Monday, June 29, 2009

Lithuanians in Afghanistan/Sean Pillai interviews Jeff Mellinger/


Lithuanians in Afghanistan


[This dispatch is in the RUBS format: Raw, Unedited, Barely Spellchecked.]

29 June 2009

Chaghcharan, Ghor Province

Kabul has changed.  In recent years the roads were often clogged with military convoys, filling the town with aggravations and dangers often caused by the mere presence of large numbers of soldiers in proximity to the dusty beehive called Kabul.  Yesterday, in a drive around the city, the only obvious presence was that of the ANA and ANP (Afghan National Army and Police).  The few U.S. or other soldiers who could be seen were driving in armored civilian SUVs.

The roads themselves are bad as ever and there seemed to be more trash than before.  All westerners and Afghans that I’ve spoken with have said security in Kabul has improved, probably due to the heavy fighting in Pakistan that has drawn attention away.  Also, the opium trade is booming and U.S. forces are increasing their numbers in southern Afghanistan.  The fighting has by no means ended – it’s increasing -- but has been taken more to the parking lot.

The civilian contractors are always interesting to talk with.  Many are ex-military

though the contractors come from many parts of life and the world.  Some are pure mercenary and will say so.  Others come more for patriotic or humanitarian reasons. 

  Some contractors whom I met in Iraq came because a son or daughter was there. For others contracting in a war torn country is an adventure.  And there are the “war bums” who are not really mercenaries but don’t have anything else to do.  For many, contracting in the wars has simply become a way of life.  Some of the civilians range all over the battlefields while others never leave a base.  In any case, they all seem to see long-term, steady employment in Afghanistan, and it’s far easier to live here than in Iraq.

Others contractors fall into another category.  Neither mercenary, missionary, patriot, or war bum, and they likely could care less why the war is unfolding, or what the outcome.  It’s truly just a job, like being on a circus crew.  IndiansNepalese, Thai, Filipinos and many others swarm to Afghanistan.  Some have restrictions on where they can work.  The Philippines government forbids citizens from working in Iraq or Afghanistan, yet the bases and contracting sites are covered with Filipinos and Filipinas.  Yesterday, an Afghan friend picked me up and we drove through town to have lunch in an Afghan restaurant.  Large marijuana plants were growing in the courtyard just near our short table where we sat with no chairs.  We talked about the war and it was interesting to hear this Afghan say exactly what I think: “The war is just beginning.”  By 3PM, I had to get back to base for a meeting with the Lithuanian Ambassador to Afghanistan, and there at the front gate were ten Filipinos dragging their luggage, helmets and body armor through security.  Large apartment complexes are being built – or are already built – where you can stay for about $75/night for a six-month stay.  They are sold out.  One contractor said that a new complex is being constructed with 2,000 rooms.  Another told me that he sees this boom going strong for another 5-8 years, at which point he thinks it will peter out like Iraq.  He said he did five years in Iraq and prefers Afghanistan.

An American contractor with a deep southern accent was hustling the ten Filipinos through the security run by French speaking Belgian soldiers.  While we waited for the retinal scans and so forth, the American said he’d worked in Iraq for several years but had shifted to the new war.  I asked where he found so many Filipinos --who are forbidden by their own government to come here -- and he said they just show up at his office downtown asking for a job.  They cannot fly directly from the Philippines, but through some network they end up on the streets of Kabul and then on bases all over the country.  Sometimes I hear the Filipinos on bases at night singing Karaoke.

