Michael Yon is considered by many to be the Ernie Pyle of the 21st century. Though Yon is not a household name, his voice and opinions have a great deal of power. His writing and photography have been praised by such diverse figures as NBC’s Brian Williams, General David Petraeus, legendary war reporter Joe Galloway and reporter Tom Ricks.
He has clocked more time embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other writer, spending time with American, British, and other coalition troops. He is credited with taking what many consider the most iconic photo of the Iraq war, of then-Major Mark Bieger cradling a mortally wounded Iraqi girl named Farah. This in addition to finding time to go on his own, un-embedded, to Afghanistan. Most recently, he was present for clashes between the Thai government and Red Shirt protesters, which he documented on his Facebook page.
He is a legend among bloggers. The story of how he paid out of pocket to go to Iraq and see for himself what was happening has been an inspiration to citizen journalists. He has also been a controversial figure. He is known for being outspoken, sometimes criticizing the mainstream media or public officials. Some say that it is unbecoming of a journalist and that it violates objectivity. His response has often been, “I’m a writer, not a journalist.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a pro-Yon bias. It’s due to him that I got my start writing. He was the one who first suggested I write, and prodded me to submit to Michael Yon’s Frontline Forum (now offline). I have a signed copy of his book Moment of Truth in Iraq (which everyone should read) on my shelf, and gave multiple copies to friends and family. I owe Michael a great deal and consider him a hero — and a mentor.
During our chat, we talked about General Petraeus, the (now moot) possibility of General James Mattis taking over Centcom, the Afghan government, Wali Karzai and his recent run-ins with Blackfive (as readers know, good friends of the War Is Boring crew). A lot was discussed, and the interview eventually shifted from phone to e-mail.
Here are a few snippets:
WIB: At first, you were supportive of General McChrystal. What initially appealed to you?
MY: Important to read that carefully. I was clearly quoting other sources and finished off the piece with, “And now we likely will get the chance to see if a McChrystal-Rodriguez team can do in Afghanistan what Petraeus-Odierno did in Iraq.”
Today we know the answer.
WIB: What changed?
MY: I saw the products of his work.
Now Petraeus is in charge. This is a fairly large upset to see him recalled from Centcom to be put back in the field. This is a huge endorsement of his leadership abilities that he would be recalled to more closely manage operations in Afghanistan. However, this move does not come without raising some questions. What are the implications of this reassignment? What does this mean for the rest of Centcom?
As long as Afghanistan is sinking down the hole, that must be a primary focus. If General Petraeus can turn this around and significantly reduce the violence by about 2012 while continuing to build a government, I would consider that progress. I do, however, expect 2011 to be very deadly and probably worse than we ever saw in Iraq. I cannot speak for implications for the rest of Centcom.
WIB: Several Afghan officials have expressed disappointment in McChrystal’s departure. How will they respond to Petraeus? Particularly, how do you see him dealing with controversial, and sometimes unpopular, figures like Wali Karzai?
MY: You and I will figure that out at the same time, which probably won’t be much later than the Karzais and Petraeus figure it out. Apparently McChrystal got along better with the president of Afghanistan than the one he alledgedly voted for.
WIB: The rules of engagement for our forces in Afghanistan have come under alot of flak recently. At the same time, though, you’ve pointed out the importance of restraint, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. How can the U.S. — and coalition forces as a whole — strike a balance between defending themselves and minimizing collateral damage?
MY: This is always a balancing act and rarely simple. Commanders must make intuitve decisions on ROE. It’s important to keep in mind that ROE vary from place to place and time to time. ROE might be remarkably different from one unit to the next or even one day to the next, depending on many factors. In reality, the ROE should have been tighter years ago. The problem now is that the violence has reached such a high level that the ROE must be less restrictive. Tough, tough decisions that are best left to combat-experienced commanders.
WIB: One of the biggest criticisms is that the Army has been very FOB-bound in Afghanistan, and that many of the COPs are in remote locations that isolate troops and prevent them from having sustained contact with the local population and forming a relationship. In your experience, has that been the case. And if so, what can be done to solve this problem?
MY: Definitely has been the case. General Petraeus and his advisors recognize these issues and these decisions are in their court. Be assured — or at least almost assured — that more troops will be living among the population.
WIB: Petraeus was known in Iraq for turning to local leaders, sometimes former enemies, to help turn the tide in Iraq. Can we see something similar to the Anbar Awakening in Afghanistan? You’ve highlighted local leaders before, such as District Governor Haji Obidullah Populzai, and have mentioned correspondence with Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai (whom, according to Tim Lynch, the U.S. Army at one time considered an enemy leader). How do we work with local leaders when many see the Karzai regime to be as big a problem as the Taliban?
MY: The approach to every leader will be nuanced and must be accomplished based on local circumstances. It’s important to keep in mind that we do not have a lot of “natural enemies” in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is of course a natural enemy. Many of the groups in Afghanistan are situational enemies. Changing situations can shift these relationships.
WIB: I’m under the impression that you are re-embedding, is this correct?
MY: I have not committed to any embeds. Have received green lights from British and U.S. but have not acted on them. Am moving cautiously. Might go back alone, unembedded.
WIB: Switching gears slightly, I’d like to discuss your recent falling out with the milblog community. Many milbloggers (like Danjel Bout, Alex Horton, Colby Buzzel, etc … ) have been praised for presenting a soldier’s eye view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been a unique development in the way soldiers recount (and share) the war experience. You were previously a rock star to many. Lately, the dynamic has changed — at least with some of them, particularly with Blackfive. You’ve lately been referring to them as “milkooks,” and they’ve been calling you “mentally unstable.” When did this change happen?
MY: Am not sure when it actually started because I was not paying attention to them. In fact, I have spent only a small amount of time on them since. Have been told that they have been sniping at me for some time but it seemed to really kick off when I starting writing in March 2010 that Brigadier General Daniel Menard should be fired. I then said General Stanley McChrystal should be fired. Some milblogs then said I had seen too much combat. Then both generals were fired. Who is mentally unstable? Why am I the only man to recognized that both generals needed to be fired? Have any of the milblogs apologized?
WIB: Do you still see milblogs as valuable? Are there any that you read presently?
MY: I don’t read milblogs. Small Wars Journal and Captain’s Corner seem to be more measured than the milkookery class. But why would I read milblogs when I am actually in the war?
WIB: What is your ultimate hope for Afghanistan?
MY: I don’t have much hope for Afghanistan for the next many decades. Best case is that we will view it as a non-sanctuary for terrorism and a slowly developing country.