Michael's Dispatches

There Be Dragons


07 lg

Not safe at any speed—terrain and sub-par infrastructure would make travel in Afghanistan hazardous even without the added peril of the Taliban.

Ironically, the flight was carrying counter-narcotics officials—who apparently even in crashing left the poppy crop almost entirely unmolested. As one report said, “Casualties could have been worse if the settlement’s males had not left earlier to work picking opium poppies at a nearby farm.” They were probably harvesting right next to the airstrip. If there is one area that media coverage often veers from wishful to dangerously deluded it’s in the persistent news reports that widespread opium eradication is underway.

08 lgThese fields are not on the “official” tour.

Michael Koch, the South African farmer who informed Steve about the crash in the note excerpted above, is a straight talking man. One day, while we were standing in a poppy field he related a story about how USAID once sent a throng of journalists to check out CADG’s alternative crops program, which Koch manages. Mr. Koch took the journalists to an experimental farm. But the press people wanted to see poppy although they must have already seen miles of it without apparently recognizing it. I had been to the same farm, and there is no way they could have made it there without seeing field after field of poppy, unless maybe they were wearing bags over their heads. So Mr. Koch simply walked to the farm next door, a journey of about 10 or 15 steps, and suddenly the journalists were surrounded by poppy. When USAID got word Mr. Koch had taken the journalists the 10 or 15 steps, Koch recalls that USAID telephoned him, “livid” that he would acknowledge the reality of the massive amounts of opium. Poppy is easy to spot when it’s in the flowering stage, but earlier in the season, while still in the “cabbage” phase, it’s easy to mistake for other crops. Mr. Koch was kind enough to identify the young plants for the journalists.

09 lgA family farm.

The Afghan farmers make no attempt to hide or disguise the poppy fields. I shot hundreds of photos of the fields. The farmers never impeded me from photographing them. Afghans are growing poppy like we grow wheat and corn. Imagine meeting a Kansas farmer, asking about the upcoming wheat harvest, and seeing his eyes dart sideways as he abruptly answers, “Wheat? There’s no wheat here. What makes you think we’re growing wheat?”

These senseless micro-cover-ups are part of the pattern of deception that leads our people back home into making bad decisions. Mr. Koch is a serious farmer, he knows his business. And he lives and farms land in one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan. I spent several days with him. He is a pleasant, considerate man, but like most farmers, he does not gloss. He insists that Afghanistan has excellent agricultural potential beyond poppy, and like Steve, Mr. Koch would not be there if the place were hopeless, but like so many others who know Afghanistan, Mr. Koch insists that poppy eradication is a farce, and the Afghans think we are in cahoots with the Taliban. Afghans told me the same; that poppy eradication is a joke, and that the United States is supporting the Taliban.

If any official says in 2006 that poppy eradication is working in Afghanistan, they should be fired.

10 lgOn the flight to Tirin Kot, Steve (left) answers a steady stream of smart questions from Adam Holloway. Mr. Holloway has seen the opium poppy with his own eyes.

Mr. Holloway is a former military officer, television reporter, and undercover reporter who is said to have lived for about three months homeless to show what it’s like to be destitute in London. That’s immersion journalism, and though he has been a member of British media, Mr. Holloway did not seem sleazy. Holloway earned an MBA and was elected to Parliament in 2005, and it was clear by the direction of questions I overheard him asking both the Afghan man, and then Steve while our flight was underway, that Mr. Holloway’s chief concern is the safety of British troops and their mission success. He was definitely going to places where he might get shot or blown up, or mangled crashing on one of the dangerous airstrips, to get his information firsthand. If we had more politicians willing to take the level of risks that Holloway was taking, they might know what the heck is going on. Moreover, they might start making better policy decisions as a result of the new knowledge.

Our flight landed at a place even more dangerous than the one we’d left behind: Tirin Kot, in Urozgan Province. I’d been told by people who know about these things that if I came to this place, I might not leave it alive. When we tumbled out of the aircraft, I asked Adam Holloway how many troops the British were sending to Afghanistan. He said there would be 5,700 in Helmand Province. “How many total to Afghanistan?” He said he didn’t know.

11 lgDry Water: The dust at Camp Bastion is so fine that it splashes like water, and even pools like water. When driving in the desert here, the tires splash up the dust which often splatters over the windshield completely blocking the view, but within seconds the dust blows off, or the wipers splash it off with one or two swipes.

