Michael's Dispatches


Battle for Kandahar

Baghtu Valley

25 April 2010

Shah Wali Kot district Center: Elevation 3,953 feet.

The counteroffensive has begun.  More accurately, it might be called a counter-counteroffensive.  Close to a decade ago, we beat the Taliban and al Qaeda here.  The Taliban regrew and waged an increasingly successful counteroffensive.  And so our ninth year at war is the year of our counter-counteroffensive.

The most remarkable feature of our counter-counteroffensive likely will be the Battle for Kandahar, or BfK.  Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and Kandahar City is the provincial capital.  The Taliban is succesfully wresting Kandahar back into their control.  The BfK is likely our last effort to halt and reverse Taliban influence from spreading.  The winner in the BfK will be set to eventually take most or all of the chips off the table, and so BfK is crucial to the outcome of the war.

Much of the BfK will take place not in Kandahar, or even Afghanistan, but in the mediasphere, and likey will affect U.S. elections this year.  The implications are vast.

This is a political war on nearly every level.  Though this will almost certainly be our most deadly year so far, violence is often a minor aspect of the struggle, while in some places combat is—by far—the most prevalent feature.  Insofar as combat, our plans do not include serious fighting within Kandahar City, though soon after publication of this dispatch fighting will erupt in nearby areas.  BfK is more of a process for both sides than a set battle. The Taliban are succeeding in their process to take Kandahar, and we wish to reverse that process.

(Note: The mission described in this dispatch occurred before General McChrystal’s crew censored my embed.)

Charlie Company 1-17th Infantry dismounted from Strykers.  The men spread out so that bombs, mines or other attacks cannot easily get several at once.

The mission for the next couple days was to visit four villages that rarely see Coalition, and never see Afghan government unless villagers travel to the Shah Wali Kot (SWK) District Center or to Kandahar City.

Part of Charlie Company is stationed at Shah Wali Kot District Center.

“Route Bear” starts at Highway 1, passes by Arghandab River Valley, by FOB Frontenac, by the district center (where this mostly was written) and on up to Tarin Kot in Urozgan Province.  The Aussies, Dutch, U.S. and others use the route for convoys.  Most of the areas out here are the wild unknowns where no, or almost no, Coalition or Afghan government ever goes.   We know little about the villages.  Route Bear and other roads follow the paths of least resistance while Afghans follow the water.  If you see green down below, it’s safe to bet that Afghans live there.  And so the main routes such as Bear—of which there are few—often are far away from the nearest villages, but within easy distance when Taliban decide to strike.  Even if there were no bombs, our heavy armor cannot get to most villages in Afghanistan, but the Taliban can scoot all over on their motorbikes and light vehicles.

The villages of Shah Tut and Padah, in the Baghtu Valley, are mostly unknown to us.  Some Dutch, however, should remember it well because they have been attacked where Route Bear crosses the Baghtu Valley.  This war has been going on for so long that it’s hard to know what’s happened here.

Charlie Company drove out under cover of morning darkness off Route Bear into the hills a few kilometers from the villages of Shah Tut and Padah.  As the Strykers approached a dangerous chokepoint, far from the villages, the soldiers fired grenades from the Mark 19 (automatic grenade launcher) and some machine gun bursts at potential ambush spots.  It is important to note that there were no civilians or villages in this area but anyone hiding in ambush would likely fire back or flee.  This tactic is sometimes called “recon by fire” and can be very effective.

The soldiers drove to a prearranged area, dropped ramps on the Strykers and began the walk toward the villages.  A lizard and a grasshooper were the only creatures to be seen.  The desolate area is a work of natural art.

Road to Shah Tut.

First we walked to Shah Tut, situated at about 4,500ft above sea level.  Afghan National Police brought two pickups partially loaded with blankets for the villagers and extra supplies for us to spend the night in the desert, or possibly in an Afghan compound if the commander could rent one for a night.  The soldiers stayed off the roads in case of bombs, but closer to the village the terrain forced the ANP back onto the roads.  The two police walking in front are looking for bombs.

Many Afghan villages share names.  Variant spellings, variant names and same-names are challenging.  In the United States, if someone says they are from Ellijay, Georgia, the location can be quickly narrowed and pinpointed despite that the United States has a population probably ten times greater while geographically dwarfing Afghanistan.  But here, even in the limited “Central Area” of “Regional Command South” comprising part of southern Afghanistan, there are five listed villages called “Padah” or “Padeh” and there are 15 villages named Shin Ghar.  Villages often are named after terrain features.  A Pashtun man explained “padah” is the word for the feature we call a “saddle,” while shin ghar means “blue mountain,” or maybe “green mountain,” depending on who you ask.

