Michael's Dispatches

To Follow these Steps


published: 5 October 2010

Steve Shaulis and associates in Nimroz Province, Afghanistan, just near the Iranian border.

I first met Steve Shaulis about 27 years ago during Special Forces training.  We’ve been friends ever since and have traveled many places together.

Back in 2001, six months before the 9/11 attacks, we were at his U.S. home in Vero Beach, Florida.  We were preparing to swim out into the night in the Atlantic Ocean when Steve began to tell me more about Afghanistan.  Steve had been to Afghanistan many times and had been exporting agricultural products from the war-ravaged land since 1997.  Steve told me that the Taliban, who were not supposed to watch television, loved professional wrestling.  Their favorite was “The Undertaker,” and when Taliban could not get television, they longed for wrestling updates from Steve.  That night in Florida, as a full moon was rising over the dark Atlantic Ocean, Steve’s fax machine came to life with business from Afghanistan.  While the message pushed out, Steve handed me a book saying something like, “You should read this.  It was written by my friend Ahmed Rashid.”  Mr. Rashid’s excellent book Taliban had just been published with a small print run.  Steve sometimes cautioned me that much pain was brewing in Afghanistan, and he warned that night again.  I remember that night like it was yesterday.

We stepped out of Steve’s home office, passed by his pool, and pulled on our scuba gear.  With fins in hand we walked out his screen door to the beach and swam out into the dark sea, eerily illuminated by a giant full moon.   Silently, we swam maybe a hundred meters from shore while the moon glistened over the waters in one of the most magnificent natural displays I had ever seen, or seen since then.  I had no camera and only the memory.

We swam further into the sea and finally released the air from our buoyancy compensators and descended into the darkness, following the narrow beams of our lights to the holes where the lobsters pulled.  The sounds of the fights were loud in the saltwater.  We ate them.

Soon after that night, Steve took his family to Singapore, setting up an office there, where he has lived ever since.  On about September 10th 2001, an email came from Steve.  Ahmed Shah Mashud had been assassinated.  The next day, when the second hijacked jet hit the World Trade Center, I called Steve in Singapore.  He had been right.

The years flowed by.  During 2006, I was taking a break from the Iraq War, and flew to Afghanistan with Steve, where he had several offices.  After that trip, I wrote twelve dispatches saying in clear terms that we were losing the war in Afghanistan.  Steve never tried to guide the story.  He never told me we were losing.  He just led me around and showed me Afghanistan.  In April, we were in Lashkar Gah when the first two suicide bombers to detonate in that town exploded in front of the PRT.  In fact, we drove from the PRT to the “Camp Bastion,” which did not really exist yet, but Steve’s laborers were building a runway for the British.

I wrote that we could find success in Iraq but were losing in Afghanistan.  When I returned to America, people literally said I was crazy for saying we were losing Afghanistan.  They said I had seen too much combat in Iraq.  Ironically, they said the same thing in 2010 when I wrote that Generals Daniel Menard and Stanley McChrystal should be fired and that Generals Petraeus and/or Mattis should step in.  Again, many people said I was crazy from too much combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Then both generals were fired, and Generals Petraeus and Mattis stepped in.  And none too soon.  I ain’t crazy.  I know a winner when I see one, and it’s my job to stay on point to designate them for you.

The Atlantic saw this before it unfolded.

Steve Shaulis is a winner.  He started from scratch, and now does business in many countries and has three airplanes shuttling his able staff and materiel in and around Afghanistan.  He has a footprint in 20 provinces, and let me tell you this puppy is not grown up yet and it has very big feet.

When I started fighting with Generals Menard and McChrystal, I promised never to embed with U.S. forces who were under McChrystal’s command.  In fact, I was relieved because embedding is very dangerous and more difficult than going alone.  I was in a perfect position to fight because I did not want to embed ever again.  I hoped my combat days were over.  So it was mixed blessings for me when President Obama fired General McChrystal.  Meanwhile, Menard is facing a criminal charge and could go to prison.  Some journalists who seldom embed have deceived the public by saying that embedding is the easy route—WRONG.  Even the milkooks refuse to embed, and those who do come for short trips.  So when the fight reached a high pitch with the generals, and General McChrystal’s crew ended my embed, I called Steve—get me out of here buddy!  I will attack McChrystal from outside the wire.  Brigadier General Daniel Menard was not worth the energy.  I was going downtown to Steve’s big house in Kandahar but the neighbor got hit with a truck bomb the night before I got there, killing some people, and so with the house in tatters, I got on one of Steve’s airplanes and flew to Jalalabad.

McChrystal’s gang kept attacking.  We now know how it all turned out.

Occasionally I would fly to Singapore to meet with Steve or others about Afghanistan, and I realized through time that my friend had morphed into something far greater than a mere “contractor.”  Keeping in mind that Steve started doing Afghanistan business in 1997.  He understands counterinsurgency at its most basic level and has been doing it in Afghanistan and elsewhere for years.

