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There Be Dragons

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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.

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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