Michael's Dispatches

Last Man Standing


Hands-had-eys-IMG_6108a-1000-webTired hand in Farah Province.

The Afghans working in Chora were not friendly. Most of the workers I’ve seen at the dozens of projects over the past five years in Afghanistan have been friendly or even welcoming.  The feeling this time was more like quiet hostility.  I’ve seen dozens of CADG projects, including about twenty on this trip alone.  The atmosphere has varied from overtly welcoming (“let’s have tea”) to subdued acceptance.  Chora and Panjwai (Kandahar Province) were the only projects that felt dangerously creepy.

Few contractors would dare operate in a place like this without expensive security, which in turn puts local populations on edge, all while draining away the aid money.  CADG has always used an approach akin to a “Special Forces” philosophy: go in with a small footprint, befriend the local people and they will become your security.   More recently the Taliban has stepped up attacks on foreign contractors.  As a separate matter, Taliban troublemaking has helped CADG’s growth because the company has a “last man standing” work ethos.

For instance, in 2010, a neighboring compound filled with heavily armed and armored contractors was practically flattened in Kandahar City (the night before I was to arrive) by a lethal and impressive truck bomb.

This article described that attack:

Car bombs hit Kandahar killing at least 6; 4 German troops die in northern Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A suicide bomber targeting a compound shared by foreign companies set off a massive explosion late Thursday in the southern city of Kandahar, blowing out windows across the city and killing at least six people, the president's powerful half brother said.

The blast came hours after another car bomb exploded outside a Kandahar hotel and injured at least eight people.
Fighting in the north of the country, meanwhile, left four German soldiers dead, officials said, while insurgents carjacked U.N. vehicles elsewhere in northern Afghanistan.

The Thursday night explosion occurred when the suicide bomber managed to get his car past one barrier leading into a compound shared by a number of western companies, then set off the explosion at a second barrier…The blast blew out windows as far as 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) away. The compound includes the offices of the international contracting company Louis Berger Group, the Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative and the aid contracting company Chemonics International.

Etc., etc.

I was not able to go to the office because the bomb had exploded the night before.  In early March this year, we had a BBQ on the same Kandahar rooftop of the now-repaired CADG building that had taken heavy damage in the blast.

The list is long and growing.  In Paktika Province on 28 March 2011, the Minister of the Interior reported a complex attack led by three suicide bombers who shot their way into a compound of Zahir Construction Company, where a bomber named Ali Ahmad detonated 4.5 tons of explosives inside the compound, killing perhaps 24 and wounding about 50.

When it comes to big truck bombs, there is no safety in numbers, but at least you’ll have company when you die.

War is like a field full of land mines: You never know what’s next.  Back in America, a preacher set out to provoke those who are easily provoked, and he succeeded by burning a Quran in Florida, and this continues to play out in Afghanistan in April 2011:

At least seven killed in attack on U.N. compound in northern Afghanistan

KABUL – An angry mob killed at least seven foreigners in northern Afghanistan and set fire to a United Nations compound, as a protest over a Koran burning in Florida swelled into chaotic violence Friday, according to Afghan and Western officials.

It’s amazing that a shot fired in Florida can hit and provoke fragile minds in Afghanistan, causing them to stampede and overrun security and commit murder of the very people who are pumping money into their pockets.

IMG_9267a-1000-webInside the Chora compound.


Until Chora, I had never seen a CADG project where Afghan soldiers guarded workers.  But in this case, I wasn’t sure who was being guarded from whom.  Were the soldiers guarding us from the workers?  Or maybe they were guarding the workers from the Taliban.  (I could go back and ask, but won’t.)  The photo above shows villagers working a few steps from the CADG compound wall in Chora.


The projects are normally mundane but important, such as karez refurbishments we’d visited in Kandahar, and previously in Nangarhar.  Karez are old, primitive but highly functional underground irrigation tunnels. When they silt up or collapse the crops die. The karez refurbishments I’ve seen have been successful, and that’s where you hear a lot of thanks.  Other cases, as here, villagers are starting with drainage work.  There is the impression that Afghanistan is always dry, but when it rains and the snows melt, there can desert tsunamis.  The floods can be sudden and final.  Afghanistan has two main problems with water: Far too little, or far too much.