Just a couple minutes of scanning the atlas index (RC-South, Central Area, Afghanistan Atlas, produced by the British MoD) reveals replicate names from A to Z.  The atlas covers but a small portion of the country that might approximate north Georgia.  Imagine if there were seven villages named Ellijay, three named Elejey, and two named Elijeya, just in North Georgia, not to mention the rest of the United States.

There are roughly 4,000 named population centers in the the Central Area of RC-South and, for a guess, there might be only 3,200 different names.

Shah Tut Village.

Shah Tut means “mulberry” and Shah tut trees are said to live for centuries, though the Taliban sometimes cut down the shah tut trees of uncooperative villages.  During imperial days the British made beer and wine from the fruits, and those fruits are sold in markets today.  It’s possible that some of the still living trees helped make beer for the British last century.

Having avoided any bombs or ambushes, Afghan National Police and soldiers from Charlie Company 1-17th Infantry crested a saddle and saw the Baghtu Valley and the village of Shah Tut.  Soldiers took security position and the governor of Shah Wali Kot District hollered down below asking that village men assemble.  ANP repeated the calls on a megaphone.

From a vantage point on a nearby hill, Charlie Company soldiers could see villagers avoiding certain paths.  Villagers would come to a certain spot, hop over a wall and walk through the field, then get back on the path.  The soldiers on the hill radioed to soldiers who were already in Shah Tut to stay off the paths even inside the village.

Haji Obidullah Populzai, Governor of Shah Wali Kot District.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pappydude · 11 years ago
    Many thanks your reports, particularly this latest.

    With our son out on mission these last many endless days (A CO), your words and images bring him closer to us this Sunday Morning in the Midwest of the World. And while we worry for him and all out there In Country, we are encouraged by their unselfish brave work. They are protecting us more than we know so far from us physically but never but never very far from our thoughts.
    "Don't Tread On Them!".
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cindi Later · 11 years ago
    First. Thank you to the parents who posted above. Thank you for you're son. May God bless each of you.

    This is an amazing insightful post. Thank you for reporting the truth.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Douglas Gugino · 11 years ago
    Mr. Yon - thank you so very much. I felt I was able to stay connected with the troops in Irag via the army's website. Yours is the only way anybody can understand what is happening in Afghanistan.

    May the God of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etal bless the troops, civilians and yourself. May understanding to the Taliban be granted. May hope be shown ...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Abat · 11 years ago
    Mr. Yon, we truly appreciate your efforts on behalf of the American people to bring us the intricate details of this conflict. In my lifetime I have never seen such dedicated and insight from a reporter. The support that our family has provided to you over the years seems far less than what we have received by having you there. We will continue our support. Thank you.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Warner · 11 years ago
    Thank you for this dispatch, Michael. Thank you as well for your devotion and diligence in bringing us all news and photos from the front.

    I'm sure you're not happy with losing the embed, but I hope you can take it as an opportunity to rest yourself. Prayers for your benefit outgoing.

    Best regards, Peter Warner.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gregg · 11 years ago
    Michael, previously you reported that you were removed from an embed position because there were too many journalist waiting for an embed position. Is this a new or previous embed position? Who do we complain to for kicking you out of your embed position?

    Keep up the good work. You are the only battle field journalist/reporter that we trust to bring us the good, the bad, and the ugly without shading the truth. If the Brass don't like it they can stick it where the Sun doesn't shine. Please let us know who's giving you the boot and we'll make them wish they hadn't with a letter campaign and blog postings that will broadcast their names and arrogance all over the Internet.

    Be save and God Bless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Radio Jihad · 11 years ago
    Thank you for putting the professional back in Journalism. Excellent photography, Excellent storytelling skills, and insight into the Islamist culture and giving us just info to make up our own minds outside of the Facts.

    Keep up the good work!

    The Radio Jihad Team
    Tuesday Nights 7-8: 0 PM (EST) Blog Talk Radio
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Donnette Davis · 11 years ago
    Once again your descriptive writing together with the images you post can almost place a person there. Thank you for this dispatch. I need to mention that the little snippets of humour do not go unnoticed.... You are simply the very best there is! Donnette x
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charles Griffith · 11 years ago
    Michael Yon mentioned in one of his captions that sometimes our sophisticated heavy vehicles are at a disadvantage (...for any number of engineering-design-defying reasons, I assume....) while at the same time and in many of the same areas the enemy scoots about on motor bikes or pickup-truck-equivalents. But, this same heavy armour is required for our troops' protection against that same very mobile enemy which doesn't need such heavy armour. What's the answer for this?

