A military victory few can imagine
Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks ignited the first U.S. war of the new century, a couple of dozen Army Special Forces personnel and CIA operatives slipped quietly into Afghanistan and, seemingly, back in time.
As outraged Americans waited for a full-scale invasion of the country giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, the Green Berets teamed with Afghan warlords and their militias struggling to overthrow the Taliban regime. Conditions were so primitive that U.S. fighters schooled in modern warfare and high-tech weaponry galloped into battle on horseback, like 19th century cavalrymen.
“It was like a time warp,” said Col. Mark Mitchell, a key figure in “Horse Soldiers,” a new book by Michigan author Doug Stanton that tells their story. “You’re living in caves, watching these [Afghan] guys with rifles so old they could have been out of museums. You’re transported back into this era that few people in the United States and the Western world really can imagine.”
As Sgt. 1st Class Ben Milo told Stanton, “It’s as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones.”
Against the odds, the horse soldiers’ mission was accomplished within two months, as the Taliban rulers were swept from power.
Now, with the Taliban trying for a comeback, Stanton says U.S. policymakers should heed lessons from the earlier success story.
“Instead of large-scale occupations, we should rely on small units of Special Forces who have proved it’s infinitely more effective to work with a country’s soldiers and citizens at eye level,” he writes in the book, just published by Scribner.
Special Forces are more adaptable than regular military personnel and more sensitive to the culture they’re entering, Stanton said in an interview at his Traverse City home. “They’re trained to land, fight, negotiate peace and then rebuild the environment that they’ve just been fighting in.”
Military analyst Daniel Goure said the way Special Forces and support units were deployed in Afghanistan represented a new approach to warfare and worked so well that “it’s now enshrined in our doctrine and planning.”
Still, the delayed arrival of regular troops may have enabled Bin Laden to escape during the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, said Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. The experience, he said, “taught us the use of Special Forces but also taught us what the limits were.”
Stanton, 46, whose 2001 bestseller, “In Harm’s Way,” recounted the sinking of the Indianapolis during World War II, spent five years researching and writing “Horse Soldiers.” Movie rights have been sold to Jerry Bruckheimer Films (“Black Hawk Down”).
The author retraced part of the soldiers’ route in Afghanistan and tracked down most of them for interviews, including Mitchell, now a national security fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Mitchell told the Associated Press by telephone that respecting the Afghans’ culture and treating them as equals proved crucial to the horse soldiers’ success. So did another distinctive characteristic of Green Berets: adaptability.
Whether giving themselves crash courses in Afghan languages and tribal politics, using satellite technology to coordinate precision bomb strikes from planes 20,000 feet above the desert, or surviving a revolt by hundreds of die-hard Taliban prisoners, they improvised constantly to deal with the unexpected.
Nothing illustrated their flexibility more than the startling realization that engaging the enemy would require long horseback rides, sometimes along narrow mountain paths where one false move could mean a fatal plunge.
After a harrowing helicopter ride into the fogbound Afghan desert, a dozen members of the 5th Special Forces Group from Ft. Campbell, Ky., rendezvoused with several CIA paramilitary officers. They soon met a dashing Afghan general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the warlords whose Northern Alliance was battling the Taliban. Immediate goal: Capture the strategically important city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Few of the Americans had riding experience, Stanton writes: “No one in Washington, D.C., had imagined that modern American soldiers would be riding horses to war.”
Their borrowed steeds were smaller than most U.S. horses. The saddles were wooden slabs covered with goatskin; ill-fitting stirrups bent the Americans’ legs awkwardly. After hours on the move, they were so cramped they could hardly walk.
“At one point, we’re on a trail about 2 feet wide, and even with my night-vision goggles I can’t see the bottom of the ravine off to one side,” Mitchell told the AP. “If my horse falls or if I fall off, I’m going maybe 1,000 feet down. Every time the horse stumbles a little bit, it makes your heart stop.”
As Dostum’s riders battled Taliban forces hand-to-hand, the Americans used GPS devices and satellite radios to pinpoint bombing locations for Navy and Air Force pilots. Another Special Forces team did likewise, teaming with warlord Usted Atta. The tide turned in the Northern Alliance’s favor.
Meanwhile, Sgt. 1st Class Andy Marchal and a roving band of Americans and Afghans were making the enemy miserable. They blew up ammunition dumps, tanks and other hardware in advance of Dostum’s army. So stealthy and lethal were Marchal’s guerrillas, Stanton writes, Taliban troops speculated on their radios that a monster was loose.
“If we could find it, we destroyed it or had the Air Force destroy it,” said Marchal, 48, whom Stanton identified with a pseudonym for security purposes. Now retired and living in Cadiz, Ky., Marchal consented by phone for his real name to be used for this article.
His band moved 10 hours a day for three consecutive weeks, walking at times to rest the weary horses. Traveling lightly, they were often short of food. Marchal once paid a herdsman $100 for three sheep, which the group slaughtered and devoured.
“You could eat about every piece of sheep but the hoof,” he said. “That was good chow.”
Cheering throngs greeted the horse soldiers and their allies as they entered Mazar-i-Sharif in early November. Mitchell and his crew began planning reconstruction of the battered city.
But a couple of weeks later, 600 Taliban fighters imprisoned in a fortress called Qala-i-Janghi rebelled, a last-ditch gambit that could have boosted the Taliban’s chances. They killed CIA officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first American to die in the war.
Badly outnumbered, the Special Forces summoned repeated airstrikes, one of which mistakenly slammed into a U.S. position, injuring several of the group. After a weeklong blood bath, the decimated rebels finally surrendered. Among them was John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.”
The horse soldiers’ mission ended as regular Army and Marine units arrived. They returned to Ft. Campbell and eventually were deployed to Iraq. Some would die there.
As Stanton notes, Special Forces consider themselves “the quiet professionals” and seldom talk publicly about their dangerous work. Getting their cooperation for his book wasn’t always easy.
But Mitchell, 43, said Americans should know the inside story of their victory in Afghanistan.
“It was a major accomplishment that doesn’t get a lot of publicity,” he said. “In terms of the mission we were given, the manner in which we accomplished it and the time frame, we stunned the whole world.”