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Michael Yon’s incredible reporting from Helmand Province in Afghanistan

Friday, August 21, 2009
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HH: Pleased now to talk with Michael Yon, correspondent extraordinaire from Afghanistan on election day in Afghanistan. I believe, Michael, are you in Helmand Province?

MY: Hey, Hugh, yes I’m in Helmand Province in a place called Sangin. It’s in north Helmand Province. I’m with British forces.

HH: Well, I saw on your blog this morning that you don’t have much to report in terms of election voting in Helmand, because there just isn’t much going on down there. Is that the case?

MY: I just had to publish one via sat phone, because my satellite gear is broken. You know, they tried to vote here in Sangin today. About three hundred people actually voted. The Taliban were really interfering with the elections. We had fights all day today. In fact, in the last, just had a firefight as we were coming back to the base, and the soldier behind me, his antenna was shot off. I mean, the Apaches were up there, they fired about thirty rockets and a lot of 30mm cannons, and we fired about three hundred mortars and cannons, and it just went on and on. It was a fight all day long. So you know, but we saw that in Iraq as well, Hugh, I mean, I’m sure you remember in early 2005 when a lot of the Sunnis boycotted the elections, but later turned around and began to vote later in 2005. So I’ve seen that from what I can gather, there were successes in other places in Afghanistan, but I’ve been out all day. But in our particular place, it was not particularly a success at all, but that’s not necessarily indicative of the rest of the country.

HH: Michael, how long have you been in Helmand Province?

MY: I’ve been down in Helmand…well, I was up in Ghor Province as well to the north, but I’ve been here about a month this time, and I was up in Ghor for about a month as well.

HH: And who are you embedded with? Who are you spending most of your time with? Exclusively Brits?

MY: Exclusively at the moment. I was only going to come with the Brits for two weeks, but they invited me to stay for another month, so I’m staying with them. And then I’m going to go with the United States Marines. I’m really looking forward to that. And then after that, probably the U.S. Army, and that’ll bring us up to about Christmas time when I come home for a short spell.

HH: Now I want to remind everyone, over at Hughhewitt.com, you can find the link to Michael Yon’s online magazine, as well as a link to the opportunity to contribute to citizen journalism, because Michael is only in the field because of the contributions of his readers. And we’ve got to encourage you to do that, because it’s the best reporting from Afghanistan. Give our listeners, Michael Yon, a sense, before we talk about the couple of dispatches I want to talk to you about specifically, Do Americans Care About British Soldiers, and the Kopp-Etchells Effect, I’ll do that after the break. But give them a sense of what the fighting is like and has been in Helmand for the last month that you’ve been there.

MY: It’s pretty intense, Hugh. I mean, it’s really as intense here where I’m at with British forces as anything that I’ve seen in Iraq. I mean, daily fights again, fighting just all day today. But you know, in other places, it’s very peaceful. Last year, I drove around about a thousand miles on my own without any military, and really enjoyed just talking with Afghans. So you know, it’s nuanced, just like Iraq was. There’s places that are incredibly violent, like right here, and then there’s other places where you don’t have to worry about anything but crazy drivers.

HH: Well, in Helmand, do you ever get eyes on the enemy? Or is it from the distance, mortar after mortars, and IED’s? Or is there actual engagement with enemies that you see?

MY: Oh, yeah. Today, in fact, I was right beside the sniper when he took a 900 meter shot. That was a far shot. He may have hit him, not sure, but if he didn’t, it was very, very close. And then just before that, maybe, I don’t know, thirty minutes, one of the soldiers, he had the metal detector in one hand looking for IED’s, and he had his rifle in the left hand, and right around the corner came a couple of Taliban. One of them had an RPG. The soldier lifted up the rifle quickly and fired some shots. He missed, but yeah, sometimes you see them actually quite close. And a lot of times, though, no, it just depends. But here, the fighting can be really close, because out in what they call the green zone, which is not the same as the green zone in Iraq, the green zone here is the area around the rivers where there’s a lot of vegetation. But here, the corn is so high right now that you can be really close to the enemy before you actually detect each other. And then, you’re in a closed quarters fight.

HH: When you talk to the British soldiers, do they think they’re winning? They’ve had such a rough summer there. I was in England earlier this summer when they had eight casualties in a couple of days, and Gordon Brown was on the ropes over not having the appropriate equipment. Do the Brits think they’re winning?