    I'm torn between total admiration, respect and awe for what our troops are doing in central Asia under impossible conditions, exhibiting superb training; while at the same time questioning our uber-massive logistics efforts, heroic in and of themselves, plus our very large troop presence in this vacuum of civilization....notwithstanding Hammurabi and all that. All of this accomplished from half way across the world. This unique feat must be emphasized, but is generally ignored by the media. Thanks to Michael Yon for filling that information vacuum.

    Let's take this very necessary war to this vicious Islamic enemy on his home territory rather than our territory by an offshore presence controlling drones and air-strikes remotely, using an absolute minimum of our troops on that Asian moonscape terrain so accurately rendered by Michael Yon's photographs.

    Lastly, we cannot control opium grown for local survival amidst subsistence-level conditions. This is symbolic of our inherent inability to effect lasting changes inside of very alien centuries-resistant tradition.

    In short, Michael Yon should get a Pulitzer for his photo-journalism provoking these thoughts, instead of those lightweights back here in the United States who're self anointed arbiters of all that is right and proper.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    I doubt these 2 little villages with no permanant troop presence will play any significant role in the impending battle for Kandahar (read Kandahar city). Tim Lynch has pulsed that issue. How do you see that playing out?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ned Chipley · 11 years ago
    Michael, again I am impressed with the total quality of your photo-journalism. It's simply the best.
    I write a "Morning WakeUp Report" in which I give links to articles of interest relating to the "World Scene", "Political Scene", "Termites Among Us" (home-grown terriorsts and those who support them), etc. I have given links to your blogs on several occasions, and the two reports I read this morning on FB will certainly go out also. Many, many thanks for your excellent work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 11 years ago

    Can you please elaborate on why the soliders don't like The Hurt Locker? I am interested to know their perspective. Are the combat and/or bomb scenes inaccurate?

    This was a great dispatch. Thanks for all you do.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    xoxoxoBruce · 11 years ago
    Thanks again, Mike. Once again you clearly illustrate the plight of these remote villagers... like willows trying to survive the battering winds of war. The Russians, Taliban, Central Government, and the Coalition, all asked for their allegiance, then give them nothing and leave them to fend for themselves.
    Sure, just kill the Taliban with shovels and send us a messenger. I sure hope this isn’t the “official” plan to win the hearts and minds of these people.

    I appreciate what you are doing, (that’s why I help support you financially), but like other responders I’m frustrated, being unable to complain to the right powers about your embed termination. After all, the asshats responsible work for ME, and I’d like to know who they are.

    That said, I won’t try to second guess your strategy for dealing with the military bureaucracy, as I’m sure you know best. Take care and thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    With Respect · 11 years ago
    I know many parents , freinds and loved ones of our soldiers log on here . I just wanted to send all of you a message from my family .

    Our loved one arrived home safely 2 years ago ... but we do not forget the sacrafice you all go through. Please know , that we keep you in our thoughts we see and understand the blue star parents .. my family and I are joined with you all eternally. May you find peace and rest in knowing you are not alone. Blessing's on you .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 11 years ago
    Its amazing how green those villages are considering how barren the rest of the landscape is.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff Stanley · 11 years ago
    Sorry, but I don't get it: "The villagers said they could not defend against the Taliban because President Karzai had taken their weapons." What? Does he think he's the governor of Massachusetts? I know Capt. Hanlin doesn't make policy, but I wouldn't have bitten on his little pep talk either. Meanwhile, are our Special Forces engaged in operations organizing indigenous resistance?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 11 years ago

    A lot of things have been said. One person has made the comment below:

    Quote -- Let's take this very necessary war to this vicious Islamic enemy on his home territory rather than our territory by an offshore presence controlling drones and air-strikes remotely, using an absolute minimum of our troops on that Asian moonscape terrain so accurately rendered by Michael Yon's photographs.

    Lastly, we cannot control opium grown for local survival amidst subsistence-level conditions. This is symbolic of our inherent inability to effect lasting changes inside of very alien centuries-resistant tradition.

