Michael's Dispatches

Afghanistan: Trump Going in Circles


image001Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (cr. Michael Yon)

President Trump thinks he can solve the AfPak dilemma. In his speech, Trump talked about winning. There is no winning to be had beyond safeguarding our national interests.

This is all a distraction from a gigantic problem: China. On our scale of concern, Afghanistan is microscopic by comparison to China and other challenges, yet on our scale of priorities, the price of nation building in Afghanistan dwarfs the price of securing our borders.

Afghanistan is at the periphery of our influence bubble. Pluto. Our footprint is a speck in the Asian beyond. The President called on Pakistan and India to do their parts. How often we have heard this.

image003British squaddie after firefight in Basra, Iraq. (cr. Michael Yon)

After spending more than half my life in 74 countries outside the United States, including 25 Asian countries, a realization dawned that main human tides are beyond anyone’s control.

I spent four years in the Iraq and Afghan wars between 2004-2011. Heard every new plan and miracle diet. Some things work, some not. No size fits all. Every new strategy comes with the idea that we are turning a corner. When one walks in circles, every step turns a new corner.

Media cannot be trusted, nor can government officials. So, in 2004, I struck off to the Iraq war. So thirsty were people for raw information that just months later, I went from no blog, to one of the busiest in the world.

Los Angeles times reported in 2006:

“[Michael Yon] emerged last year as the reporter of choice for many conservatives and supporters of the war. His blog inspired so much buzz that by last month only 83 other blogs, out of about 26 million on the Internet, received more links from other websites.”

Strangely, I was not supporting the war, or opposing it. Just taking inventory. But since I was not waving anti-war, Bush-hate flags, this was taken as pro-war and pro-Bush.

I accomplished this with two cameras, one laptop, one helper, no advertisement, and willingness to say the truth no matter who it helped or hurt.

Meanwhile, 2017, President Trump hardly glanced at the solar eclipse, and mainstream media such as CNN, with disregard for their own credibility, reported as if President Trump stared at the eclipse.

image005CNN: “Yes, Donald Trump really did look into the sky during the solar eclipse”

Video reveals that President Trump barely glanced. I never liked Trump. But the lying media…they helped get us into and confused about wars that cost mountains of treasure and much blood. Thanks to themselves, I took much CNN market share in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Thailand, with just cameras and laptops.

So here we are still in Afghanistan, dependent upon the same media to report knowledgably and honestly.

Our biggest failures in Iraq and Afghanistan started with bad information, broken paradigms, with our American psyche still resonating with echoes of the big bang of Manifest Destiny that built our great land and then got us into trouble. We sat at the table too long and now must push back to preserve and strengthen what we have.

image007Specialist Chazray Clark killed in action, Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (cr. Michael Yon)

To his credit, the President recognizes that changing Afghan culture is not a viable path. Afghanistan must not be on the menu of Manifest Destiny.

Living abroad for more than 25 years, I’ve thrived with many cultures in Germany, Poland, Thailand, and more. After six years in Europe, five in the Middle East, I learned that most of us can get along, but that some fish do not mix well in the same aquarium.

Some do not mix well no matter how well the conditions are set. They just fight. Our own border is more important to us than all of Afghanistan.

We swim in the AfPak aquarium. Many want us there. Women have nearly cried begging us to stay, and there are men who appreciate and value our presence. Others feel differently, evidenced by thousands of casualties.

image009Killing al Qaeda, Mosul, Iraq. (cr. Michael Yon)

Yet even as we approach the 16th year in America’s longest war, it seems most Americans, even most journalists and government officials, do not realize the layered complexity, often viewing this as Islam against the world. AfPak is a land of many wars, a vast mutiny, a coral reef of human diversity.

This is not just Taliban, Haqqani and others, chasing endless jihads. Tracing the layers of AfPak conflict is like tracing banyan tree roots.


Pashtuns fight in part for Pashtunistan. Baloch are out for Balochistan. Other ‘Stanis’ are out for their stans. Different authors make slightly different maps, but in most cases they deeply overlap, often with Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and each other.

Overlaps between Pashtunistan, Baluchistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, are just a taste of the complexity. Sunni vesus Shia, or caliphate building, are sub-themes. Any stans that form there will be some sort of caliphate.


There are simple turf wars with economic or local political basis. Afghanistan is the biggest narco-state in human history.

Tribal and monetary veins are strong. Proxy dimensions between players such as India and Pakistan are heavy influencers.


