Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches



IR-Helicopter-144827cc1000Afghan Soldier caught by infrared flash with specially modified camera.

31 August 2011


A Soldier sleeps in a body bag to keep off the bugs.

Read more: Mosquitoes

We Need Better Pants



30 August 2011
Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan

Rip, rend and slash are all in a day’s work here.  Yet I have never seen so many troops with so many pairs of pants that are ready to fall off.

Read more: We Need Better Pants

The Art, Science, and Carpentry of Explosives


2011-08-17-083045-1000Blocks of M112 C-4 prepared for mission beside roll of M456 detonation cord and accessories.

29 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

There is much to know about explosives.  A wealth of art, science, and carpentry has developed around uncountable blasting concoctions.  Explosives range from highly sophisticated scientific “achievements,” such as neutron bombs, to crude mechanical devices that any teenager can build, such as the relatively harmless bottle bombs that undoubtedly are exploding in backyards and vacant lots around America today.  In Afghanistan, the principle enemy weapon is the IED: Improvised Explosive Device.  Just an hour ago, on 26 August, a bomb detonated nearby, hitting our Afghan Army allies.  The charge weighed perhaps 250lbs and was hidden in a culvert under a road that our Soldiers drive over routinely.  A command wire was attached, and when Afghan soldiers drove by, it was detonated.  Three men were wounded and a fourth was killed.  Earlier this week, US troops nearby suffered loss of limbs from similar bombs, and loss of American lives is on average a daily occurrence.

Read more: The Art, Science, and Carpentry of Explosives

Edvard Munch in the Marijuana Patch


2011-08-18-161959-Web-1000My heavily armed tent mates hours before the mission.

24 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

We live in tents.  Nice tents with air conditioning.  But not now; the electricity and air conditioning are out again and I’m sweating in a boiling tent to write this quickly before the laptop battery dies.  Please excuse this dispatch if it’s rough.  Batteries only last so long.  The local mess hall is a tent.  There are washers and dryers in a tent.  There is the medical tent and comms tent, and supply.  Is their electricity out?  Headquarters has a wooden building.  There are tent showers with water so hot that the shower tents are like a sauna.  The water nearly burns you.   All of this sure beats what I often get in the Himalaya.  On base, the outhouses may seem rough to passersby, but they are like five-star accommodation compared to conditions during some of the missions, when troops are forced to use a collective corner in some compound that is already used by an Afghan family.  In one compound, the family used a scythe for toilet paper for their feet.  When the kids pooped in the corner, they came out with poop on their bare feet. They used the scythe to scrape off the people-puddy, and then the kids were ready to play the high-five game we taught them, slapping high-five with little hands whose only washing occurs accidentally while they collect water from the deep wells.

On the night of the latest mission, the Soldiers had checked their gear over and over, and they were prepared to head into combat.

Read more: Edvard Munch in the Marijuana Patch

Tracer Burnout


2011-08-19-031847-3cc-1000A Female Engagement Team (FET) at work in an Afghan compound. The notions that women should not, cannot, or do not go into combat, all are invalid. They should, they can, and they do. And here we need them.

22 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

Operation Pyrite Pike

The helicopters landed in Taliban country after midnight.  This was not a community outreach moment.  Commanders expected serious resistance and casualties were likely.  In broad strokes, the two-day mission amounted to a “shaping operation.”  Task Force Spartan is successfully using such missions to build outposts in the various hearts of Taliban-controlled areas.  Most of these areas have never been tamed, largely due to insufficient troop commitments early in this war.

We landed in the darkness and the helicopters roared away into the night.  We stayed low in the marijuana field for a few minutes, until silence settled in our heads, and then we began to move out to the objective.  Using night vision gear, we scraped and stumbled and climbed through farmers’ fields.  Sometimes we needed ladders to scale walls and there were some falls in the night, but nobody was hurt this time.

Read more: Tracer Burnout

Battlefield Forensics


2011-07-19-125516-2The Later meeting

18 August 2011
Task Force Spartan, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

During a planning session at a sand table, numerous firefights broke out.  We were at safe distance but close enough to hear heavy volumes of machine gun, AK-47 and RPGs.  The enemy had hit three targets simultaneously.  The closest was a small police outpost over a mile away.  We were hearing the sounds of six people dying.