MY: The morale is high, but they’re also realistic that this won’t be over in five years. When you talk with a lot of people, some of the country, some of the nationalities I’ve spoken with, they think that this will be over in two or three years. The British are more realistic, you know. They know that it’s going to take decades, and so winning is a process here, just like we saw in Iraq, only the process here would be much, much longer. Hugh, I think it’ll take a hundred years here to bring this country to the point where it’s what we would call a developing nation.

HH: I’ll be right back with Michael Yon on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

– – – –

HH: On election day in Afghanistan, I couldn’t think of any better person to talk to than the American journalist who has, I think, done more time in the two countries of Afghanistan and Iraq since the beginning of the war on 9/11 than any other person. Now John Burns is going to be a close second, or he might have more time in Iraq, obviously, than Michael did, but both countries, I don’t know, and combat situations, I doubt there’s anyone who’s spent more time in combat situations than Michael Yon. I remind you he reports only because his readers on the web contribute to him. I’ve put the donation link up at Hughhewitt.com as well, and you’ll want to read the last two dispatches from him, because they’re extraordinary. I’m about to talk about that. But Michael, when we went to break, you said you think it’ll take a hundred years for them to become a developing country. When you encounter the ordinary Afghan, not a Taliban fire, but the ordinary Afghan, are they more or less disposed to like Americans than the ordinary Iraqi that you met through the years that you were writing Moment Of Truth In Iraq, et cetera?

MY: More. Definitely more. And in fact, the British and American soldiers tend to like the Afghan people more than they would tend to like the Iraqi people. And that’s true for me, too. For instance, there’s something about Afghans, not the Taliban version of Afghans, but there is something about Afghans that is very likable, and you can see, you know, even a little bit of American. They’re very independent, strong-minded people. There’s definitely some qualities that resonate with Americans and British.

HH: Are they living in fear in the villages of Taliban reprisals? Or has McCrystal’s emphasis on securing the population begun to pay off?

MY: Oh, down here where I’m at at this point, they are very much in fear, very afraid of the Taliban. I mean, for instance, today we occupied a compound, and the owner of the compound, their homes are called compounds, because they have giant walls around them. Every home is like an Alamo. And he was afraid that the Taliban would kill him just because we had taken over his home, which we had to do. The British will pay when they do that, and they’re very friendly about it, but sometimes, you just have to do that. But no, they’re very afraid of the Taliban.

HH: Now Michael Yon…

MY: Let me qualify that, Hugh. In some places, the Taliban would be killed instantly, I mean, like in Bamiyan Province, or places like that, or Mazari Sharif. They would not get along at all.

HH: So Michael Yon, how many Taliban are there? When you sit around and you get some estimate, what do the soldiers say to each other?

MY: Boy, that’s a good question, and also comes down into how you define Taliban, because many of the people that we face here are not actually what we would have called Taliban back in 2001. There’s other networks that are loosely affiliated, sort of like syndicates, and we’ve heard them called before. And down here, many of the sort of called Taliban are basically just involved in the drug trade which is huge. I mean, there’s poppies that grow all around this place. It’s like something out of the Wizard Of Oz. It’s all been harvested already this year, so now they’re growing corn and some other crops, like I had a good watermelon today while we were on the mission. So…but this is, a lot of the fighting that takes place here in Helmand revolves around the drug trade.

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit, Michael Yon, about your two most recent dispatches. The most recent one, Do Americans Care About British Soldiers? I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. It’s really extraordinary. Do you want to give people a summary of what they’ll get when they go over to your online magazine and read about this?

MY: You know, I was talking on this very same phone some weeks ago, and I heard a gunshot. And the bottom line is a British soldier had been shot in the stomach, and he was very badly wounded. And the British medical system didn’t have the particular equipment that he needed to save his life. And so he ended up in the American system, and unbelievably, I mean, we dispatched a C-130, and three C-17’s, along with medical crews. I mean, it was an incredible effort to save the life of this British soldier. And I understand as of the last few days, he’s still under American care in Germany. So for several weeks, he’s been cared for by American military, and the extraordinary effort that they went through to in helping him. It was just mind-boggling. You have to read it. But you know, and then there was another layer to that. Soldiers’ Angels stepped in and helped his mother and helped with a lot of other things, because she had to come to Germany to see her son instead of going to visit him in the U.K. And Soldiers’ Angels, which is an extraordinary organization, stepped in. So every layer of this cake was just, you know, the Americans really stepped forward for their British brothers and sisters.