Thirty minutes later, conversation during the meeting with the Lithuanian Ambassador, Dainius Junevičius, was informal and ranged all over the globe.  Literally.  He had lived and worked in Poland, as had I, and also in Greece, and the Ambassador remarked that the weather in Kabul is similar to that in Greece.  I asked about 

Lithuanian relations with other European countries, and finally about relations with the United States, which are 

quite good.  Large numbers of Lithuanians live in the United States, in places like Chicago, and the culture is sufficiently similar to ours that few people would likely notice.  Lithuania is a country of about 3.5 million people: roughly 1/10th the population of Afghanistan, and so on the broader scale the Lithuanian contribution is small, but as a matter of relative size they are pulling their share.  For example, the Lithuanian special forces have a very good reputation in the fighting elsewhere.  Unfortunately it’s difficult to say much about special forces so they must fight in anonymity.  The main Lithuanian effort is the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) out in the sprawling, mountainous Ghor Province

  The Lithuanians have deployed more than 150 troops and civilians to cover an area about half the size of Lithuania.  The task is as challenging for the Lithuanians as it was for us.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we assigned our troops huge swaths of terrain.  Our military simply is not big enough to cover the space and population.  It just can’t be done.  There is not enough paint to cover the barn.  Knowing this, Commanders must be pragmatic about where they place their efforts, and what they sense they can achieve.

080929-F-6426S-013 by isafmedia.The Lithuanians run the camp at Chaghcharan, the capital of Ghor Province, but they also regularly work in villages. Chaghcharan, the town of maybe 15,000 people that most of us never heard of, is important for various reasons, such as that it sits astride the key route between Kabul and Herat.  When you look at a map of bases and PRTs in Afghanistan, 

See full size image

you might think that Commanders tossed darts at the map to select areas of operations.  This is not so.  There is a story behind every place.  There is enemy activity and Iranian influence to the west, for instance, though most of the media seems to focus on the south, the border area, and Kabul.  And so beyond immediate humanitarian and development terms, the Lithuanian mission might not seem important

Provincial Reconstruction Team - Chaghcharan, Afghanistan

until you look at the map and factor in other items.  The Lithuanians are not here on a “feel good” mission to hand out candy and blankets, but to enable Afghans to build their own capacity over the very long haul, and this location could prove very important to us in the future.

The Lithuanians are quick to point out that though they run the Chaghcharan PRT, others who are working aspect of this mission from the same base, such Croatia, Denmark, Georgia, Japan, Ukraine, Romania and the USA.

Afghanistan’s issues are too many to list, yet one of the key problems are roads.  All the key participants knows this, and have known it for a long time.  “Roads” is not a “revelation,” but the reality remains that places like Chaghcharan are cut off from Kabul for about six months each year simply due to the snows, and floods caused by snow melt, and this means that the important city of Herat is also largely cut off for six months per year.

See full size image

Ambassador Junevičius said that about a hundred million dollars would be needed to construct that road.   This is trivial money on the scale of what we are already spending on the war.  But the reality is that everywhere you go, there is the same true story about a need for roads and a host of other essentials if Afghanistan expected to close the gap between pre-history and the Middle Ages.  (Much of Afghanistan is still living in what might accurately be describes as pre-history.  By comparison, Iraq is very modern.)

Some top U.S. officials will talk about downgrading our expectations for Afghanistan.  The numerous Lithuanians that I have spent hours with fully comprehend the enormous dimensions of the situation here.  Lithuanians understand struggle; they know the story well because they have successfully struggled through their own darkness, and need for foreign aid, and now are actually investing foreign aid in Afghanistan.

Ambassador Junevičius said that only 8% of the police in the Area of Operations are literate.  (Atop that, the Afghans are literate in local languages, not “access” languages such as English.  “Literacy” itself is a loaded word.)  And so the Lithuanians are investing in schools and other projects.  Electricity is as problematic as roads.  Large swaths of Afghanistan are as dark as the sea.

Though realizing the difficulties ahead, the Lithuanians seem focused on their slice of the fight.  Ambassador Junevičius said, “Lithuanians are committed to this mission for at least the next 4-5 years,” which actually might be enough to get Chaghcharan on the road to the Middle Ages.