The attack on the closest police station was unfolding something like this: A small enemy element, probably just a couple or a few Taliban, attacked from vineyards to the south to draw police to the south Hesco wall.  Meanwhile, an assault element consisting of three fighters was trying to penetrate through the front Hesco entrance to the north.  The police did not seem to take the bait.  The three enemy approaching from the road to the north were using a motor-tricycle, which are common here.  The driver was dressed in civvies while the men in back wore chest racks with ammo.  Their weapons were hidden under straw in the tricycle bed.

Read more: Battlefield Forensics

JTAC: Joint Terminal Attack Controller



17 August 2011

4-4Cav in Combat
Operation Flintlock

We made it off the helicopter landing zone with no fighting. The enemy was not afraid of us, but they must have been taken by surprise.

Two Air Force JTACs were along for the mission, as they nearly always are in deliberate attacks that might involve air power.  In short, the JTACs are skilled technicians who often see significant amounts of combat because many JTACs stay busy bouncing around from unit to unit, from one combat operation to the next.  And so rest assured, if the nightly news is reporting about a serious Army operation, JTACs probably were there.

Read more: JTAC: Joint Terminal Attack Controller

Body Bags & Speedballs


2011-07-31-110938-1000Body bag drag

16 August 2011
Zhary District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The enemy is easily resupplied.  His arteries for food and water are shorter than snake legs.   He can buy or steal much of what he needs to fight.    We don’t steal food or materials from locals, so we must plan for constant resupply.

Day and night, around Afghanistan, supplies go out via ground convoys, fixed-wing aircraft, and parachute. This dispatch, however, is about “speedballs” delivered by helicopter.

Read more: Body Bags & Speedballs

War Dogs & Veloci-Chickens in Afghanistan


b2011-07-30-141111-1000Task Force Spartan Pushing Deeper into Taliban Country. A canine team at rest.

15 August 2011
Zhary District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

War Puppies

Friday morning I was out for a run on base and must have seen five working dogs and their handlers.  The two dogs you will see in these dispatch photos were part of a serious combat mission two weeks ago, but I did not see them Friday morning.

The military working dogs in the U.S. armed services are about the happiest dogs anywhere on the planet.  They are loved and coddled by Soldiers far from their families.  It is fair to say that military dogs are treated better than helicopter pilots, and possibly as well as jet pilots (though not Marine jet pilots, who sometimes are treated like dogs).

Read more: War Dogs & Veloci-Chickens in Afghanistan

Infiltration: Operation Flintlock Part II


2011-07-28-152910-2-10004-4Cav Soldiers stuffed into CH-47 helicopter during mission.

August 11, 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The plan was bold and dangerous.  The troops were to fly by CH-47 helicopters to the insertion point.  There would be no moonlight.  Illumination was predicted to be 1%.  Flying with night vision goggles and no lights, the pilots were to put wheels down at exactly 0300 in the middle of a field near targeted areas of interest.

The landing zone (LZ) was in a dangerous area with the specific number surrounding enemy fighters unknown.  Just a day before, the enemy had fired an RPG at a Kiowa Warrior helicopter near the LZ, but missed.  The pilots often can identify an RPG that misses: unlike in the movies, RPGs make no trail.  If it misses a target it normally self-destructs.  When the RPG explodes in the air, it leaves a small donut shaped cloud, and a small “smoke stick.”  The smoke stick is created after the warhead explodes leaving smoke, and the spent rocket motor continues to fly through the smoke, dragging smoke with it.  The pilot can look at the smoke stick and guess the firing point.  On the other hand, if a pilot sees a smoke trail coming her way, it’s a surface-to-air missile and a bad day is unfolding.

Read more: Infiltration: Operation Flintlock Part II

Ambush this Morning


09 August 2011
Zhary District, Kandahar, Afghanistan

(A quick, unedited dispatch.)

At 0630 this morning, the Commander of 4-4Cav and I met for a morning run.  Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona is on his fifth combat tour.   After the run, I decided to finish a dispatch and publish today, and therefore had to skip today’s mission with LTC Katona.

As the day unfolded, radio traffic came in that LTC Katona’s mission, consisting of four MRAPs, was in a serious and well organized ambush.  The Commander’s vehicle was immediately disabled from an 82mm strike to the engine, which scorched the Commander’s boots.  The gunner was knocked unconscious and fell down from the hatch.  The gunner quickly recovered and joined battle.  Katona spilled out of the MRAP and began firing at the enemy.

The other three MRAPs all were hit, for a total of four destroyed MRAPs.  The enemy used a combination of small arms, RPGs, and 82mm.  One RPG hit a windshield but did not penetrate, but the 82mm were devastating.  All or most of the troops were wounded, but all are MINOR.  The fight raged for about twenty minutes.

