It began with a bridge. On the morning of March 1, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated on Tarnak River Bridge near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing multiple civilians and one American soldier. While the destruction of a single bridge might ordinarily pose a mere inconvenience to the U.S. war machine, in the oppressive terrain of Afghanistan it became a logistical chokepoint, halting ground-based operations for days.
War correspondent Michael Yon sought the answer to an uncomfortable question: who was responsible for the security of that bridge?
Yon is no ordinary reporter. A former Green Beret with U.S. Army Special Forces, he has spent more time embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other journalist. His dispatches have produced some of the most memorable combat narratives of the war, and a large share of its most iconic images. Make no mistake; Michael Yon is not a dispassionate observer of the Columbia J-School variety. When writing about U.S. forces, he says "we." When writing about insurgents, he calls them terrorists or Taliban. And when reporting failures in the war effort, he names names. This has earned him both the respect and ire of senior military staff. In the case of the Tarnak River Bridge, the name most repeatedly mentioned as responsible for its security was Daniel Menard, the Canadian brigadier general in charge of Task Force Kandahar. Yon went public with this information.
In an effort to divert the finger of blame from a valued coalition partner, the military reeled and offered instead a bewildering explanation of which task force was responsible for the tiny bridge, and when. In an email reproduced by Yon, one officer summed the situation up as "a messy gray area that has changed hands a few times." Yon doubted the veracity of the official story, and dug in with continued criticism of General Menard, ultimately demanding his firing. While the bridge incident passed, Menard remained in Yon's crosshairs, and when the Canadian general accidentally discharged his weapon on post soon thereafter, Yon reported it as a symbol of the officer's incompetence. (General Menard was later found guilty of negligence in a court martial.)
In 2009, at the direction of President Obama, General Stanley McChrystal launched an assessment of the campaign in Afghanistan, and recommended a troop surge and counterinsurgency strategy to reverse deterioration in the region. Three years prior, with the world's attention focused on Iraq, Michael Yon was one of the first correspondents to report the tide in Afghanistan shifting to the Taliban's favor. As he described it, the country had devolved into a "consummate narco-state" and "a hunting lodge for our special operations forces." He added, "Since the Afghan campaign has been largely a special forces war from the beginning, we have been able to transition with great secrecy from near victory, to abysmal performance, to what has now become a sustainable human-hunting resort."
However, having reported first-hand the spiraling of Iraq into civil war, and witnessed the subsequent, successful troop surge under the aegis of President Bush and leadership of General David Petraeus, Yon expressed confidence in both McChrystal and the new Afghanistan strategy. This confidence was short lived.
There are conflicting stories about what happened next. His public feud against General Menard was not Michael Yon's first campaign against an ally. He'd previously called out British Minister of Defense Bob Ainsworth over his country's lack of in-theater air support. "Mr. Ainsworth is lying to the British public about the helicopter issue in Afghanistan. Mr. Ainsworth tells the British public that British soldiers have enough helicopters. British troops are suffering -- even dying -- for those lies. Mr. Ainsworth is, in effect, murdering British soldiers by not resourcing them." To be sure, alienating America's key partner in the coalition did not endear him to the commanding generals running the war. But from Yon's perspective, he was reporting simple truths and protecting the lives of soldiers in the field.
His next embed would prove to be his final in the region. Yon was assigned to the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, where he has a strong relationship with its command sergeant major, Robb Prosser. "I spent five months in combat with CSM Prosser in Iraq, and we were roommates in Afghanistan. CSM Prosser earned a Silver Star and I was feet away from him when he performed the actions that earned that honor. People who know me know that I remain ready to go." After three months with the 5/2, Yon received the news. According to a message he sent out on Facebook: "McChrystal's crew has spoken: Embed is ended. This comes from McChrystal's own spokesman (through one CPT Jane Campbell USN cc RADM Greg Smith and COL Wayne Shanks USA). This lends confirmation to ideas that the disembed came from McChrystal's crew. (If not before, 100% now.) McChrystal cannot be trusted to tell the truth about this war. Packing my bags."
The official reason for ending his embed was a simple go at fairness. In spite of a written agreement to remain with 5/2 until redeployment, Michael Yon had already been embedded far longer than most journalists could expect, conceive, or endure. With a backlog of over one hundred reporters eager to cover the war, a decision had to be made, and his time was simply up.