IMG_9319a-1000-webAfghans inside the CADG compound in Chora.

The Australian PRT is few hundred meters down the unpaved road, but that might as well be a thousand miles away for Andy, a courageous Brit who has volunteered to singlehandedly manage CADG affairs in Chora.

IMG_9356a-1000-webNDS Officer in the meeting: The National Directorate of Security is Afghanistan’s version of the CIA and FBI wrapped into one.

Several local leaders conducted a meeting with CADG’s Matt, Chris, Leonard and Andy.  As per usual it devolved into a percolating but not boiling transaction as the Afghans stirred the air with raised voices and wild hand gestures.

IMG_9372a-1000-webTIA: This is Afghanistan.

No US, Aussie or any foreign military was present, though the man in camouflage is both a military commander and sort of a local mayor.  Imagine a US Army commander who is also a mayor in the United States.  Meanwhile, the NDS officer gesticulates and argues about something.  Again, imagine a CIA or FBI officer participating in contracting work for local drainage.

After the meeting, we walked out into courtyard of the compound.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shelby Melban · 10 years ago
    Always love reading what you've got to say because it is honest.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ben H. · 10 years ago
    Thank you Michael for another fantastic post. The realism and depiction of what Afghanistan is actually like makes your posts the most worthy of reading. Keep up the good work and stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sandy · 10 years ago
    Thanks as always, Michael. Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Roger · 10 years ago
    Wonderful photos and article. Sincerely appreciate your work and insights! Be 'as' safe as possible.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    masaryk · 10 years ago
    I donated a little bit (I don't have a lot) for this one -- I think the work you do is incredibly important.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter · 10 years ago
    Journalism at it's BEST!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Olney · 10 years ago
    You are doing an AMAZING job, Michael! I can't tell you how meaningful this is to those of us who have family there.
    I'll be making another donation for you to continue your work and photography... the pictures tell such a story. I especially enjoy the panorama photos. THANK YOU!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shea Brown · 10 years ago
    Thanks Michael for some of the only real news coming out of Afghanistan. Your pictures say volumes,, best of luck to you as you continue to tell us all the real stories.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carolyn · 10 years ago
    These photos are lovely, just remarkable
    in several cases. Congratulations!Thank you for all you are doing!
    With admiration ands gratitude,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peggy · 10 years ago
    Soon I will be attending the deployment ceremony for the 1-25 Stryker Brigade. I adopted the 1-24 Battalion in 2005 during their first deployment to Iraq. The maps and photos you provide in your posts help me to better understand what and where my "sons" will be. Please keep your posts coming. You're the only one in the press I trust. My sincere thanks!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    michael waller · 10 years ago
    Mike, I've been following you for years now and you still amaze me with your dispatches, photos and brutal truth. When are you going to have some book signings stateside? The beers will flow!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ralph Greenhow · 10 years ago
    Thanks Michael,
    A thorough and compact dispatch that underlines the cycle of "needs met" by the creativity of Steve Shaulis, uncommon courage and respect for the culture and people from Mathew, Andy and Leonard and all and then your honest reporting. Our small part in that cycle is faithful prayer for each of you and continued support. A joint venture of heaven and earth.
    Simply Amazing!
    Persevering in such desolation of land and soul is part of the integrity of each of you men, those Afghanis must see the difference in this respectful, helpful work that benefits their basic needs. This is the very heart of free courageous men, we do honour you.
    “Last Man Standing” is the fit title.
    The maps and photos reinforce your dispatch because they capture the moment of danger there. Great shot of the moon!!! That gigapan photo compliments and opens up such a world.
    Many, many thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Fitzgerald · 10 years ago
    Wow. What a dispatch Michael. I worry about you but am thankful for all the powerful photos and insight you provide.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    morgan · 10 years ago
    Really outstanding work! I don't know of any other writer who brings so much. Your expertise and experience, contacts and access, and the PHOTOS! Thanks for giving us such unique insight. You are one of a kind, Sir!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ken Van Tassell · 10 years ago
    Beautiful work Michael,your work helps an old soldier see the big picture of what our folks deal with. Keep your helment on and powder dry.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Susan Herrin · 10 years ago
    I found you during the course of some other research. Without sounding like a "groupie", I will just say that I admire your work - your writing, your photos, your outlook. Thank you. What you're doing is important to more people than you can imagine. I am a grateful American - Susan Herrin
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phillip · 10 years ago
    Hi Michael,
    I sit at my desk in Auckland, NZ, eating my subway lunch. Your words and images transport me to where you are, I can smell the sweat and taste the dirt. Stay safe! keeping posting the real stuff from where its happening! keep the lens clean and the head down!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barb Mungovan Koch · 10 years ago