Read more: Ambush this Morning

Operation Flintlock: Some Notes


2011-07-29-193145-1000Planning Operation Flintlock at FOB Pasab, formerly FOB Wilson.

09 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches.  For us, the Iraq war has essentially come and gone between 2003 and 2008, though we continue to lose troops there.  Here in Afghanistan, the war marches on.

In Afghanistan, if destroying our enemies and replacing the vacuum with a creaky government was the goal, we waited until 2009 or 2010 to get serious.  The positive pivot in the Afghanistan war occurred in 2010 after General Petraeus took command.  Today, progress can be seen, though the tide will likely begin to recede with our troops in 2012.

Task Force Spartan, the largest Brigade in Afghanistan, has been tasked to penetrate the heart of the original Taliban country where Mullah Omar, the long-recognized leader of the Taliban, was born and raised.  Amazingly, the Zhari District and surrounds, such as Panjwai, have not been tamed after all these years.  One could understand this situation if it were deep in the hidden parts of the rugged Hindu Kush, where even helicopters and UAVs pant in the thin air, but from where I write these words, in Zhari District, no mountains can be seen.  The altitude is low, there are no jungles to hide in, no sea of humanity in which to blend and swim in the sparse farming villages.  The few rugged hills on the periphery, where practically nobody lives, provide advantage for us, not the enemy.

Read more: Operation Flintlock: Some Notes

Men at War: Come Home with Your Shield, or On It


2011-07-31-070544-1000During the mission

08 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The men here can be seen saluting senior officers, while saying, “Sir, with your shield or on it.”  This is the mantra of Task Force Spartan.

On the morning of 30 July, members of 4-4Cav boarded CH-47 helicopters and at 0300 landed in the middle of a Taliban stronghold.  Over the next 48 hours, there were at least 27 firefights.  The number taken for confirmed enemy killed was eleven, though likely the actual number was considerably higher.  During the first day, one of our Soldiers was shot in the face and badly wounded.  His buddies say that had he not then played dead, the enemy surely would have killed him.  His buddies, braving close and accurate machinegun fire, managed to rescue the wounded Soldier from a roof.  A Blackhawk MEDEVAC took him away as we watched from a few hundred meters distance.

Read more: Men at War: Come Home with Your Shield, or On It



2011-07-28-152910-2-1000aOperation Flintlock

06 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

A tragic loss of dozens of Americans and Afghan partners has occurred.  Apparently their helicopter was shot down during a raid.  The investigation is underway.

Read more: Onward

The Texan Who Would Be King



02 August 2011

Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
With 4-4CAV, Task Force Spartan, Regional Command South

You meet the most interesting people in war.

War draws a “Who’s Who” of national leadership and central figures from the President on down.  “Everyone who is anyone” is somehow involved.  The higher leadership funnels down by gravity to the conflict.  And there another funnel is created, only this one is like a funnel cloud, a tornado, that rips through the young generation serving.  It also lifts many of these younger members into the clouds, to heights they never would have reached without military service, especially in war.  Many young people who are serving now will go on to do big things as they leap over boundaries that no longer exist in their minds or in reality.  They’ve faced death again and again and again.  Day in and day out, their responsibilities are routinely matters of life and death, success and failure.  Their decisions, good or bad, have national implications.  After this kind of responsibility, what else is there?

Read more: The Texan Who Would Be King

More Flak from Military Public Affairs


29 July 2011
Over the past seven years, there has been a long string of issues flowing from military public affairs officers.  Most of the PAs have been professional, but on balance the experience has been extremely negative.  This is the opposite of what I've experienced with combat units, wherein the experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

The latest meddling from Public Affairs began yesterday after I published photos supplied to me by the Army.  The images show a young Afghan boy who stepped on a bomb.  Apparently the Taliban made the boy step on the bomb which blew off part of his right leg.  Our people at Task Force Spartan took him in for treatment.  Distant busybodies in Public Affairs, who can’t seem to stand it when the military gets positive press, wanted the story taken down.  (After FOX, Instapundit, and others ran the story.)  They cited paragraph 21 of the embed ground rules.  Perhaps they did not imagine that I would review paragraph 21.  The paragraph is unrelated.  The ground rules are published below.

