Monday, August 31, 2009

Precision Voting: Michael Yon

The historical Afghan elections scheduled for 20 August were days away. While the west mostly continued to vote for Afghanistan, the big question was, “Will Afghanistan vote for itself?”

The latest media wave splashed into the main voting centers in places like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Lashkar Gah. The larger cities only account for perhaps 20% of the Afghan population. Whereas the easy and obvious stories are in the cities, a crucial and larger dimension—the other 80%—would unfold in the boonies. Most Afghans would have no chance to vote.

The election was to be run by Afghans. In theory and in practice this would be a recipe for disaster. The strategic thinkers cannot be faulted for this; after nearly eight years of war, if the west were still running the elections, the elections and government would be a failure to begin with. By comparison, the Iraqi elections on 30 January 2005 (less than two years after invasion) were run mostly by Iraqis. In the voting of October and December of that same year, Iraqis had two more runs at the ballots, which were increasingly successful. Afghanistan, however, is different. This would be only the second election in history.

There are no good choices here. Either we run the elections and the central government and in doing so undermine the same central government we are investing in, or we allow that central government to run the elections and probably watch it undermine itself. But who knows?

We need more troops. The leadership tells us that the Taliban and associated groups control only small parts of the country. Yet enemy influence is growing, and so far, despite that we have made progress on some fronts, our own influence is diminishing. For example, an excellent British infantry unit that I embedded with in Iraq and now Afghanistan, the “2 Rifles,” is staked out in the “Green Zone” around the Helmand River. HQ for 2 Rifles is at FOB Jackson near the center of the map above. There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month). The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting. The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual “FLETs.” FLET is military-speak for “Forward Line of Enemy Troops.” In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain.

The British are protecting Kajaki Dam but otherwise it’s just a big fight and no progress is being made. The turbine delivery to the dam, which I wrote about last year, was a tremendous success. Efforts to get the turbine online have been an equally tremendous failure. Bottom line: the project to restore the electrical capacity from Kajaki Dam is failing and likely will require multi-national intervention to bring it online and to push back the enemy.

We need more helicopters. Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki that when my embed was to switch from FOB Jackson to FOB Inkerman—only seven kilometers (about four miles) away—we could not walk or drive from Jackson to Inkerman. Routes are deemed too dangerous. Helicopter lift was required. The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements. It’s common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight.

When my embed was to move the four miles from Jackson to Inkerman, a scheduled helicopter picked me up at Jackson and flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion. The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th. About five days was spent—along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time—to travel four miles. Even Generals can have difficulty scheduling flights. Interestingly, when I talk with the folks who reserve helicopter space, they say the Generals are generally easy-going about the lack of a seat, but that Colonels often become irate.

For the rest of the report click here


  1. It's a shame you kicked him out. Are you still making it difficult for him to embed with the US Air Force?

  2. Michael Yon’s embed with British forces was not cancelled.

    Far from it, his embed was extended from three weeks to five weeks and the reports have been excellent - not only have I helped Michael broaden his audience, so has the MOD by publishing his reports on the MOD Afghanistan Blog.

    No doubt sometime in the future we will host Mike again.

  3. I've published your comment on The Daily Politics and am checking with Mr Yon. My apologies if I have misunderstood.

  4. Thank you for clarifying. Yon has been on a bizarre downer re the British forces. I've enjoyed reading him but found the last few posts confusing. I wasn't sure what to make of any of it as it doesn't all add up (what he was insinuating) versus how you were publicising him here. Saying the British are outright losing (as has been reported) does the men he was with a bit of disservice in my view. Are we flat out losing Helmand? Is it all our fault? Or is this part of the wider concerns about strategy?