    In short, Michael Yon should get a Pulitzer for his photo-journalism provoking these thoughts, instead of those lightweights back here in the United States who're self anointed arbiters of all that is right and proper. -- Unquote

    To wit, the first sentence is puzzling. Where or how would he if he could take the war to this vicious Islamic enemy? And he talks about more troops. From where? The Captain of this unit has already done six tour and he is only a Captain!!!! More troops requires a war tax. And most who are for getting tough and taking names and kicking a** are against taxes period!!! The suicide rate among our soldiers is at an all time high because of the repeated deployments. The reason is the US Army has 4 combat brigades when it needs 50 or more combat brigades. But President Bush blew a golden opportunity to call Americans to join the US Army on September 12, 2001 and instead told them to paste American flags in their windows and go shopping and cut taxes. And we have paid ever since. Remember that region had been cleared of the Taliban in 2002 and when Bush left office they had control of it back. Also, the reason those villagers don't have guns to fight the Taliban is because they are of a different tribe of the Pashtuns than the present president of Pakistan -- ie this is mainly a war against Pashtuns of tribes against his tribes.

    Second, those farmers are not growing Opium just to survive. When the Taliban told them to stop growing Opium or else before 2001 they did not starve. They grow it for the same reason that some farmers grow marijuana secretly between their corn rows in the summer. It is big money. And with that money some of them old farmers can afford a young 14 year old wife (the young men never get young wives btw) or more important a status symbol of a dancing boy. One former ambassador to Afghanistan who was born in Afghanistan has told the American public that over and over in articles. But everyone keeps saying they do it to keep from starving. Jeez! It is like Pearl Harbor. All the signs are there in plain sight.

    Finally, in that region, nothing has changed since almost the times the British were there (except the dam the US built on trying to make their lives better by growing two or three crops instead one, which now they use to grow opium). On many forums for young military officers going to Afghanistan where those that have been there write, they say read the book "Bugles and Tigers" written by John Masters when he was a young British officer commanding a Gurkha platoon in the 19 0s along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is still the best primer on the culture of the area.

    Jack E. Hammond

    PS> Tell you all a little know open secret among many in the US military: If the Russians pull their An-124 transport aircraft from charter to NATO we are in a world of hurt. And a USAF general pretty well said that in so many words to a US Congress committee.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Byrne · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael - always great to read your dispatches.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert Burrichter · 11 years ago
    If not for the GI silhouetted on the skyline the terrain could be the surface of the moon.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 11 years ago
    Mike good dispatch, i just wonder if this will be like Fallujah, Iraq, OR will the Talibs/AQ just melt away, across the border into Baluchistan? IF so, is the P-stani army gonna be there to greet them? If they are allowed sanctuary, this may be all for nothing. YES, we kicked AQ's azz, kicked the Talib gov out, killed thousands of them, thier leaders, etc. But wat happens if the P-stanis do nothing? We are NOT fighting a battle of attrition, it would take, years, lives, possibly cost trillions. Im sure this has been discussed, and i don't see the ANA being able to handle thier own security, not for a long time, maybe not ever. When has there been a strong central gov in A-stan? Does anyone trust Karzai&Co? LOL!!!! NO WAY. I am not comparing this to Vietnam, but how can you NOT think of it? Better find a political solution soon, coz there may not be a military one. Unless the PAK Army denies them "safe havens". Why so much negativity about "Hurt Locker"?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    kwgm · 11 years ago
    Looks a little like Palm Springs in some of those photos, but we know it isn't.

    Stay Loose, buddy.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eddy · 11 years ago
    Thanks for this fascinating dispatch!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed · 11 years ago
    This is not the end of Michael Yon. Some elements of the Brass have taken exception to his fearless reporting, but that'll blow over. Michael Yon the phenomenon is bigger than that (and has greater endurance, like the ocean). With the context and detail that Mr Yon adds to his dispatches, I posit he could be reporting from Qatar and still offer a world-beating perspective on current events. I'd actually be glad to see Mike cut his risk profile a smidgen -- the guy's been in more firefights than most mortals will see in three lifetimes. We shouldn't demand so much of one man.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hubertus · 11 years ago

    I was two years in Kandahar and it is good that your pictures show the beauty of the country and the uglyness of this confict.