Steve is one of those intellectual freaks who brushes up against a language and accidentally learns it.  He speaks Spanish, Russian, Pashto to a growing degree, and other languages. His staff is international.  At times when he needs interpreters, they are first rate.  Far better than what most of the military affords.  Steve’s interpreters are actually something else—such as business managers—they’re Afghans who are completely fluent in English, and some have travelled.  The only Americans I see with interpreters this good are generals, or ranking civilians.

And so all this is to say that I have been travelling around Afghanistan with Steve.  We go places that soldiers and contractors simply do not go, or if they do it’s with lots and lots of guns.  We go without armor.  We met up this time in Kandahar, flew to Farah, Nirmoz, back to Kandahar, then to Urozgan, then Paktia, and I am now in Nangarhar and Steve has disappeared again.   I heard he was in Dubai then Jakarta.

I’ve mentioned before that my job is to stay on point and to laser winners for you to place your chips. Have I served you well in Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and elsewhere?

The following small story is a typical “Steve day.”

One of Steve’s nice airplanes was broken and the other was flying somewhere else, so we took one of his freight airplanes from Kandahar to Urozgan.  We landed in Tarin Kot.  Travelling with Steve is like travelling with a general, or even with Secretary Gates.  There is almost no waiting.  Staff drives you to the airplane and by the time your seatbelt is fastened the engines are cranking. When you land, staff picks you up and you head straight to the field, visiting projects, key Afghan tribal and government leaders, and British and American officers.  Crack, crack, crack.

We visited projects and along the way his Provincial Manager for Urozgan told us some interesting local vignettes, such as that about the suicide bomber who was shot before he could detonate his vest.  His vest was deemed too dangerous to try to remove, and so they BIP’d him.  (Blew him up in place.)  Then there was the Afghan who had made trouble in the community, and so an Afghan commander had him tied to a tree and sodomized him with a shovel handle in front of 3,000 people, it was said.  And, it was also said, people were making videos with their phones and transmitting the images and so the commander was fired.  These are typical stories in Afghanistan and I have more reason to believe them than not.  A few days after our trip in Tarin Kot, a CADG vehicle was hit by a small IED with no casualties.  Though Steve’s staff has sometimes been kidnapped and or killed, it’s relatively uncommon and in any case, Steve goes to the same places and shares the risks.

Steve checking projects in Tarin Kot.

The people are mostly very friendly and happy because Steve is helping the community.  Steve has many revenue streams with “normal business,” but these projects are done with USAID money.  The COINistas know something that a lot of others don’t seem to get.  The project is your foot in the door to build personal relationships with the community.  Once the community sees you as a friend, they protect you and you help them and you have tea.

Checking projects in Tarin Kot.

Freight trains are very powerful, and easy to derail.

We come from what might well be the most generous country the world has ever known.  Sometimes we do it right.  Sometimes not.  Generosity with brains is a high virtue; generosity without brains is a goodhearted sin.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Duquette · 11 years ago
    Hey Michael, been following you since early Iraq and you've never led me astray. I still remember when you were saying, when support for the war was at seemingly it's lowest ebb, that the mainstream media was only showing us the bad things happening, not the many, many good things the our boys were accomplishing there.
    Understand, that at this time, I was opposed to the war. Your words and photos from up front and on the ground turned me 180 and made me proud to be an American citizen. I have told many, many others who were distraught about the casualties we were taking back then, "I have two words for you that mean the Truth about what is happening in Iraq: Michael Yon."
    So it will be with Afghanistan.
    Some day I would love to meet Steve in person, and be introduced to the people of Afghanistan, sans armor.
    Thanks again for what you do.
    Our thoughts are with you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marion Stade · 11 years ago
    Thanks to Michael for keeping us informed. Your pictures and writing amaze and frustrate me at turns. In addition to supporting your work with donations, is there something else we need to do?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Saifullah Khan Mahsu · 11 years ago
    Great story Mike..... Steve is a winner for sure! A good friend to have and frankly if it were for me it would be Steve running the AF/Pak show than Holbrook!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peggy Gautraud · 11 years ago
    I have been following you since my son was in Iraq with the Marines. I so appreciated your information then and I do now. Once again we have a Marine in the theater, reading this gives me hope for what you all are doing but frustration at our military outlook. Where can we apply pressure that would be effective?
    Thank you for your pursuit of the truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    xoxoxoBruce · 11 years ago
    You say we are hobbled by our “forcepro”, and General Petraeus agrees. Now he’s in charge again, does he have the power to change that policy, or is that dictated by Washington?

    Are you advocating the strategy of spreading troops around in small outposts, to maintain local law and order, like during the surge in Iraq?

    USAID money, while large, is not infinite. Who decides what provinces/projects get funded? Is that directed from Washington? Kabul? NATO? Does Petraeus have input?

    Earlier you wrote of USAID people reluctant to leave Kabul for the places the work was actually being done. Has that changed?

    Can the USAID people, actually in the field, have input as to which contractors are used? I realize contractors aren’t hanging around every corner, like day laborers, but can USAID field people have an under performing contractor replaced, or at least re-evaluated?

    Yeah, a lot of questions, but after all these years of screwing up in Afghanistan, I’d like to see us get it right, or get out. Preferably the former.