Interestingly, many Pashtun, Baloch, and others see the US as allies or potential allies in broader struggles. Pashtun, as example, sometimes contact me as if I speak for the US government, asking if we will help Pashtuns resist CPEC, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I say, I do not speak for the United States, and offer only soft, informal advice to a few people. I ask what will you do about CPEC? Some Pashtun seem ready to fight, seeing CPEC as a threat to a Pashtun homeland.

There will be no acceptable military solution to the myriad conflicts of AfPak/India/etcetera-stan. We tried that. We tried more, changed more, tried more, and it got worse. President Trump will fail at any attempt to reach a military solution.

Domestically, in the US, Trump’s best political bet is to run the war as secretly as possible, while investing in propaganda and spin.


President Trump alluded only vaguely to political solutions in AfPak, making no mention of tribes. Kabul and Islamabad are not central powerhouses that one finds in Berlin or Bangkok, where one government speaks for most people. The President of Afghanistan is often called the Mayor of Kabul. Talking about Afghanistan as a discreet location or country is as meaningless as talking about the Hawaiin climate while ignoring the Pacific.

If the US is to operate as a stabilizing influence in AfPak, tribes are primary keys. Or, as Steven Pressfield would say: It’s the tribes, Stupid.

We do not negotiate with Pashtun or other peoples as ethnic groups. Internally they, too, are factionalized. Trump made no mention of tribes.

image019Nimroz Province, Afghanistan (cr. Michael Yon)

This intractable situation leaves America no good options other than to limit our involvement and focus on guarding US national interest, and keeping our attention on more serious problems such as China.

image021Jeremy Ryckman shot in body armor the morning Brice Scott was shot in the face and killed. We got into more than 20 firefights on this two-day mission. Zhari District, Afghanistan. (cr. Michael Yon)

The cost of the AfPak war has been high. Thousands of Coalition casualties. Monetary cost of maybe $1 trillion. Nobody knows the real cost, or the costs of diverting our attention from domestic issues, or away from the looming China.

In Afghanistan, we fire diamonds from golden cannons at illiterate farmers, many of whom never heard of the 9/11 attack. I asked in many villages why they thought we were there. Many did not have any idea. Others said they heard there was a bomb in America.

image023After suicide car bomb in Mosul, Iraq. (cr. Michael Yon)

Our men and women are courageous. If I could have streamed live for hours on end, day after day, year by year, from combat, our troops would make you proud, and probably leave some people hiding under tables. But they kept going. Doing their missions.

There was plenty of courage and dedication. I probably saw more combat in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other writer. If not, close. My take away was that this generation is better than popularly advertised. Tough, resilient, smart, they make great Soldiers. And it is up to older generations not to waste their lives chasing fantasies. We must not continue pouring lives into bottomless pits that do not serve vital national interests.

image025Training for Afghanistan in Norway (cr. Michael Yon)

So far, our various AfPak strategies have created a drug factory with monied enemies who are even more international than when we began.

I walked endless miles through that poppy and corn, in the mountains in deserts, watching our young people shot and blown to pieces. We can beat the Taliban and associates. That is simple, but would require epic war crimes spanning several countries, that no doubt would create a larger war.

image027American Soldier tries to save Farah, an Iraqi girl killed by suicide bomber in Mosul. (cr. Michael Yon)

Afghanistan is not a country but an area that is not another country.

Afghanistan is an illusion, a shape drawn on a map, filled with many peoples with different cultures and languages, governing themselves mostly in tribal ways, chased with a deep swill of Islam.

Our goals in Afghanistan should be limited to strategic interests including checking Iran, while combating transnational terrorism. This can be accomplished with small numbers of special operations and even contractors.

Checking Iran includes maintaining airbases and intelligence operations.

The military has already proven for almost 16 years that despite their professionalism and courage, the place is worse now than before. The current military leadership is no more brilliant than previous, and the enemies are stronger, bigger, and more emboldened than ever before.

Nothing new came from Trump’s Afghanistan speech. He talked tough about relaxing the rules of engagement, but so what? I have been there during times of great troop strength and limber ROE and the grass still grew faster than we were willing to cut.

My sources indicate that when new US forces and any additional Coalition arrive in Afghanistan, total force will be fewer then 20,000.

Last time I was there, we had about 150,000. Probably double that with civilian enablers. I saw airstrikes nearly daily just in the places I went, and more firefights than I can remember. It was not a matter of relaxing ROE. We were free to shoot bad guys.

Even with 150,000 + enablers, if we were to succeed with troop strength alone, we brought a gallon of paint to cover a barn. That gallon would barely paint the barn doors. Coalition forces never have, and never will, step foot in the vast majority of Afghan villages, not to mention the Pakistan side.

