Michael's Dispatches

To Follow these Steps

published: 5 October 2010

Steve Shaulis and associates in Nimroz Province, Afghanistan, just near the Iranian border.

I first met Steve Shaulis about 27 years ago during Special Forces training.  We’ve been friends ever since and have traveled many places together.

Back in 2001, six months before the 9/11 attacks, we were at his U.S. home in Vero Beach, Florida.  We were preparing to swim out into the night in the Atlantic Ocean when Steve began to tell me more about Afghanistan.  Steve had been to Afghanistan many times and had been exporting agricultural products from the war-ravaged land since 1997.  Steve told me that the Taliban, who were not supposed to watch television, loved professional wrestling.  Their favorite was “The Undertaker,” and when Taliban could not get television, they longed for wrestling updates from Steve.  That night in Florida, as a full moon was rising over the dark Atlantic Ocean, Steve’s fax machine came to life with business from Afghanistan.  While the message pushed out, Steve handed me a book saying something like, “You should read this.  It was written by my friend Ahmed Rashid.”  Mr. Rashid’s excellent book Taliban had just been published with a small print run.  Steve sometimes cautioned me that much pain was brewing in Afghanistan, and he warned that night again.  I remember that night like it was yesterday.

We stepped out of Steve’s home office, passed by his pool, and pulled on our scuba gear.  With fins in hand we walked out his screen door to the beach and swam out into the dark sea, eerily illuminated by a giant full moon.   Silently, we swam maybe a hundred meters from shore while the moon glistened over the waters in one of the most magnificent natural displays I had ever seen, or seen since then.  I had no camera and only the memory.

We swam further into the sea and finally released the air from our buoyancy compensators and descended into the darkness, following the narrow beams of our lights to the holes where the lobsters pulled.  The sounds of the fights were loud in the saltwater.  We ate them.

Soon after that night, Steve took his family to Singapore, setting up an office there, where he has lived ever since.  On about September 10th 2001, an email came from Steve.  Ahmed Shah Mashud had been assassinated.  The next day, when the second hijacked jet hit the World Trade Center, I called Steve in Singapore.  He had been right.

The years flowed by.  During 2006, I was taking a break from the Iraq War, and flew to Afghanistan with Steve, where he had several offices.  After that trip, I wrote twelve dispatches saying in clear terms that we were losing the war in Afghanistan.  Steve never tried to guide the story.  He never told me we were losing.  He just led me around and showed me Afghanistan.  In April, we were in Lashkar Gah when the first two suicide bombers to detonate in that town exploded in front of the PRT.  In fact, we drove from the PRT to the “Camp Bastion,” which did not really exist yet, but Steve’s laborers were building a runway for the British.

I wrote that we could find success in Iraq but were losing in Afghanistan.  When I returned to America, people literally said I was crazy for saying we were losing Afghanistan.  They said I had seen too much combat in Iraq.  Ironically, they said the same thing in 2010 when I wrote that Generals Daniel Menard and Stanley McChrystal should be fired and that Generals Petraeus and/or Mattis should step in.  Again, many people said I was crazy from too much combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Then both generals were fired, and Generals Petraeus and Mattis stepped in.  And none too soon.  I ain’t crazy.  I know a winner when I see one, and it’s my job to stay on point to designate them for you.

The Atlantic saw this before it unfolded.

Steve Shaulis is a winner.  He started from scratch, and now does business in many countries and has three airplanes shuttling his able staff and materiel in and around Afghanistan.  He has a footprint in 20 provinces, and let me tell you this puppy is not grown up yet and it has very big feet.