I don’t know what the Canadian, Australian, British and Kiwi media are telling their people every day, but I can say with full sincerity that these countries and others are deploying troops into a situation in Afghanistan that is easily as dangerous as Iraq. In Iraq, the political resources are coming together and the Iraqi Security Forces are getting stronger by the day. In Afghanistan, we are decreasing our troop presence and our allies are stepping in and will almost certainly lose increasing numbers of troops in Afghanistan in the spring of 2007.

It’s time to start paying closer attention to our military experts, and stop giving free passes to the politicians who continuously override the expertise of military people who have spent their careers studying war. This is, after all, a war, not a disaster relief mission; it’s not the Peace Corps building irrigation ditches or the Bill Gates Foundation immunizing babies. This is home base for al-Queda and the Taliban. This is Opium Central. Ninety percent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, and while heroin is pumped into our veins, our money is being pumped into the hands of our enemies.

We need more serious fact-finders—journalists, military leaders, and government officials—who will report back the good, the bad, and the ugly from this place before Afghanistan becomes a true quagmire.

12 lgHeading in different directions.

I have spoken with many Special Forces soldiers about Iraq and Afghanistan. Most agree that we are making serious progress in Iraq, but those same Special Forces soldiers say that Afghanistan is a disaster. One soldier had done two tours in Afghanistan, and he said it plainly. “Mike, when we build a schoolhouse in Iraq, the Iraqis make a school out of it and use it to study. When we build a schoolhouse in Afghanistan, an Imam comes in and teaches people to hate us. Building a schoolhouse is not the same as building a school. A schoolhouse is just a building. Iraqis believe in learning and progress. Afghans walk in circles.”

Some months ago, I spoke with a brilliant American leader, Lieutenant General David Petraeus. We spoke for about two hours and I was asking him everything I could think of about Mosul, Iraq. LTG Petraeus said that when he first attacked Mosul, and then started working to get the place back on its feet, the first thing the Iraqis wanted was their security and basic services, but then immediately to get their university working again. This is a giant university with about 35,000 students and 4,000 staff, so LTG Petraeus put his people on it, and together with the students and staff, they got the place working. These are LTG Petraeus’s exact words about getting the university going:

“…a huge effort to get it back in operation, to complete the course work, and then to complete the exams for that year. We, again, were very impressed that they put such high emphasis on education that they did not want to have that school year wasted.”

But Afghanistan…there be dragons.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hedgeporker · 11 years ago
    Excellent piece Michael. Just one small point of pedantry : MPs don't wear wigs. Magistrates and Barristers do.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Sun Tzu · 8 years ago
      Jolly good retort mate 8)
      Be upstanding :-*
  • This commment is unpublished.
    The Scourge · 11 years ago
    if that guy would have come up to me, i would have referred him to my CO. I don't have to answer your questions dude. I really don't have to be polite with you either. I coulda said, "F- off cuz, i got nothin for ya" this guy must think he's f-ing James Bond. WANKER
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 11 years ago
    A mighty sword is that of the unvarnished truth and the hand that sets it to paper/screen!

    I think the term Fair Witness applies to Michael more than reporter, or god forbid, a "journalist"!

    Keep on keepin' on;-)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tyler · 11 years ago
    And yet, Bond or wanker, MP or parliament, truth needs all the help and light of day it can get these days.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Wilkinson · 11 years ago
    Very interesting piece. Being British, I have to agree with a lot of your comments about the British media, but I would hate this to make any effect on people's view of the British Forces. I'd like to think that the broadsheet newspapers put more of an unbiased slant on it, but reading this I don't know if I can. I'd also like to think that the media's view on the conflict has changed somewhat since the Channel 4 report in 2006.

    I constantly find your articles enlightening. Keep up the good work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Russki Top · 11 years ago
    Again, it's frequently uncomfortable when you turn out to be right.
    The SF soldier's comment is more telling and constant than anything else in this report: Afghans go in circles. They have neither reason, stake, nor desire to be part of the rest of the universe, and they continue to demonstrate it at any turn provided.
    "Scourge", best that empty heads like you don't talk to people looking for actual information. Makes it that much harder for those who can contribute something useful. Once your tour's done, if you're there now, please use the ed benefits available to you......
    Michael, just finished Moment Of Truth. Have you considered doing the same with an Afghanistan collection?
    Keep your head down and stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewat · 11 years ago
    Well done sir, and you have to know that your reporting will form the basis of many masters and doctoral theses after about 0-40 years. I hope you receive the accolades and honoraria you are due before then, and are alive to see it happen. Stay safe and keep telling the truth, regardless of the armchair ideologues and besmirchers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    xoxoxoBruce · 11 years ago
    @ Mike, will Petraeus taking over help you get back on the ground?

