like UAE or Qatar where we are extremely welcome and safe. The idea that we are in a global religious war is untrue.  Certainly there are wars unfolding that have religious basis, but this is not World War III.  We are not in a war against Muslims, and the vast majority of Muslims are not at war with us.  Islam is experiencing a culture-wide religious and political civil war, much like the wars that accompanied the Reformation in Europe.  We are trying to put out the flames of the Islamic civil war.  Yet sometimes we make it worse.

Cemetery: Afghans have said that when Arabs (al Qaeda in this case) came to town, they started getting into fights with locals because they would rip down flags in the graveyards.  The flags somehow offended al Qaeda, but so far nobody has given me a solid reason why.

Lashkar Gah

The British had warned not to go it alone.  It is to their great credit that they spend so much effort to save a writer.  Yet there is another world outside the wire that must be explored to develop a nose for this war.  Astronauts don’t get paid to play in simulators; likewise, war correspondents must venture into the unknown.

So far, Afghanistan is easier to cover than Iraq.  In Iraq, going alone would have been suicidal.  Unless you could afford your own personal bodyguards, there was no alternative to embedding with the military.  Traveling on my own is not suicidal here, just very dangerous.  And it reaps enormous benefits.  The information flows at a much faster rate, and I get a tactile sense of what’s really going on.  In Iraq, only companies like New York Times with gigantic budgets could dare allow their writers to go it alone.   Yet in Afghanistan, if a writer is willing to accept higher levels of risk, he or she can break out of the military cocoon.

And float like a butterfly.

Butterflies in Lashkar Gah

Comments   

 
-1 # RE: Life Before DeathUnwashed 2008-10-07 12:59
So what have the Brits accomplished in Afghanistan with ALL their troops and resources? Don't drink the kool-aid Michael, their government has failed miserably due to their arrogance and relctance to take the fight to the enemy. 24 MEU and 2/7 have accomplished more in their 6 months on the ground then the Brits have in years.
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+2 # RE: Life Before DeathCarol 2008-10-07 14:31
Do you ever ask the Afghans you meet "what do you think should be done?" or "what would you like to have happen?" I'm bursting to know what the girls think but will probably have to wait a few years for that.
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-1 # Geoff 2008-10-07 15:32
I checked the URL from the billboard in picture #14: http://www.etisalat.af/ . some kind of Telecom outfit; interesting the page comes up in english...so they either built in English or they spent some time to sniff a browsers language preference & serve that language up. looks like they have deep pockets.

"Etisalat Afghanistan is proud to have been awarded the 4th GSM license in Afghanistan. We at Etisalat will bring The Afghan people our vast International experience and drive the Afghan Telecom market on to a higher level; through both competitive pricing and innovative services for our users.

We enable people to reach each other, businesses to find new markets and everyone to fulfill their potential. Across Afghanistan we provide voice and data services for everyone.

Reach out. The worldƒ??s waiting. "
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+1 # Barry 2008-10-07 16:33
Michael, what struck me as I browsed through your photographs is how little rubbish there is. Individual memoirs and pictures of Iraq often revealed a complete shambles, it would seem Afghanistani's are not like that. Very interesting.

Regards Barry, Hampshire England.

ps I was not aware our troops were failing to take the fight to the enemies of a better Afghanistan. Unwashed seems to disagree with your own assessments!
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+1 # Pete G. 2008-10-07 17:12
Michael,
You have lot's of courage to go where most others won't. I know that your background has set you well to feel safe in a lot of places that others wouldn't. Still don't take too many chances. You only go around once and we can't afford to lose your insight and truth where nobody else tells it like it is. I look forward to each new dispatch. So stay safe and keep telling it like it is. The pictures are great! Take care and God Bless.
PMG
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+1 # tony 2008-10-07 18:59
I feel that it is of some discredit to Michael and his wonderful reporting that I expect such high quality "news" each time I see there's a new despatch.
Michael, I look forward to every report.
I know you can trust your instinct and gut feelings. I pray that they they do not let you down. Please be careful. Stay safe.
I fear that this is the only honest reporting that is available to the world.
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# USMC Lifer 2008-10-07 20:12
Really enjoy the insight that your writing provides into the specifics of the unfolding situation there and how it affects the people. Keep safe and know that your instincts are right on. Great pictures.
Do the Afghans seem to have the ambition necessary to pursue liberty and freedom, as a people, or are they just adapting to circumstances and "going with the flow" as new situations arise?
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# MikeAngelo 2008-10-08 09:54
Michael -

Great job as always. Your insight is invaluable and passed along at every chance I get. What's the feeling on the ground about the recent disagreements with the high level British General comments regarding the recent parallel with the British Basrah 'victory'? I'd be interested in hearing your perspective. Also, can you shed any light/feelings on reports of our SF groups and there progress into Northern Waristan? Not sure if that is a little too sensitive at this point or not.