When I started fighting with Generals Menard and McChrystal, I promised never to embed with U.S. forces who were under McChrystal’s command.  In fact, I was relieved because embedding is very dangerous and more difficult than going alone.  I was in a perfect position to fight because I did not want to embed ever again.  I hoped my combat days were over.  So it was mixed blessings for me when President Obama fired General McChrystal.  Meanwhile, Menard is facing a criminal charge and could go to prison.  Some journalists who seldom embed have deceived the public by saying that embedding is the easy route—WRONG.  Even the milkooks refuse to embed, and those who do come for short trips.  So when the fight reached a high pitch with the generals, and General McChrystal’s crew ended my embed, I called Steve—get me out of here buddy!  I will attack McChrystal from outside the wire.  Brigadier General Daniel Menard was not worth the energy.  I was going downtown to Steve’s big house in Kandahar but the neighbor got hit with a truck bomb the night before I got there, killing some people, and so with the house in tatters, I got on one of Steve’s airplanes and flew to Jalalabad.

McChrystal’s gang kept attacking.  We now know how it all turned out.

Occasionally I would fly to Singapore to meet with Steve or others about Afghanistan, and I realized through time that my friend had morphed into something far greater than a mere “contractor.”  Keeping in mind that Steve started doing Afghanistan business in 1997.  He understands counterinsurgency at its most basic level and has been doing it in Afghanistan and elsewhere for years.

Steve is one of those intellectual freaks who brushes up against a language and accidentally learns it.  He speaks Spanish, Russian, Pashto to a growing degree, and other languages. His staff is international.  At times when he needs interpreters, they are first rate.  Far better than what most of the military affords.  Steve’s interpreters are actually something else—such as business managers—they’re Afghans who are completely fluent in English, and some have travelled.  The only Americans I see with interpreters this good are generals, or ranking civilians.

And so all this is to say that I have been travelling around Afghanistan with Steve.  We go places that soldiers and contractors simply do not go, or if they do it’s with lots and lots of guns.  We go without armor.  We met up this time in Kandahar, flew to Farah, Nirmoz, back to Kandahar, then to Urozgan, then Paktia, and I am now in Nangarhar and Steve has disappeared again.   I heard he was in Dubai then Jakarta.

I’ve mentioned before that my job is to stay on point and to laser winners for you to place your chips. Have I served you well in Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and elsewhere?

The following small story is a typical “Steve day.”

One of Steve’s nice airplanes was broken and the other was flying somewhere else, so we took one of his freight airplanes from Kandahar to Urozgan.  We landed in Tarin Kot.  Travelling with Steve is like travelling with a general, or even with Secretary Gates.  There is almost no waiting.  Staff drives you to the airplane and by the time your seatbelt is fastened the engines are cranking. When you land, staff picks you up and you head straight to the field, visiting projects, key Afghan tribal and government leaders, and British and American officers.  Crack, crack, crack.

We visited projects and along the way his Provincial Manager for Urozgan told us some interesting local vignettes, such as that about the suicide bomber who was shot before he could detonate his vest.  His vest was deemed too dangerous to try to remove, and so they BIP’d him.  (Blew him up in place.)  Then there was the Afghan who had made trouble in the community, and so an Afghan commander had him tied to a tree and sodomized him with a shovel handle in front of 3,000 people, it was said.  And, it was also said, people were making videos with their phones and transmitting the images and so the commander was fired.  These are typical stories in Afghanistan and I have more reason to believe them than not.  A few days after our trip in Tarin Kot, a CADG vehicle was hit by a small IED with no casualties.  Though Steve’s staff has sometimes been kidnapped and or killed, it’s relatively uncommon and in any case, Steve goes to the same places and shares the risks.

Steve checking projects in Tarin Kot.

The people are mostly very friendly and happy because Steve is helping the community.  Steve has many revenue streams with “normal business,” but these projects are done with USAID money.  The COINistas know something that a lot of others don’t seem to get.  The project is your foot in the door to build personal relationships with the community.  Once the community sees you as a friend, they protect you and you help them and you have tea.

Checking projects in Tarin Kot.

Freight trains are very powerful, and easy to derail.

We come from what might well be the most generous country the world has ever known.  Sometimes we do it right.  Sometimes not.  Generosity with brains is a high virtue; generosity without brains is a goodhearted sin.

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