The next morning, a Swedish C-130 in Kabul was about a half-full of passengers, yet even with only maybe thirty passengers, they seemed to come from probably a dozen countries, including a couple Filipinos, and a couple of Sri Lankans, a British soldier from “The Rifles,” a Danish soldier, some U.S. Army officers, including one Colonel I recognized.  There was an Australian officer and some other civilians, mostly with weapons, and the four Lithuanian soldiers with me.  I was surprised to see Fred and Kim Kagan step aboard.  They are a couple of brilliant academics who seem to pop up all other the place.  The last time I saw Fred was in December in Bahrain, again on coincidence during my trip with Secretary Robert Gates.  I’ve seen Fred and Kim pop up in odd places in Iraq.  This wife-husband team were some of the brains and influence behind the “Surge” in Iraq.  Andrew Exum also climbed into the C-130 - 

this was getting to be a regular Who’s Who of influence over the future course of this war.  In a strange coincidence, I would re-read during the flight the CNAS paper, “TRIAGE: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan,”authored by Andrew ExumNate FickAhmed Humayun, and David Kilcullen. (A brilliant mix of academics and experience.) On that note, I would highly suggest that folks who want to better understand this war pay attention to the names listed above, and to CNAS: Center For New American Security.

And so the Swedish crew flew us from Kabul to Kandahar where the brain-trust stepped off the airplane, and the four Lithuanians and I kept going to Chaghcharan.

The writing about Afghanistan at the moment might not get too far: Even many of the international soldiers over here – including U.S. – often seem more interested in the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.  Especially Michael Jackson.  The Lithuanians say the death of Michael Jackson is dominating their home news at the moment.

 I recall one evening when I worked for Mr. Jackson, back while I was studying and long before the scandals, Farrah Fawecett and her husband came over to Neverland for dinner.  I let them into the estate.  She was very friendly to me.  May she rest in peace.

A similar media dynamic was unfolding recently while I was in the Philippines.  A boyfriend of one of the popular movie stars caught her in a sex video, and that vacuumed nearly all the press from crucial events.  That’s just the way it is.  This war has been on for some eight years, and is now droning in the background.

That’s all for tonight.  It’s been a long trip.  Tomorrow we go downtown.

[My apologies for using the “RUBS” format, but RUBs is the only way to give daily reports.]

* * * * *

I wanted to add the comments that were included with this dispatch.  The comments are always interesting as most are so very in touch with Michael Yon's current location and previous missions.  They usually add a bit more perspective to the readers who are following his reports and ask questions that we tend to think ourselves but either don't ask, or are afraid to ask.


* * * * *

Commentary to Lithuanians in Afghanistan:


During the Vietnam years, my men often asked me "Why are we here?" I never had a good answer. Fighting communism seemed a weak response because the Vietnamese I interacted with could care less about capitalism or communism, they just wanted to be left alone. In your interviews/discussions there, I would be curious to know what our achievable objectives are and the timeframe. Seems the profiteers are looking at about 5 years before interest and money runs out.
Scott Dudley June 29, 2009
Philipinos Arrive
There's hope for Afghanistan if the Philipinos are arriving - the gentilest of people who always give value for money and mind their own business. 

Michael Jackson and Farah Fawsett....You know everybody, Mike. 

Love your work. Stay safe.
Gismo Fly, London June 29, 2009


* * * * *

Sean Pillai interviews Jeff Mellinger


27 June 2009

Kabul, Afghanistan

The clearest sign that I am back in Afghanistan is that the electricity is out again.  Other than that, the day is bright, shiny and cool in Kabul.

While reading/listening through the morning news, this excellent interview with Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger popped up.  The interview was conducted by Sean Pillai.

CSM Mellinger has spent about 37 years in the United States Army.  He was the single most knowledgeable soldier I ever met when it comes to the ground war in Iraq.  He's a walking encyclopedia who spent more time on those hot, dangerous streets than most grunts.   CSM Mellinger gained immense respect from the combat troops.  He only had two bosses in Iraq.  The first was General Casey, and the second was General Petraeus, 

Jeff Mellinger didn't like office life.  He liked to walk the line.

