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There Be Dragons

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Afghanistan in the News

Deep in the Desert: Camp Bastion being swallowed.


If the fire is not completely out, it’s completely burning.

The population of Afghanistan is significantly larger than that of Iraq: about 26 million in Iraq, 31 million in Afghanistan. Yet the roughly 21,000 troops in Afghanistan (according to Combined Forces Command—Afghanistan) are exceeded by the number of troops in Iraq by a factor of about seven. The Coalition and NATO have so few troops in Afghanistan that wide swaths are left totally ungoverned and uncontrolled.

From the ground in Iraq, my perception over time was that the Coalition and Iraqis were committed to their mission and making tremendous progress, despite ongoing violence. I believe Iraq will become a success. We went there with too few troops and an imprecise plan to maintain the peace, errors that a smart and determined enemy exploited fully. Despite delays and setbacks, there is a new government in place, democratically elected by Iraqis whose staggering turn-out numbers testify to their commitment to the process. The Iraqi Security Forces are increasingly competent, a learning curve I witnessed firsthand. A first dispatch about the ISF was titled “Please Don’t Shoot Us,” but ten months later, I was writing about raids the US Army conducted using intelligence developed by the ISF. The fact that a US Army general recently invited me back to Iraq to see the situation is indicative of Army confidence that the progress is ongoing and substantial. By now the military knows what readers sometimes chide me about: if invited to a mess, I will report the mess.

My foray into Afghanistan was less positive. In fact, when I contacted the Army Public Affairs in Afghanistan, there was no response. Iraq is not a quagmire and might be a good ally some day, but Afghanistan is a stone-aged disaster. The Iraqis tend to value education, while Afghans value inertia, and while the progress in Iraq is rapid, obvious and palpable, Afghanistan is mostly a lawless giant hunting lodge where our Special Operations people stalk terrorists, but it’s like a ensuring that the hunters never run out of game—in this case, game that hunts back.

The Sunday Times in Britain had this story on 23 April 06:

Army pleads for more troops after Afghanistan firefight

MILITARY commanders have demanded an extra 600 British troops for Afghanistan after a series of suicide bombings and a firefight against hundreds of Taliban.

Officers have also warned that unless restrictions are relaxed on when soldiers can open fire the Taliban may inflict major losses.

On the ground in southern Afghanistan the daily firefights and bombings are every bit as dangerous as the bad parts of Iraq, but in Afghanistan the war is intensifying. “Human missiles” (suicide attacks), once unknown in Afghanistan, are now becoming common.

The Sunday Times also reported the following:

Commanders complain that John Reid, the defence secretary, has tried to prevent news of attacks coming out and that they cannot make even the most minor military decision without referring it to his office for approval. So far, actions in southern Afghanistan have left at least five soldiers wounded, two seriously. “The government is hiding the truth from the public,” one senior officer said last week. “I am sure they believe that if Afghanistan turns sour it will bring down the prime minister. If they don’t send more troops than the single battle-group that is going now, and allow them to do their job properly by giving them robust rules of engagement, then I can pretty much guarantee it will turn sour.”

Those words have the ring of truth. When it comes to media reports and political agendas surrounding these wars, we have a lot in common with the United Kingdom. Military leaders from both countries must wrestle with a civilian leadership that cannot seem to keep its hands off the military controls. Allegations that the UK government is glossing over the ground situation might also have merit. But one important difference in the way our two systems operate comes courtesy of the press.

One Truth: Many Versions

I was traveling in Helmand Province with my friend Steve Shaulis when one of his employees called on the cell reporting that British forces had just accidentally attacked Afghan police, and that a fierce shootout ensued. Later that day when we came onto a British base, Steve shared the information with some British soldiers, who, for a long and strange moment, seemed embarrassed and reticent to talk, and then one said, “I don’t know that I should be telling you this,” and he paused, but Steve broke the silence with, “Some of your guys shot up some Afghan police.”

“Right,” said the British soldier.

That type of incident, though tragic, does not amount to a state secret. But how the British press covers such incidents is an example of why many people believe the British press to be even worse than our own. The British press often plays slap and tickle: they issue sharp-tongued remarks about American troops (slap), while moments later shamelessly gratifying hometown readers with reports about the superiority of British troops (tickle). And so it was not surprising when the British media mostly ignored the incident where about a dozen Afghan police were mistakenly shot by the British Army.

Imagine the coverage of an incident like this in the American press had it been American soldiers firing their weapons. But how the British press went from ignoring that incident straight into a tickling frenzy defies easy explanation. My high regard for the people of the United Kingdom is evident in my writing. This is especially so for their military men and women serving alongside us in these wars. Their blood is ours. When a British, Canadian, Australian or Kiwi soldier is lost, I always feel like we lost one of our own. But the press in each of these countries can be shameless and can make ours seem almost responsible by comparison, and that is precisely why I am warning our great friends and allies that they are rumbling toward disaster in Afghanistan. Please do not let your respective media delude you: we are winning in Iraq, but we are going to lose increasing numbers of people in Afghanistan. I would not be surprised to see a base overrun.