Trump made big talk about a new way, as if we are turning another corner. To look at Afghanistan as a 10-year, or 30-year nation building project is naïve. We, including Trump, keep saying we are not nation building, when nation building is exactly what we are doing, and if we are to go that route, this must be viewed as a century long project. Essentually, permanent.

We have been turning corners with every step in AfPak while running in circles.

After a string of smart Generals, and now into our third President plotting to win America’s longest war, it should be apparent that all the King’s Horses and men cannot glue Afghanistan into something that it never was.

Our regional interests must not be ignored. These interests are best served with a small, quiet footprint.

Within US borders, we somewhat control small areas, yet even on many American streets, wild gangs free range, while aliens wash over our borders.

By comparison to the impossible AfPak frontier, the US-Mexico border is easy to guard. The Durand Line is just scribble on a map, with scattered checkpoints on the ground. The line drawn by a couple of men splits through the Pashtun people, without their agreement, not unlike two men randomly drawing a line through Mexico and expecting Mexicans to care.

The border we should must be concerned about starts in the Gulf of Mexico and ends in the Pacific.

The biggest monster we face is China.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Baba Tim · 4 years ago
    Solid analysis Michael - here are a few more points to consider
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Jones · 4 years ago
    Please God, have someone at the White House put this article on President Trump's desk and stand there to insist he read it. We had some success in Afghanistan just after 9/11 with a small force of special forces who operated out of the glare of publicity. M. Yon is right in saying only do what's necessary over there for our strategic interests.

    Save the big efforts for American interests here or abroad where it advances our nation's essential needs.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    rappini · 4 years ago
    MY, Thanks for keeping us updated stay safe,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Margot Main · 4 years ago
    Right on as always! You may want to consider checking out crowdsourcethetruth.com They also have a facebook page. I know Jason is always interested in having seasoned professionals on his show to provide insight and offer information to the crowdsource community for news analysis and story development.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Renee · 4 years ago
    Michael, your analysis is right on. I always look to you for the truth about what is going on around the world and at home. May God continue to keep you safe. We need you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rose · 4 years ago
    - Thank you for the clear concise analysis of what and who is Afghanistan. You should be called to the WH for the much needed information you can dispense.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cheryl Campbell · 4 years ago
    I enjoyed reading your take on Afghanistan. Clearly, it is much more complex than we suspected. I have heard of Afghanis who bear a grudge toward a neighboring tribe because one of them killed a distant relative decades earlier. This is way too complicated for us to think about. We're all about Good Guys vs Bad Guys. I do feel somewhat heartened at the change in ROE because that may keep more of our soldiers safe.
    Your photo of the soldier holding the little girl made me cry. Beautiful photo. You should enter it into a contest. Fantastic article!
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Ken Bradley · 4 years ago
      Dear Cheryl,
      That picture won many awards. That Major tried saving the young lady who was still alive when he reached her but died while he was trying to evacuate her. The unit Michael accompanied and Michael actually picked up a weapon to save his own life and the Commander who is a one star now was part of his first book.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    in_awe · 4 years ago
    Michael you have been the sanest voice about matters in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. I pray that those in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon take notice of your commentary. Keep up the good fight on behalf of the troops being sent to fight and die, and the American people.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Al Reasin · 4 years ago
    I am hoping that the new ROE, no more Amber status with our guys' paroling with no round chambered in their weapon, and pushing Pakistan for more support in the sanctuary areas with less Russian support for our enemies will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table allowing an end to this horrible conflict that started with good intentions 16 years ago.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Curtis · 4 years ago
    You are spot on brother! I only pay our fearless leader reads this post. His generals and the slimy politicians are only leading him astray.

    Russia and Come are greater threats and benefit from us pouring more resources into that area.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Deidre · 4 years ago
    For those interested in sending this article to President Trump, use the following form: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/

    Send the link. The photos will take up too much room. So you cannot highlight and paste the entire article unless you wish to send just the written copy sans photos. That's a lot of trouble but doable if you highlight written copy and put it into a WORD or other document first and then transfer it to the form.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve · 4 years ago
    I'm with you on everything except President Trump's strategy. Trump is all about the economics. I believe that he already sees China as the linchpin for most issues the US faces (the Norks, Afghanistan/Pakistan, et al, as well as their larger 'game'). If President Trump has his way, China will find itself struggling to maintain its current conditions.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Deidre · 4 years ago

    Thanks for your informative article. Perhaps in a follow-up article you could give specifics on what President Trump should do AND how to go about it.

    As every sentient American knows, the President inherited a lousy situation on just about every front. The Afghan war is just one of them. We elected the previous President based in part on his promise to remove us from the wars. He didn't, but only started more.