Always looking forward to your next dispatch.

Mike
USN Vet
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# tankerbabe 2008-10-09 03:17
Michael,

I continue to enjoy reading your dispatches and learning from your photos. You are one of many of our great national treasures that continues to go unnoticed and unappreciated by the masses. Those of us who can't get enough of your information are gratefull for the human that you are. Be safe Michael.
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# Robin 2008-10-09 13:16
Butterflies and their shadows...I am enchanted. It must be a little oasis of visual poetry in an other wise constant vigilance against attack. Or are you fairly comfortable among the people?
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# rochester_veteran 2008-10-09 13:38
Michael,

This article and included photos made me feel as if I was traveling along with you!

Thanks so much for putting so much on the line so we can get factual reports on what life is like in Afghanistan!

rochester_veteran
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# Matthew - SC, USA 2008-10-09 14:39
Michael - The former king of Saudi Arabia was buried in an unmarked grave before sundown on the day of his death. Many muslims believe putting up a tombstone - and visiting it - smacks of ancestor worship. Perhaps the flags identified graves, and Al-Quaeda disagreed with the practice
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# Greg Hostettler 2008-10-09 16:59
Michael: Great commentary and photos. Really took me back. I was a trainer and advisor to the ANP in Jalalabad in 04 and 05. We worked out of a refurbished Taliban compund on the west end of the city across from the Provincial Police HQ. Quite a year, but I enjoyed working with my ANP counterparts. Found most to be honorable men, especially the younger officers. Enjoyed getting out and around Jbad when we could, I found the common folk friendly and appreciative. Still have an interest in what happens there. Appreciate you getting the word out. Stay safe and check 6.
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# Brian H 2008-10-10 05:17
Your pix reminded me of a newly discovered interesting fact about butterflies. Their apparent staggering flight is actually finely and precisely controlled. They are "quartering" the breezes, sampling relative intensities of scents and traces in the air with their large antennae to find the best food/nectar sources nearby. Something like getting binocular or stereo odour readings.
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# SEO Services 2008-10-13 12:21
Nice Post. Thanks for sharing.
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# Da Durban 2008-10-14 03:27
i wish the main stream would cover your work! Great job! U are the real deal!
do take care
God Bless!!
Aloha
DA
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# Afghanistani 2008-10-14 15:53
I read your writing on FOXNews.com and then came over to your website. I must say, your work is excellent, both in content and in its audacity to cover things that others won't even think of. I am from Afghanistan myself, and I can't even dare take the road from Kandahar to Kabul, partly because I am the wrong ethnic group. I can only imagine the danger you go through as you go the 'heartland' of the instability in southern Afghanistan. No to discourage you from the excellent work you're doing, but please be concerned about your safety -- I am.

Thanks for covering my country like no one else is.
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# Nevermore 2008-11-04 10:37
re: Unwashed, is what we've 'achieved' in Kunar, Nuristan etc so much superior to what the Brits have 'achieved' in Helmand? Using this article about these ongoing efforts, just for a bit point-scoring off our own allies is a bit cheap. Don't drink the kool aid.
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# Rachelle 2008-11-05 06:18
Michael Yon is an American author, independent reporter, and blogger. He has been embedded on numerous occasions with American and British troops in Iraq, most prominently with the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division in Mosul, Iraq, a deployment that ended in September 2005. He continues to blog from Iraqi and Afghan towns and battlefields. Yon is a Special Forces veteran. He was charged with killing a man in a bar room fight, but the charges were subsequently dismissed when it was determined that he had acted in self-defense. His first book, Danger Close, details this event and tells the story of his life up to the age of about twenty, after he had completed the selection and training process for the Special Forces.
--------------
Rachelle


Guaranteed ROI
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# ??et 2008-11-16 22:09
afganistan irak iran sirada k?m var
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# Jc 2010-02-15 09:51
When going "alone", are you with a translator? Dressed as a local or not?
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-3 # kill american terrorists 2010-06-28 03:45
arrogant Americans and their other evangelic terrorist allies are not just ready to accept the defeat even if they are continuously digging their graves in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The brave mujahideen freedom fighters of Afghanistan will kill every American invader terrorist, no matter how many of these cowards you bring in Mr. Obama
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