02 lgTents filled with the Afghan workers who are helping to build Camp Bastion.

Just two months before the friendly fire incident, a Channel 4 UK report trumpeted the dust breaking for Camp Bastion, using muted, sweet tones:

Building Camp Bastion
Published: 24 Feb 2006
By: Alex Thomson
Britain builds one of its biggest overseas military bases in remote Afghanistan.
They’ve built a vast military base in an inhospitable and barren environment. Surrounded by opium fields and potentially hostile militias, Camp Bastion is the biggest military camp to be constructed since the Second World War.

The video portion of the Channel 4 story goes on to say how American Special Forces accidentally shot up some Afghan police, killing two, and then Channel 4 shows the British army being careful not to shoot Afghan police. A pickup truck of armed Afghans drives in bright daylight to a checkpoint, and the British soldiers approach the pickup, give a friendly check, and the commentator, Alex Thomson says with a slap to the Americans, “…on they go, nobody dies.” Mr. Thomson then says, “But Americans, obviously, are not the only threats to civilians around here,” and then talks about the Taliban as if the Americans and the Taliban were equal threats.

Good grief. No wonder our friends in Britain think our people are running around shooting everyone to the ground. The UK media universe could benefit from a vibrant “Blogger Class,” which in the United States has shed its gills and grown lungs and earned a place at the table. The Aussies and Canadians are developing strong Blogger Classes, but the Brits are falling behind and leaving their citizens lapping up the news from the commercial providers and government mouthpieces. Afghanistan is getting more attention in the UK these days because they are devoting more troops to the mission. But the contention in the Channel 4 video that American soldiers do not get on the ground and talk with locals or buy in their markets is not only wrong but completely false. And nobody, including the British, goes shopping and visits locals for tea-time when violence is probable.

It’s not the British military that needs an overhaul—they are excellent—but the media is a circus. The unintentionally humorous Channel 4 video shows the British Army in armored vehicles bolting down roads that Steve and I drove in an unarmored Land Cruiser—not that I recommend anyone try this. But if they are unable to assert control in these areas, it’s because the Coalition and NATO do not have enough troops there, and not because the Americans are not as well-mannered as the British.

Many Americans are fed-up with a media blind to its own bias, pretentiously soaring high above it all, circling above the fray, above the politics, above it all, so high above in fact, that they were unable to predict the overwhelming turnout for Iraq’s first election, having already decided the outcome was a quagmire. There might be less rancor about their coverage of the war if it weren’t for the fact that this newfound detachment was being postured by members of the same press that had been widely accused of “going native” during the heady days of the invasion. But underlying the tension between the press and the people is disappointment based on a deeply held belief that a free press is a vital part of American democracy and so the standards should be higher. This is an important distinction. Many British journalists I have spoken with see their profession as inherently sleazy, and the Australians and Kiwis are also quick to reject any pretense about the nature of their work. These are not burned out or disaffected reporters, crying into pints about the glory days of war correspondence. They see themselves as realists and their profession as a commercial industry and many find the fuss in America about media bias silly.

The New Zealand Special Forces received a Presidential Citation from the United States for their incredible work in Afghanistan. This is not a personal telegram from a particular president. This is an accolade from the United States government that acknowledges the bravery and effectiveness of a military unit; it is considered the equivalent of the Distinguished Cross which is bestowed upon individuals. The Kiwi press failed to cover this, and the Kiwis I have spoken with blame this on a New Zealand press that dislikes President Bush. It’s fine to dislike our President; only in dictatorships does everyone praise their leaders. What seems less reasonable is taking out that displeasure at our President on their own courageous soldiers by ignoring their achievements.

My interest in how the media works in other countries preceded this war by decades and continents. The first British journalist who talked to me in detail about his country’s press is an award winning and highly paid writer that I consider a friend, yet he considers the UK media to be a sleaze-biz, so he works for an American magazine. Strange but true.

03 lgRacing against the poppy: work crews lay foundations at Camp Bastion.

And now for something completely different

The shooting of the dozen or so Afghan police was sadly a common fratricide, and is something I’ve written about when it happened to our guys in Iraq. This is not to minimize the deaths or justify the shooting; it’s about context—in the chaos of a combat zone, soldiers with guns coming across others with guns sometimes fire in what is later learned to be the wrong direction. “Friendly fire” incidents are regrettable, but they occur with frequency, making it seem odd when the British soldiers regarded the information as confidential.