    Stay safe, the head down and morale high!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marvin W. Inglis · 11 years ago
    Greetings, I hope that the American people realize that we are very priviledged to have a reporter of your quality. A man that is honest,upright, and reporting above any reporter I have ever known. Brave and Bold....I appreciate your work so very much. May God Bless you and continue to watch over you. I appreciate those brave soldiers that you have reported on....their sacifice for the freedoms that were are blessed to have. If anyone ever should have the Pulzier Prize it should be you. I am aware that you have lost your embedded position. The reason for that is you take pictures and report the way it actually is happening...I'm sure the Top Brass doesn't appreciate you as much as we your readers do,for all practical purposes they are probably afraid of you, your honest reporting and not lyiing about what is happening.....as you and I both know the truth hurts...however I look @ it in a different way....the Truth Shall set you free.....Thanks Michae for your time and your service.....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Fnord · 11 years ago
    "Some elements of the Brass have taken exception to his fearless reporting,"

    I dont think calling general McChrystal a liar and an insubordinate without any evidence is actually reporting, sir.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Keith · 11 years ago
    I thought you were more of a Western NC fan. Other than the fact that you can by Cheerwine at the local convienence stores, there isn't a lot going on in Ellijay. It has grown about 20x since the early 90's, but still is a pretty small town.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    james · 11 years ago
    Mr Yon i would just like to say thank you. my son is a member of c company,they have been through some really hard times,many of sleepless night for me and his mother,if it wasnt for people like you the world would never see a part of what theses men has been through.just a few more weeks and they will be home thank you again
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Berkshire · 11 years ago
    My GOD you've become a whiny bitch. ALL of the other bloggers are noticing it too, so don't just take my word for it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dorothy Roush · 11 years ago
    The Shah is almost photo shop looking NO OFFENSE PLEASE when I saw it it was such a mirage looking photo, rare beauty.To see these pics, what we cant imagine existing is such a privilege, you do fantastic work, were really fortunate to have you.As for the whinners take it to facebook or jump out without a shute.Michael has it all & guts, one Samaritian taking the risks our Troops do to open doors many dont have a clue whats behind.He could easily step into an IED trap doing this for us.... so leave whinny out greeneyes.Thanks Michael your doing a great job its surely your calling.You bring peace to alot of people that have family,children, friends out of country, surely beats being in the dark with no foresight of what Our Soldiers see and endure.KUDOS Michael
  • This commment is unpublished.
    epador · 11 years ago
    Having flown over these areas many times half a decade ago, it neat to see them up close. Sad but predictable so little has changed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Wheeler · 11 years ago
    Thanks and good story. Kandahar province is a big place and so is Kandahar City (450,000). My son will be coming there in June with the 2nd Cav Stryker Reg. Hope I can continue to follow things on sites such as this and others (any suggestions?).

    BTW - Hurt Locker has many flaws re: realism. #1 - a lone wolf EOD guy would be jerked from the line so fast it would make your head swim. They don't tolerate that kind of free lancing behavior. And EOD units don't drive around alone in the desert, running into CIA units and getting into fire fights with snipers. Just doesn't happen. They are attached to other units or stay inside the wire until they get a call .. they don't cruise alone. This could be part of the issue.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    Third article down has interesting view on battle for Kandahar

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    tjg · 11 years ago
    Not killing Tribal Afghans. I'm sure,
    Thank you Michael Yon for providing a haunting view of brave people thrust with stark excess into bad situations.
    I mean really, I remember 911, visiting NY, I remember the smell at the ruin site of the twin towers.
    It was the awful smell of death.
    Was it these people in Yon's photo that planned and brought down the twin towers?
    Was it the people (taliban) that visit and threaten them?

    Thank goodness Hakeemullah Mehsud threatened to attack NY (and failed).
    Now we have good reason again to rage a reckless war on fellow humans around the world.
    People are still blowing in Iraq and women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, why do we war in this way?
    Justice is a mockery on our southern border and murder is rampant due to economic stress and pressure within the drug cartels.
    Phoenix is the number one for rate of kidnapping in the US. It's mostly terror on Mexicians escaping the carnage so we don't really care.
    How is the production of opium tied to the Taliban and/or local Afghan tribal leaders in this war?.
    What is the price? I don't think the good Captain gets it.
    I like your questions Michael, you have a way of shining a light on the ugly underbelly.
    Thank you again Michael Yon for providing a haunting view of brave people thrust with stark excess into bad situations.
    It's nice to see the sun glasses and helmets off.
    Don't get me wrong, It would be a huge gain to see the Fab guys set up shop in the south.
    It just seems along way off...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert Dale · 10 years ago
    maybe you will like this. pretty country
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