    Amazing pictures, amazing stories. Your clarity of vision and ability to slice through all the levels of filler, to showcase the facts of life on the ground...are enlightening to say the least. Didn't realize I was holding my breath, as I was reading and poring over the gigapans...til I exhaled. Then, all I could think to do for you, and for them...is pray, for safety, and peace, and an end to the Taliban. Unlikely on the latter, but confirmed in faith on the former, that you walk where others simply will not, and have not.

    Thank you for bringing us to where you are. More need to see, and they are able to see through your eyes.


    Barb xo
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R. Bradley · 10 years ago
    Somehow your reporting begins to seem more important and your writing grows to meet the demands of the story; just as the story grows. I'm afraid we will be seeing truly excellent work from you in worse and worse and worse places and conditions. Reporting from those places and conditions, of course, is what makes you so very highly treasured. I hope powerful and actually important people listen to you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 10 years ago
    Dear Michael,

    I clicked the link on the story of the massive truck bomb and suddenly got a script notice then my virus program gave notice of a sudden jump in memory use. I tried to click out but it was locked. Then I hit the off button. Some hackers may be following your story line then installing programs on the links. Maybe not. But most I discover are mal-ware.

    Jack E. Hammond

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 10 years ago
    Dear Michael,

    On another note, John Masters book "Bugles and Tigers" on his time with a British India Gurkha regiment before WW2 in what is now Pakistan and the North Western Frontier, tells of how the job he feared the most was when religious seasons came and how a peaceful crowd could become totally insane. But the message was simple. Always be armed, never give up your weapon even if ordered, don't be taken alive. Lesson #2 was the Sikhs hate the Afghans and the Afghans hate the Sikhs.

    After 9/11 many (arm chair, British veterans of the NWF, the Russians, etc) warned those in the US Army and US Marines to worry about Afghan Muslim culture big time and to read "Bugles and Tigers". They were totally ignored. Now that book is almost mandatory reading for officers going to Afghanistan.

    Jack E. Hammond

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Anthony · 10 years ago
    Superlative work, as usual, Mr. Mike. I always learn something from your dispatches. Thanks for the "straight skinny".
    Oh yeah, your last piece, "Calling BS..." made me laugh. I was transported back to the tank park at Camp Schwab when we were told our live fire exercise was postponed and we all "called BS" on the reason.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MyonWebMaster · 10 years ago
    [From Webmaster] Hello, the problem with the link is actually at the other end. apparently the webpage that the article is going to is running a script that doesn't play well with some browsers. I have contacted them about the issue but have received no response. To view the article i found when you are prompted to continue running the script or not choose to stop running the script. This happened to me twice and then I was able to view the story with no problem. Sorry for the problem, I hope this helps.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    OH BOY ! "This ain't no place vacationing...no BS either ! ! Just DANGER CLOSE,CLOSE .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jake macgregor · 10 years ago

    anything else you need to keep up the work brother? surefire batteries? lights? pvs14? if you need gear or anything special please let some of us old wounded dogs help out since we are no longer in the fight