The electricity is back on, so this message can now get back to you.


* * * * *

Michael Jackson

News of Mr. Jackson's death is sweeping around the world.  Having worked for Mr. Jackson at his Neverland Ranch, I had the feeling that he was a hostage to his success.  Finally, the King of Pop will find peace that he might never have gotten in life. 

Very Respectfully,

Michael Yon


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Road to Hell: Part II - Dispatch from Michael Yon

Cabool, Caboul, Cabul, Cabul - کابل, Cabúl, Caubul, Kabil, Kaboel, Kabol, Kaboul, Kabul, Kabula, Kabulas, Kabuli, Kabulo, Kabura, Kabúl, Kabûl, Kobul, Kubha, Kábul, Kābol, Καμπούλ, Кабул, Кобул, Քաբուլ, קאבול, كابل, كابول, کابل, काबुल, কাবুল, காபூல், คาบูล, ཀ་བུར, ქაბული, ካቡል, カブール, カーブル, 喀布尔, 카불
School of Hope, Kabul - Afghanistan

* * * * *

It's strange to be back in the war again. This time, Afghanistan. During the trip back, there were many signs of war, including loads of Afghan soldiers and police guarding the airport. I was kindly picked up by a friend and we drove through the dusty darkness of Kabul. Not a single U.S. soldier in uniform was to be seen, or any U.S. military vehicles. The danger in Kabul is not high compared to other parts of the country.

Later that cool evening, at maybe 10PM, the sound of a single fighter jet (apparently) could be heard high above, and as I walked to the room there was a single gunshot nearby and I reflexively ducked. Otherwise, that's it for now.

The news coming from Iraq is disturbing; as our troops pull back and into different rolls, the violence appears to be sparking. It would be a incredible shame to see that war restart.

More reports on the way.

In the meantime, please see "The Road to Hell, Part II."

Very Respectfully,
Michael Yon

* * * * *

Road to Hell: Part II

27 June 2009


With so many contractors, journalists, and even tourists floating around Afghanistan, some are bound to be kidnapped. The recent escape by David Rohde provides a happy conclusion, though these things often end up with a bullet in the head, or a head sawed off for all to see. Kidnappings are so common in Afghanistan that most barely make the news.

The New York Times and big media outlets are being blamed for suppressing the story and thereby giving special treatment to one of their own. It’s clear that they did give special treatment to one of their own. In fact, when police lose an officer, they also put special emphasis on the crime, and when soldiers lose one of their own, they also put special emphasis on rescue. Iraqi soldiers who helped us locate American soldiers were sometimes upset that we barely lifted a finger when their own were captured and brutally tortured. That the New York Times gave special treatment to one of its own is a fact. That the U.S. military does the same is a fact. Maybe it’s human nature.

Months after the kidnapping, I reported a few sentences after the story had been out there on the web, but I also kept subsequent information quiet upon request from related parties. This was not out of special treatment for journalists but in the name of decency. There are many soldiers out there who know that I also have not reported information that was free to be reported, but that would jeopardize their lives or the security of the United States or that of our allies. Scoop be damned.

I am a writer, not a journalist, and do not track down “scoops.” Some things should not be printed until their time has come, if at all. When it’s all said and done, and you grow old and grey—if you make it that far—above all else it’s more important to know that you worked with honor above ambition.

War correspondence must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Among the journalists, photographers and writers of the world—of which there must be millions—the true war correspondents are the “special forces.” How many true war correspondents have been produced in this generation? The number must be limited to the dozens.

Faces change but the danger is constant. There is no way around it. Doing the job safely is impossible. Some say that the best way to avoid danger is to stay with the troops. This is completely false. I spent more time with U.S. troops in Iraq Map than any correspondent from any organization, and the same might also be true of British forces. The time with the troops has been far more dangerous than time spent unembedded. I’ve never been in a shootout in Iraq or Afghanistan other than those times with U.S. or British forces, in which case it would be impossible to remember all the firefights, bombs, sniper attacks, or all the dead bodies. The most dangerous work that one can do is to embed with our combat troops. Nothing else comes close.