Read more: More Flak from Military Public Affairs

Taliban Attacking More Children


26 July 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

Over the past several days there have been news stories here in Afghanistan about the Taliban strangling an 8-year-old boy.   The reports say that his father refused to turn over a police vehicle to the enemy, and so they murdered his son.  Late last night, a courageous Afghan journalist named Mustafa Kazemi emailed an image of the boy that Mustafa said had been murdered.  Afghans are enraged.  They hate this behavior as much as we do.  The boy appears to have had his eyes gouged out before being strangled to death.  This image is graphic. (please scroll down)

And so last night I walked to the Headquarters of 4-4CAV here in Zhari District, the most active district in Afghanistan at this time.  I asked what was going on tonight.  A noncommissioned officer filled me in on the day’s events.  We had been in a minor ambush resulting in a slight injury and a damaged MRAP, so I knew about that one.  But then he explained about a boy whom he said the Taliban forced to step on an IED just down the road from here.  Apparently, according to Afghans, the Taliban may have been testing a new bomb made from a soda bottle.  The boy’s name is Jalil, and our people estimate that Jalil is 6 to 8-years-old.  Jalil was picking grapes with his brother when the Taliban, according to reporting, told the boy to step on the bomb.  It blew off his right leg below the knee, leaving hamburger on the stump, and fractured his femur.  Afghans brought Jalil to the nearby American base called COP Kolk, where 4-4CAV Soldiers treated him.  A helicopter took Jalil and his father to Kandahar Airfield for advanced treatment.

I asked the Taliban spokesman for his take on this, and he emailed back that “It is enemy propaganda.”  The evidence is against him.

I asked the Army to declassify the storyboard, and so they cleaned off some coordinates and other unimportant trivia, and here it is:


Left of Bang


14 July 2011


A few years ago, a British officer said to me they want to get as far left of bang as possible.  The farther left of bang, the better.  Right of bang is a crater and a memorial service.

A main goal in staying left of bang is to disrupt enemy bomb-making cells.  In the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, if a bomb blew up our people, we would be apt to arrest every male in the village old enough to sport pubic hair.  We paid for that with more blood and may or may not have gotten the right guys.  It was as if we were dealing with a thousand mysterious unibombers.  In America, if a bomb hit the local National Guard headquarters and the Guard responded by flooding out and arresting the entire neighborhood, the Guard could be assured that any positive or neutral feelings would be toxified to the point where previously friendly eyes would become enemy spies.  The formula is simple and works every time.

Read more: Left of Bang

Rule of Law


150215-web1000pxPartners in Law

13 July 2011
Kandahar, Afghanistan

Most Afghans hate warlords.  Most Afghans hate the Taliban.  When the warlords ruled Afghanistan it was lawless, and so many people welcomed the Taliban who beat back the warlords and installed crude justice.  Soon, the Taliban, staggered by their new power, became the new pariah.

After 9/11 the Taliban were beaten back.  This left another justice-vacuum.  We let the vacuum stand because we were not serious about Afghanistan and so we ran off to Iraq.  We finally became serious about Afghanistan in about 2009/2010.  This gave the Taliban and their shadow government most of a decade to regenerate.  Today, they run their own courts, and since 2006 I have heard countless stories from Afghans that they would prefer to have a government (most would, anyway), but they will take the Taliban over a vacuum.  They may hate warlords, but they hate Taliban less.

Read more: Rule of Law

IJC: Change of Command


And a Few Thoughts

ISAF Joint Command Official Change of Command Ceremony

KABUL, Afghanistan (July 9) – Media are invited to attend the change of command ceremony when Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez will welcome Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti as the new commander of ISAF Joint Command (IJC).

WHO:        Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti and other coalition and Afghan leaders

WHERE:      North KAIA, ISAF Joint Command, International Kabul Airport, Abby Gate
            Military side of the Khawja Rawash International Airport)

WHEN:       Monday, July 11
Gate opens to media arrival at 7 am
            Gate closes to media at 8 am
            Ceremony starts at 9 am

briefing-pano-testIJC in Kabul

11 July 2011
Kabul, Afghanistan
(Published from Dubai)

IJC stands for ISAF Joint Command, while ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Force.  And so with just three letters, you can say the 53 letters and spaces of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, which in turn symbolizes the more than forty countries assisting in Afghanistan.  They all seemed to have someone in the IJC.

On the day that I made the above image, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was coming to give a talk and say goodbye.  Secretary Gates did a great job.  In the IJC this day, the shift on duty was told to clear off all classified material so that there would be no issues with the cameras.  Secretary Gates walked in and gave his farewell talk, shook hands with a couple hundred people and then flew off in the 747-like jet that was waiting nearby.  As of this publishing, he’s retired.

Read more: IJC: Change of Command

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