    i sit here in snowy montana, collecting the disability pay from my TBI addled brain and so miss being on the ground

    your posts are like a song from one's youth recalling all the good and bad heightened experiences ... and though i cussed it while there i'd give anything to be back as that seemed real, and this not

    so, please let me know what you need and i, and those of us on the shelf, will get it to you

    god keep you Michael Yon, and semper fi

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Justin · 10 years ago
    An excellent post... It is great to see you back in the field and I hope we can look forward to more of these soon.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla · 10 years ago
    The way you write and the photos that follow always seems to get the message across in a more potent and surreal way. It's almost as if we are seeing the way things are through your eyes and heart. Thank you for sharing and for being such an amazing man!

    Blessings and Hugs,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Cannell · 10 years ago
    Michael, posts like this continue to impress. Keep up the diligent, tough work and keep dancing between the rain drops.


  • This commment is unpublished.
    R. Bradley · 10 years ago
    jake macgregor -- Your post is the very best in all of us, I think. Willing to go to extremes to help where you can, being completely unselfish. To everybody, send a dime or send a dollar and you have to believe it does a lot of good. I say Michael Yon is important to America.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jake macgregor · 10 years ago
    To R. Bradley this is very selfish my offer to Mikey - thank you for your kindness :>)

    I want the very best telling us what is going on over there to our men & women ... they are our best, guided by very poor decisions from a terrible Commander in Chief

    I want those kids, and Mike, to come home in one piece (unlike myself and so many others)

    someone needs to tell this, to convey what is really going on vs the Frobbits and bar flies phoning it in

    Mike has a brass pair and deserves every ounce of support we can give him

    because the better he reports, the better chance those kids have of being saved from command ignorance and incompetence

    i know, i know, not politically correct, b wtf are they going to do, send me back? (i wish)

    like Joe Galloway Mike needs all the tools to do the job well and get it out so we know what is really happening, and I will get him anything within my power

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joel West · 10 years ago
    EXACTLY Shelby, well said !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Diggs · 10 years ago
    I like the commander who puts bomb-makers on their own bombs and detonates the whole worthless pile.
    The Afghans need more like him.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ChuckyD · 10 years ago
    Thanks for doing "gods work" my friend. I always enjoy your work because it is as close to the truth as one can get. Please continue doing an outstanding job.
    Semper Fidelis
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Traci Wilberger · 10 years ago
    Amazing dispatch Michael. Thankyou! Thanks for the tip on Bugles and Tigers I will definitely read it!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ged A. · 10 years ago
    Great, honest, and gritty work. Thank you.
    I notices when scoping the Dead Taliban panorama that one individual in the middle of the pano, just to the left of the bicyclist, is hiding his face. He also has fresh blood on his shoe. Taliban?

    In general, they all have bad shoes. I am reminded that someone once said that you can tell how advanced a civilization is by the quality of their footwear. I now realize how correct that sentiment is.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ted Hannegan · 10 years ago
    Thanks Michael for all your hard work and news that we do not see or hear about in the paper or on TV. What a really great job o are doing.
    Take care and keep your head down,
    All the best to you and your group.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ted Hannegan · 10 years ago
    Thanks Michael for all the news and photos we do not see on TV or in the paper. Keep up the good work and keep your head down.
    All the best to you and your group.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Makaak · 10 years ago
    [quote name="Diggs"]I like the commander who puts bomb-makers on their own bombs and detonates the whole worthless pile.
    The Afghans need more like him.[/quote]

    They have plenty of these. That exact attitude is why there is a war going on.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mike · 10 years ago
    [quote name="Shelby Melban"]Always love reading what you've got to say because it is honest.[/quote]
    don't know if i'm in the right place, however that fella on the slab appears to be, wonder if those virgins were a hook jus like mohomomomohoma dead DEAD that is, (thanks mike lov ya)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    karen · 9 years ago
    well done... may i ask u where u are and how long u will be into the land of karen
  • This commment is unpublished.
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