Yet there is something particularly edgy about going alone, as David Rohde has done. Only our most highly trained soldiers go out in tiny numbers, and none, to my knowledge, go out the way correspondents do. When I have showed up at the front gates of U.S. or British bases, the soldiers tend to be astounded or even appalled. They can’t believe anyone would be dumb or crazy enough go out there without bristling guns, helicopter support, and armor. But again, the fact is, I have never been attacked while alone, but when I am with U.S. or British forces people all around me get hit and it’s only by the Grace of God that I haven’t been hit.

David Rohde’s journey was peculiar because it’s . . . well, peculiar. He is a high-profile man associated with a high-profile company. Otherwise, his kidnapping was just one of probably hundreds, or more.

The dangers of going unembedded are different than when with soldiers. I could give some hints that could increase the safety of correspondents and contractors, but those hints are not for public discussion other than this: If you are a civilian contractor or journalist who goes into areas with possibility of kidnapping, it’s important to give written permission for a rescue attempt. For servicemembers, no permission would be needed, but journalists, contractors and NGOs will likely not be rescued without permission from a spouse or close relative, unless that permission was granted in advance. Precious time will be lost gaining those permissions. Most rescues are better done immediately.

There have been times when rescues could have occurred but permission was slow in coming. Our “rescue people” are the best in the world. I cannot address the situation of David Rohde because I do not know the facts, other than that he was kidnapped in Afghanistan and taken to Pakistan. After he hit Pakistan, everything changed. The first days after a kidnapping are crucial.

This rescue is a prime example:
US Commandos Rescue American Hostage Near Kabul
AP Exclusive: US Special Forces rescue American held captive near Kabul for 2 months
Last year, a senior defense official gave me a casual briefing on this operation. Apparently, our folks knew the entire time where the hostage was being held. Our people were ready to go on a moment’s notice. The family, I was told, refused to give permission to conduct a rescue attempt. Finally, when their hope began to wane, the family agreed to the rescue attempt and he was rescued immediately. There have been other rescues.

After ten French soldiers were killed near Sarobi, Afghanistan, and U.S. Army admin hassles precluded my embedding with combat forces, I went to hear the villagers’ side of the story. (Amazing how ink that could have gone to our own forces got dashed by paperwork.) Surely the trip was very dangerous but the insight was valuable and was published under “The Road to Hell.”

Shortly after I went there, a female reporter tried to retrace the steps and got kidnapped. In fact, I was told by a close source that my interpreter, “Zee,” was involved in her kidnapping and that he was arrested:
ASIA: Kidnapped Dutch journalist freed: employer

07 Nov 2008 9:35 PM

KABUL, Nov 7 AFP - A Dutch journalist kidnapped by suspected Taliban rebels in Afghanistan a week ago was freed today and was shocked but in good health, her employer said.

The woman, whose name was not released, was captured on Saturday last week while she was en route to do a story about militants who had killed 10 French soldiers in August, an editor at the Belgian P-magazine told AFP.

"Whether she was abducted on the way to them or by them we are not sure," Michael Lescroart told AFP from Belgium.

"She was released this morning," he said.

Sarobi, Afghanistan

The woman was captured in the Sarobi district, about 50km from the Afghan capital Kabul.
The kidnappers had claimed to be from the insurgent Taliban, Lescroart said. There had been a ransom demand but he refused to comment further.

Media in Afghanistan had been aware of the kidnapping but had not reported on it after being told it could endanger the journalist.

Asked about this, Lescroart said: "The media blackout did not help her case- it saved her life."

"I think it helped because we were afraid if she was in the media, they could set an example and that is what we wanted to avoid," he said.

The journalist, in her late 30s, was fine but shocked, Lescroart said.