Then on 20 April, when Steve was alone and barely missed a car bomb that killed the attacker and wounded several policemen, the incident again did not seem to make the news. This was the third nearby suicide/homicide bomb near-miss for Steve in twelve days.

The Sunday Times finally published a small reference to these attacks:

A week ago two British soldiers and an Afghan were seriously wounded when a Taliban suicide bomber rammed his car into a Land Rover in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province. Three other soldiers were wounded by a roadside bomb two weeks ago and there have been at least two other unreported suicide bombings on the British provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gar, defence sources said.

At the time, I was only aware of two suicide/homicide bombings that occurred at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah. One occurred on 8 April and injured several Americans shortly after we had departed the scene, and the other bomb exploded on 14 April and injured the Brits, rattled my windows, and I wrote about both of these.

But if it’s true that the British media is not reporting the full truth to the British people, and if it’s also true that the British Secretary of Defense, John Reid, is guilty of the same things that some of our ex-generals are accusing Donald Rumsfeld of, there is at least one British man I met who seems determined to find the truth and base his recommendations on the facts.

This British man showed up seemingly out of nowhere in Helmand Province, with an extensive retinue of heavily armed guards, and approached Steve and me as we stood unguarded, on an unguarded airstrip in Lashkar Gah. We were waiting for a flight to Tirin Kot in Urozgan Province, another place, like where I was standing at that moment, where I had been strongly warned not to go.

And so here comes this man escorted by four armored Land Cruisers and a group of men who appeared to be on first name basis with their assault rifles. Apparently they were guarding only one man; the only man not carrying guns. He carried a notepad, and he scanned about the airstrip quickly and then briskly walked toward us like he owned Afghanistan. He approached and said, “Is one of you Steve Shaulis?”

“That’s me,” said Steve.

“I’m Adam Holloway, a British M.P. on a fact finding mission. I was told you might be here and that I should talk with you.”

“Sure,” said Steve. Weird things like this happen often around Steve. There we are, in the middle of nowhere on a gravel airstrip, and a British Member of Parliament shows up. A person only had to experience Adam Holloway for about one minute to realize he was sharp. Holloway said that he was an M.P., and all those guys with guns would tend to support that claim, but he seemed like a reporter with his rapid-fire intro and go-for-throat questions, and immediately asked Steve if he could sit beside him on the flight to Tirin Kot.

“Sure,” answered Steve.

Then Adam Holloway—who really is a Member of Parliament—said thanks and asked to talk with one of Steve’s Afghan managers who had accompanied us to the airfield. Adam took the Afghan around the back of the pickup truck, and I overheard some of the questions, such as: “What can the British people do to gain the support of the Afghan people?” And, “From every 100 police, how many are honest?” (The man answered 40%.)

Adam Holloway wasted no time asking a lot of smart questions, then exchanged e-mail addresses with the man. When Holloway walked away, I asked Shah, the Afghan manager, to see the address, and sure enough, there it was, with the suffix,

“What is this “M.P.,” asked the Afghan man. I said, “That means he is a Member of Parliament in the UK. It means he’s an important man who sometimes wears a wig.”


“It means he is an important member of the British government.”


“Yes,” I said, “Look at all the guards he has! I don’t have even one guard.”

“I don’t have guard too!” We both laughed as we said goodbye.

Flights of Fancy

04 lgNomad boys in Lashkar Gah: The airstrip is just near the berm to the left.

The runway had been unguarded, but some American soldiers arrived in Humvees, and as the aircraft approached, an American soldier loaded a smoke into his 40mm grenade launcher and fired it down the runway.

05 lgCleared for landing.

Without radio contact, smoke was the signal the runway was “safe,” or at least there was not a herd of sheep walking across, or an active firefight. There is practically nothing stopping someone from shooting down the airplane or ramming it with a car bomb. Safety regulations are relaxed here: I walked out on the runway and made a photo.

06 lgCrash at Lashkar Gah, 24 April 2006.

It’s no exaggeration to say this airstrip is extremely dangerous. Only some days after we flew, Steve received this e-mail from one of his key people in Lashkar Gah:

Hi Steve

Apparently the plane crashed after either clipping an ANA truck that crossed the runway as the plane touched down and tried to take off again, or that due to not gaining enough height ploughed into the huts at the end of the runway. Fortunately it did not catch fire. The crew are all dead as are 2 or 3 passengers and some Kuchi people, some of whom are trapped beneath the wreckage.

They wouldn’t let me get any closer so these pics are the best I could do.

Michael Koch
Central Asia Development Group

Agricultural Program ManagerApparently a truck drove across the runway, and when the airplane tried to lift over it, the plane crashed into the nomad settlement. Sixteen people were aboard, two were killed in the plane, and in the nomad camp a 2-year old girl named Palwasha and a 3-year old girl named Safaida were killed. About eight passengers and five nomads were injured.

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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