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Afghanistan: Trump Going in Circles


Helmand 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.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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