Yon disagrees. He questions the timing of his rescinded embed status, coming on the threshold of the most significant combat operation in theater since 9/11, and on the back of a series of setbacks by coalition forces. Marjah, Afghanistan, for example was to be a showcase of success as seen during the Iraq surge. "Those showcases had a dramatic positive effect in Iraq, and also at home in the United States. We saw success was possible." He continues, "General Petraeus had both sides of his mind working, and so when success began to happen the media was there to cover the good job." In the absence of success, Yon believes the military ended his embed to stifle an independent voice and steer coverage to a less experienced, more docile stenographer pool of reporters. "If McChrystal is perceived to fail in Kandahar, the Taliban will just about have us in media checkmate for 2011. This can have tremendous negative consequences and the Taliban leadership fully understands that."
Though he has relocated to Thailand to report on the civil unrest there, he still covers Afghanistan from afar and remains critical of General McChrystal's leadership. "Today, I do not trust McChrystal anymore than some people trust the New York Times, Obama or Bush. If McChrystal could be trusted, I would go back to my better life. McChrystal is a great killer but this war is above his head."
Some military bloggers believe Yon is lashing out spitefully, and that his words would be tempered and his outlook positive if he were still in-country. Some further suggest that he has simply spent too long in the combat zone, and has lost grip on reality. To be sure, neither side of the hyper-partisan blogosphere has much to gain by negative press coming from Afghanistan. On the left, failure would be a blow to "Obama's war," the "good war" to which the president has added nearly seventy thousand troops. On the right, failure would mar not only a war considered just, but also a neoconservative tent pole of democracy in the region. Yon dismisses most military blogs not written by embeds or troops in the field as political "milkookery."
The most pressing question, then, is can Michael Yon be trusted? His dispatches from Thailand have been acclaimed and widely read - certainly not the work of a man on the ledge. And history tends to vindicate Yon's judgement. Never afraid to put his reputation on the line, he was among the first to call Iraq a civil war in 2005, among the first to single out General Petreaus as the man to save the war, among the first to report the success of the Iraq surge, and among the first to report the collapsing campaign in Afghanistan. Yon's credibility was bolstered last week when his Canadian nemesis General Daniel Menard was relieved of command for an inappropriate relationship with a member of his staff, proof positive to Yon of his unsuitability for key leadership.
If Michael Yon was right about everything else, should his word not be heeded when he writes, "McChrystal is bent over the coffin of the Afghan war with a hammer in his hand and a mouth full of nails"? When asked for his thoughts on the general state of the war, he says one must be intuitive rather than deductive. "Innumerable wild cards are always flying and so the best that one can do is study hard and watch and listen and give it time to mix." If a reliance on feelings alone is hardly the metric from which one should draft a war plan, consider the recent words of General McChrystal. The purpose of the Marjah operation was to create an "irreversible feeling of momentum," but, "You don't feel it here but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."
Yon believes the war can still be won, but that a change of command is in order. At this level of warfare, he says, "McChrystal is like a man who has strapped on ice skates for the first time. He might be a great athlete, but he's learning to skate during the Olympics." Yon adds that publicly denouncing the commanding general of a war is not an easy thing for him to do, especially considering it means crossing swords with General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, two men he greatly admires. Indeed, if anyone can turn this war around, Yon believes it is General Petraeus. He concedes such a return to the battlefield is unlikely, and suggests another general whose name fewer people have heard. "General James Mattis from the Marines. I get a good feeling about Mattis but I don't know. General Petraeus is a known entity and he is solid gold."
Short of that, Yon's outlook is bleak. "Even if the President commits more forces [next year], they will not be effective until 2012. By that time, more allies likely will have peeled off, requiring us to commit even more forces to cover down. We lost crucial time in building the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army and so forth, and today we are paying the price. This is not to mention that the Afghan government is sorry at best and criminal at worst."
He concludes, "The trajectory of this war leaves a sick feeling in my stomach. It's as if I've watched a space shuttle liftoff while sitting at launch control, with full knowledge that it will abort to the Indian Ocean. We are trying to reach orbit with insufficient fuel."
Presently, Michael Yon continues to cover the situation in Thailand. As long as General McChrystal is in charge, his days as an embedded reporter are finished, though he intends to return to Afghanistan independently in the near future.