    If we had used even President Trump's partial vision, we likely would have been out of Afghanistan long before now and probably would not have gone into Iraq in the first place. Hindsight is the best sight. Extricating ourselves from Afghanistan without leaving gaping holes to be filled with those who really DO threaten our national security is not going to be easy. I wish the President every good fortune on this perilous journey.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lee Jenkinson · 4 years ago
    It seems to be something of a truism that those with the sanest voices are always ignored. I hope that someone who is in a position of power reads this and makes the decision to act on it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Exy Nika · 4 years ago
    America have been waiting for a Statesman/woman at the White House for many years. Someone with a long view well past the next presidential election. Someone who could read the present to prepare our nation for the future. So far we have been electing second hand politicians as the world gets more and more complicated. Democrats and Republicans have become dysfunctional parties. I'm sad and worried about my country's future.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      daniel ward · 4 years ago
      What's going on is a clear case of Managers, not Leaders, calling the shots. Managers should make sure things are done right. But Leaders make sure the right things are done or focused on. Too many things being "excellently" done; but they're not right.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    daniel ward · 4 years ago
    Finally. Some detailed maps of the region. Second time in a week of getting advice from former Special Forces Medics. Can't remember his last name, but last weekend there was a panelist on FOX's Greg Gutfeld show, first name Terry. Terry said it's fundamentally about tribes. The whole thing is a Gordian Knot we best not jump/stay in the middle of.

    And watch the Gutfeld Show each Saturday nite. It and he is a hoot.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R Daneel · 4 years ago
    Good analysis.

    In what was once a main campaign issue on Afghanistan/Pakistan Trump has now been neutered by The Deep State. He is now surrounded with neo-con Globalist/TransnationalProgressives.

    The attempt to take back the country is over. Took all of 8 months.

    "Nice _______ you got there."

    "Trump's campaign was where America was turning to clean house while clinging to vestiges of civilized behavior. It represents an opportunity for renewal on many levels. Since it didn't work, I fear America is in for much worse than it has already seen."
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Steve · 4 years ago
      Seven months, but the game's still being played.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark Bradshaw · 4 years ago
    Mostly agree with all of the article's points.

    I hope President Trump sticks to his "no more national building" words, but his announced plan does sound like more of the same.

    Here is the situation as I see it:

    1. The Taliban gave AQ aid, support and shelter.

    2. Then AQ attacked us on 9/11 and the Taliban would not give them up when we asked them to (which was no surprise).

    . So we had to go after the Taliban in order to go after AQ.

    4. And we did both very successfully using the CIA, Special Forces and airpower.

    5. Then the "regular" military (large footprint and large numbers of bodies which equals to a large number of targets) showed up along with the State Department and then nation building started.

    6. We've spent 15 of the last 16 years trying the "big" approach (large footprint, numbers and cost) and there is no real progress to show for it.

    7. So let's go back to the plan that did work: Using the CIA, Special Forces and airpower to chase the remnants of AQ and ISIS - basically anybody who poses a threat to the US - around and kill them when possible.

    8. In parallel with that, continue to train the Afghan forces - but train the future trainers, don't train everybody. Once the future trainers are trained, let them train the rest. If we want to use "contractors" for some or all of the the training mission or even to chase the remnants of AQ around, I'm OK with that too.

    9. As long as the "Mayor of Kabul" "plays ball" with the US (he let's the CIA, Special Forces and airpower do their thing and makes progress towards forming a security force that can keep the current and future terrorist groups at bay), then the military and foreign aid continues. If he doesn't "play ball", then he gets toppled or we pull out and cut off the aid depending on the situation (no use toppling him if the next guy will be even worse).

    10. The bottom line to me, is that the US needs to decide what "victory" in Afghanistan looks like (and to me, it is not turning Afghanistan into New Jersey!), and come us with a realistic plan for getting that victory.

    To me, victory in Afghanistan is:

    a) punishing AQ and their Taliban buddies for 9/11 - done

    b) making sure Afghanistan doesn't turn into a safe haven/training ground for current and future terrorist - mostly done and on going

    c) minimizing the US footprint and costs - definitely not done, no end in sight and the longer we stay, the less of a victory we have.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joel · 4 years ago
    Over & Over & Over again.
    Great summary, very good conclusion.

    If we ever wanted to really attempt fix it see:
    "One Tribe At A Time" - Maj Jim Gant
    (a simple search will get you to it)
    Read "American Spartan" to see what the box checkers think of all this.

    I'm convinced we are there simply for some to get their "war boxes" checked
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    At least President Trump has changed the rules of engagement and our young soldiers have a better chance.
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