She had been through a medical check-up at a NATO hospital.
The French soldiers were killed in Sarobi in August* in the deadliest groundbattle for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force since foreign troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban government.
And so that’s about it. I sat on David Rohde information and am happy to have done so. Would the New York Times have done the same for a soldier or for me? That would be their decision.

Michael Yon

*Not recommended to read if you are sensitive to gruesome descriptions.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iraq Leaders Meet, Lunch With Al Ghizi Shaykh/Kofta Recipe/How to Make Iraqi Kababs

Iraq Leaders Meet, Lunch With Al Ghizi Shaykh/Kofta Recipe/How to Make Iraqi Kababs

June 15, 2009

3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)

Leaders Meet, Lunch With Al Ghizi Shaykh

By Sgt. Heather Wright


Col. Robert Schmitt, the 287th Sust Bde cmdr, reaches for flatbread during a luncheon with Shaykh Ali Al Manshed of the Ghizi tribe, in Al Manshed village, recently.

DHI QAR PROVINCE — Conversation ranged from provincial elections to drought concernes. The shaykh’s mudhif, or tribal council hall, was the setting for the luncheon.
The a/c tent boasted marble floors, 7 crystal chandeliers, a collection of Arabian coffee urns, and religious artifacts at one end. Shaykh Ali directed the traffic flow as Soldiers entered the tent and workers hurried to hand out tea to the guests.

“The elections are a good thing for my country,” Ali said. He was concerned about the drought though. It has seriously impacted the Euphrates’ water levels, which in turn has impacted the canals and farming. He also discussed the possibilities of improving farm roads in the future.


Open Letter: Rise of Extremism

Open Letter: Rise of Extremism

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Philippines - Dispatch by Michael Yon

Philippines - Dispatch by Michael Yon

"Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us."

-John F. Kennedy

03 June 2009

The southern Philippines has been a festering bed for international terrorists for decades. Direct links with al Qaeda and associated groups, such as Jemaah Islamiya (JI), are conclusively established. These groups are collectively responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people from dozens of countries. JI, for instance, was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombingthat killed 202 people, including my friend Beata Pawlak.

Some folks are asking why greater successes are being achieved in the Philippines with a smaller footprint than we have in Afghanistan, and they are starting to wonder if this model would work in Pakistan. There can be no simple answer; the best approach is simply to attempt to describe the situation here. A comprehensive description likely would require dozens of stories spread over months of research. Today is the third day of eight days for me, so it is important that the reader understand that my ground situation awareness in the Philippines is not of the depth which I developed in Iraq, or am developing in Afghanistan. This writing is based on talking with soldiers over the past few years who have served here, and also after talking with dozens of veterans on the ground who are engaged in the current fight.


Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun

Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun

About the Program

Artist Wafaa Bilal talks about growing up in Iraq under rule of Saddam Hussein, his decision to move to the United States, and the killing of his brother by a missle fired from a U.S. military drone in 2004. In reaction to his brother's death, Mr. Bilal created an interactive, month-long exhibit in Chicago which allowed people from around the world, through a website, to shoot paintballs at him twenty-four hours a day. By the time the exhibit ended, Bilal had been shot at over 60,000 times from people in over 130 countries. He spoke at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

Artist Story: Wafaa Bilal
How did political oppression impact your art practice?
I was born in Iraq on June 10, 1966. Because a member of my family had been accused of disloyalty to my country, I was denied the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming an artist. Instead, I was to attend college to major in geography. While in college, I continued to pursue my art and was arrested for my political artwork against Sadaam Hussein. Shortly after the Gulf War, I was inspired by President Bush's message to the Iraqi citizens that if they attempted to overthrow Sadaam, the U.S. would stand behind them. I became involved in organizing opposition to the government and was scheduled for arrest and execution when I escaped into Kuwait. There I was accused of being a spy and was close to being shot when my student ID convinced them I told the truth. I was sent to a refugee camp on the Kuwaiti border and lived there for forty days.