Michael Yon is an independent journalist and former Green Beret. He is now in Afghanistan, reporting on the war. Here is a portion of his latest dispatch exclusively for FOXNews.com.
THE WILDS, Afghanistan — Since leaving the British embed, I’ve gone unilateral. I flew back and forth between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, drove around and talked with people down south, then flew up to Kabul. In Kabul, I met Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk (a retired USMC and ex-Aussie paratrooper, respectively), and we drove in an unarmored truck east to Jalalabad.
The canyon-filled drive would be dangerous even if there was no war, but there is a war — a rapidly growing one — and Tim pointed out burnt spots on the road where ambushes had occurred. I was unarmed, and counting on the military experience of my two guides as well as their combined seven years experience in Afghanistan.
In the weeks that I would spend with Tim and Shem, we drove more than a thousand miles up and down Afghan roads without the slightest drama, except that Tim scares me with his driving. If you are rich and want the adventure of a lifetime, contact Tim Lynch. You might die. But if you live, you’ll come back with a new perspective on Afghanistan.
On our first trip, we drove from Kabul to Jalalabad. The road passes through a village called Sarobi. Sarobi has become known as the place where 10 French soldiers were killed on 18 August, 2008, although they were not actually killed in Sarobi, but near Sper Kundy.
The French soldiers were on a reconnaissance patrol in the Uzbin Valley, about 40 kilometers east of Kabul. At approximately 15:00 local time, they were spread out over a steep slope and started taking fire from the ridges above. The gunfire was fierce and accurate. After 90 minutes, the French vehicles ran out of ammunition, and they abandoned a counterattack. They fought for four hours without reinforcements, which were slow to come because the French troops lost radio contact and could not call in air support or reinforcements.
According to a secret after action report that I have read and was quoted extensively and accurately in the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper, the loss of radio contact was probably due to the fact that they only had one working radio. Soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) had accompanied the French patrol, but they were apparently worse than ineffective, “lounging on the battlefield” until they finally dispersed, leaving their weapons and equipment, according to the report.
Reinforcements eventually arrived, but the fighting continued into the next morning. The French dead were not recovered until mid-day. By then, some had been stripped of their weapons, equipment and uniforms.
Not reported: The body of an interpreter who had worked with the French was left on the field.
The Sarobi ambush was the worst single day toll for the French military in a quarter century. Most of the troops were from the Eighth Paratrooper Regiment, which had been nearly wiped out in the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954. Shortly after the ambush, polls showed a majority of French people favoring an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, but President Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the war effort.
On September 4, Paris Match published photos of “Taliban” fighters wearing uniforms and holding weapons taken from the French soldiers. The photos whipped up bitter controversy over whether the photographs were newsworthy or just propaganda for the enemy. I remember seeing photos of the day when my high school friend, Scott Helvenston, was murdered in Fallujah. One of those photos received a Pulitzer Prize. There was also great controversy in the United States when our government tried to squash photos of flag-draped coffins returning from the Iraq.
Yet when I was in Iraq, one day we lost four good soldiers and an interpreter, and I published photos of their flag-draped coffins. In fact, the American commander of the excellent battalion, LTC Eric Welsh, requested that I do it. He wanted to honor his men. After publishing those photos, I received no threats from the U.S. military, individual soldiers, or our government. So the problem was not the content of the photos — in this case, flag-draped coffins — but whether the subject was treated with proper respect.
As we drove along the road between Kabul and Jalalabad, Tim stopped the truck near Sarobi, where we could see the village in the valley below. Tim said that Sarobi is “HIG” country, and that it was actually HIG who killed the French. Not the Taliban. HIG, or Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin, was founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who hates the U.S. HIG is a terrorist group and a faction of Hizb-I Islami, all with ties to Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Hekmatyar offered homestead to Bin Laden more than ten years ago.
Collectively, we call these groups (and others) “Taliban,” but that blanket term is not completely accurate. The Afghanistan/Pakistan insurgency is a complex, distributed and hydra-headed network of different people fighting for different reasons. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t. If they “succeed” in kicking us out of Afghanistan, they will probably end up fighting each other.
Some of the people we call Taliban are Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Others are local insurgents fighting for revenge, self-respect, or because they’re simple, ornery mountain folk who have traded in their spears and torches for AKs and RPGs. Iraq is a few decades behind the west; Afghanistan is practically on a different planet.
Independent journalist Michael Yon’s dispatches from Iraq appear exclusively on FOXNews.com. Click to read Yon's online magazine MichaelYon-online.com.