    @ David Wilkinson, hopefully new people will go back and read Mikes archives about his experience with the Brits there, and what excellent soldiers they are.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    K · 11 years ago
    I've followed your emails for 4 years or so.. always interested in your assessment of war conditions.. I've not commented until this one just JERKED my head up.
    I am female, white, born in America... opposed the Vietnam war.. opposed the war in Iraq, oppose the war in Afghanistan.. oppose war. So, with that said, I ask you to confirm my understanding of why we.. USA.. are "war-ing" in Afghanistan. Poppy fields and Taliban.. is that right? ( Iraq.. oil and taliban?? Vietnam.. heroin and ahhh what)?
    As you have been entrenched over there.. I have been entrenched here.. watching schools close.. security a joke.. economy bottom out.. morale depressed. Where are the troops to shore up America? Who stands to watch our borders, airports, shorelines, cities, children? Tell me our troops /government are doing alll that from AFGHANISTAN!!! We feel insecure, we feel unsafe, we feel exploited, we feel raped. Dragons?? They live among us. Please humor all of us and write about that!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Pipkin · 11 years ago
    I work with Tom Rabjohn's sister here in Arizona. Tom was killed last year by a particularly evil IED setup, most likely detonated by remote, most probably because the security detail that was supposed to be there arrived late due to manpower shortages. A good friend's son serves in the same unit, and Tom's nephew has now volunteered for EOD as well. Please keep yourself safe, and keep telling it like it is.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg Turnell · 11 years ago
    To “Dragons..”
    You are not just a pacifist, you woman are the epitome of….stupid. Where were you on September 11, 2001? Many may argue the relevance of our position regarding Iraq but our presence in Afghanistan is a direct result of a terrorist attack that occurred on our soil and Afghanistan is where these cowards are training and taking refugee. They must be hunted and killed. Clueless buffoons as your self like to exclaim “Peace not war” until your precious comfort zone is compromised. Will it take another terrorist attack and death of one of your family members to make you open your pacifist eyes? I have 2 sons and 2 nephews fighting this war protecting your right to say stupid things. There is no humor in that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sun Tzu · 8 years ago
    Dear K,
    You remind on myself as I went through the Vietnam era, end the war, bring the troops home, etc, etc.

    But when I got a little older and wiser (25) I joined the USAF, after that my whole life and the way I look at the world totally changed.

    I then spent over thirty years working inside and outside of the military/government and it's contractors. You have no real clue as to what you are talking about as you have no experience of the REAL world as many in here like myself.

    From your inane comments it appears your only experience of the REAL world is what you errantly glean from your chosen propaganda outlet, I suspect CNN, MSNBC or other such Polit Bureau commie propaganda source

    Michael and others like him are not the source for answers to the childish and asinine questions you posed here :-?

    You act you are still in 1968, get over it, the bums lost, my condolences 8)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graeme Thompson · 8 years ago
    After 2001 I hoped and believed that what would come out of it was that the West would rediscover its values and make itself great again, instead, 12 years later (it was clear a good few years before), it's shown just how degraded the West is. We're in financial crisis because we're in moral crisis. When we're at war we do not let our own media act like the propaganda arm of the enemy, and we put people in prison if they do. What stops the West reasserting its values and furling back up the banner of Jihad and shoving it back up Islamists' jacksies, is political correctness. Democracy has been supplanted in the West by political correctness. Until we recognise it to be every much an evil as racism and an ally of the Jihad evil we fight, the triumph of evil in the West will be total.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graeme Thompson · 8 years ago
    Oh, and by the way, Alex Thomson, ch4 news, UK. This guy distinguished himself in his coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991 just how much of a hot steamy anti-American leftie stool he was. It's precisely this type of journalist who when they make black propaganda against our allies at time of war should be immediately hauled of and be left kicking their heels in a prison cell under wartime emergency powers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    irebukeu · 8 years ago
    From the above article.---'By now the military knows what readers sometimes chide me about: if invited to a mess, I will report the mess.' --- Yeah he does and with a good amount of objectivity.
    That's why I read Yon's website.

    Yon for congress!!
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