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…