    Check’s in the mail, take care.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brother Ned · 11 years ago
    Michael, i've been reading your dispatches for years, always with appreciation. This is one of the very best. Thank God for men like Steve, and thank you for letting us know what a great contribution he is making. He's a builder, not a wrecker. Would that more like him could be working in these dangerous situations.
    May God bless and keep you safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mary · 11 years ago
    Michael, I learn soooo much from you, thank you for your posts. Steve is a good man. We need more like him and you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jordan axelrad · 11 years ago
    Michael, does the current administration have your ear? Do they see through your eyes? Do any news outlets NPR, Fox, the major networks, anyone sharing with the public your insights?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gordon Jacobson · 11 years ago

    This is my first exposure to your reports. I am impressed with the info and donated $100.00.
    I think I know why McCrystal was fired (Rolling Stone article), but why do you (and Steve) think he should have been fired??
    The earlier comments by J. Axelrad and others raise very good questions that I hope you are able to answer or give some relevant info.

    Thanks for your good work,

    Gordon Jacobson
    USMC (Ret)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dick Sherman · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael for another brilliant post. I must hit your tip jar again. Your comments about Steve reminds me of Robert Kaplan's writing at Key Men in key places in one of his recent books. Its not necessarily the title nor the rank - it's the quality of the person that counts. Steve sounds like a quality guy. Thanks for introducing him to us.
    Be safe and may God bless you.
    Dick Sherman
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephen Moore · 11 years ago
    Michael, it's good to see more reporting from you! And your pal Steve sounds like a great guy. Ah, to be able to work for a guy like that and do some good!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charles, Bath, UK · 11 years ago
    I have followed your work for several years and I have always found you to be months ahead of the main stream media.

    This was one of your best posts in ages - it is exactly the sort of thing we want to hear about. We want to hear about the real story on the ground.

    How is it that this stuff is never widely covered in the MSM?

    What a brave bunch this team are! How I wish there were a hundred like him.

    What I would really love to hear is how is the war going overall? Are things beginning to change in a more positive light?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Janet Kidwell · 11 years ago
    I read most of your articles but by far this is the most informative and important to not only me, (my son is patrolling in one of those "Hot Spots" with the 101st Airborne) but our country. I think this article should be passed on for others to read. I feel so frustrated. If there is anything you think we could help with at this end please let us know.
    God bless you and thanks for all your great unbiased reporting!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graham Ludlow · 11 years ago

    I would give anything to work for this guy. Seriously.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Gough · 11 years ago
    It's testimonials such as this that renew my goal to do the best I can and continue to train the next generation of Operators in the ethos to succeed in a dynamic and ever-changing environment such as Afghanistan. Recent history ( months after 9/11) has proven that less, ODA's +, can overcome any obstacle and make a decisive change. Truth be told, that probably scares more Generals and Politicians than actually losing a military engagement. Stay safe and continue to tell the ground truth Mein Alter Kumpel.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 11 years ago
    I see you brought up the double edged sword of being embedded with the troops again.

    Your quite right in conveying that the danger far outweighs the benefits, but your up close and personal reports of the troops morale and conditions are going to be missed also.

    Hopefully you can still accomplish this side of your excellent reportage, outside of an official embed position.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James · 11 years ago
    I love reading your dispatches and looking at your photography. Thank you for being there to report the truth on the ground. America needs this, please keep reporting.
    Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alan Johnson · 11 years ago
    Glad to hear you are back in it, and where it matters! Great to see someone is making a difference. I pray that you are safe, certainly appear to be in very capable hands! Throwing something towards the tip jar, I know it isn't cheap.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Norris Palmer · 11 years ago
    Great stuff, butt...., please tell me why the U.S. is really there? I have people under the bridge in Seattle tonight that don't have a place to stay nor any food, but we can find the bucks for this stupid excercise. Why aren't the people in the U.S. rising up? Because it hasn't hurt them, the mainstream media doesn't cover it like they did in Vietnam. The military machine learned how to keep going without the people knowing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob Grames · 11 years ago
    With this one article, Afghanistan, the people and how to really win this war becomes clear. Using the big stick was necessary to start, but projects that better the lives of the people there, projects where the money actually flows to the people will do more good than anything. I hope those in power remember what you wrote here.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael St. John · 11 years ago
    Michael - thank you for your service to this country!
    I briefly met Steve in Baltimore when he was doing business in Easter Europe, to discuss the possibility of one of my contacts to sell him some slot machines for his customers over there. It was a fun & brief night with a lot of adult beverages. God bless you and Steve and all of your love one’s!
    I vote for Steve to be our next Sec. of Defense! Talk about a shake up!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Grove · 11 years ago
    Michael, In your old age you are losing something. Good Luck on the Book.

    Shaulis and the whole crew look exactly like the type of folks we do not need
    in Afghanistan. The whole sunglasses, super cool, we have a plane thing does
    not work. Just a full up kiss up. Very disapointing. The whole things seems staged
    and pure propaganda for Shaulis who come off like a guy with a Napoleon complex.
    Very disapointing.

    Your kiss up to Gen Petraeus recently is also disturbing. You can joijn Max Boot in
    following the man as things go from bad to worse. Did they pay you for this?

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