HH: It really does give you a sense of the camaraderie between the two historic allies, and I have linked Soldiers’ Angels as well over at Hughhewitt.com, because that’s a very inspiring story of how they’re selfless in the service of everyone in this combat zone. The other dispatch, Michael Yon, which I actually had linked probably last week is the Kopp-Etchells Effect. And it’s both moving, and it’s also fascinating on a technical side. Talk about the helicopter effect first, and then we’ll tell about Joseph Etchells and Mr. Kopp. I can’t remember his rank.

MY: Ben Kopp.

HH: Yeah.

MY: Benjamin Kopp. The effect is helicopters that land in this hot weather and very dusty conditions, often at nighttime, they create a very bright glow around their rotors. Some people have called it the St. Elmo’s Fire, but that’s not what it is. I’ve been communicating with a scientist who actually studies this stuff, and that’s certainly not what it is in his view. In fact, they don’t even know what causes it, but it can be very bright. It looks like a halo around the helicopters. But when they land, it tends to go away, and when they take off, it starts back again until they get through the dust, and then they just disappear into the darkness. Well, Benjamin Kopp was a United States Army Ranger from the 3rd battalion of U.S. Army Rangers. And he was killed last month in July in Helmand Province in a firefight, and he was an organ donor. And…I’m sorry, Hugh?

HH: At 21 years old. I just wanted people to know that.

MY: Yeah, he was 21 years old. It was his third combat tour. And he was a corporal, and he was an organ donor, and his heart immediately went to a woman, a family friend who was very much in need of a heart. And I saw an article in the Washington Post where she was quoted as saying something like you know, why wouldn’t, you have to be happy or something like that to have the heart of a 21 year old Ranger beating in me. It’s just a phenomenal person. He must have had an incredible mother to raise up a soldier like that who would then become an organ donor and continue to save lives even after he’s given his own.

– – – –

HH: Thanks to my guest, Michael Yon from Afghanistan on a satellite phone. Everyone out there needs to go visit my website and connect up with Michael Yon’s website. Read these two dispatches, donate to Michael’s effort to stay on the front line in Helmand Province and throughout Afghanistan on this election day to tell us the aftermath of it. Michael, when we went to break, we were talking about the amazing Corporal Benjamin Kopp, age 21, killed on his third combat tour, and that hero donated his heart and organs so that others might live. And you also tell us about Joseph Etchells, who is an extraordinary British soldier who, I’ll just read from the dispatch here, “I attended a small ceremony for a British soldier from this base in Helmand who was killed in combat the day after Benjamin Kopp passed. His name was Joseph Etchells. I was told how Joseph died in a bomb ambush, and that his last request was to be cremated, loaded into a firework, and launched over the park where he used to play as a kid. When Joseph’s last request was explained, I burst out laughing, and the British soldiers who told me was also laughing.” You know, Michael, these people are just sort of beyond the ordinary experience of folks. But what do you suggest we do about this unusual halo effect on helicopters, and these two amazing heroes?

MY: Well, I would suggest that the effect, which is unnamed, be named the Kopp-Etchells Effect, in honor not only of these two incredible soldiers, both of whom were on their third tours in Afghanistan, but in honor of all the soldiers who’ve been, and troops in general who’ve given their lives and limbs in all the wars that our country has faced, and that the British have faced alongside us. And so that’s why I named that dispatch the Kopp-Etchells Effect.

HH: It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, and I would recommend everyone to it. So Michael, after your time in Afghanistan this time, do you see the new strategy unfolding in real time, the McCrystal strategy? Is there evidence of it working? Do we need more troops?

MY: Definitely need more troops in my view. And that’s based on a lot of travels in different parts of Afghanistan. It’s too early to tell. You know, I recall in early 2007, and late 2006 in Iraq when it started to look like we might really lose the war, yet we came in with a new strategy and new troops, and you remember the turnaround in mid-2007. In fact, it was on your program in about June, I think, of 2007, I believe John Burns and I were the first ones to report the turnaround.

HH: Yup.

MY: And I think we both did it on your show.

HH: Yup.

MY: But you know, that was a phenomenal turnaround. It was almost unbelievable. And so despite how gloomy it looks here now, and it does look gloomy, I’m not going to kid you, I’m still hopeful, and not that hope is a strategy, but that our combined experience that our commanders have now, they’ll be able to make it work here. But I do think it’s going to take a lot longer than we ever saw in Iraq. I don’t foresee this thing being over anytime soon.

HH: Michael Yon, it is always a wonderful pleasure, thanks for your service to the American people by being over there and reporting. I remind everyone go to the links at Hughhewitt.com, support this kind of extraordinary reporting. You don’t get it from anywhere else.

End of interview.

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