Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton: Victory in the War on Terror

It was a topographical map–the biggest map of Afghanistan Nelson had ever seen.  It measured maybe six feet long, creased and tattooed by pencil stub and slashes of ink, smudged with sweat and the ash of cookfires, and crawling with hundreds of arrows marking Taliban positions across the paper’s soiled grain[…]

Dostum scooped up a handful of pistachios and chewed busily, lost in thought, staring at the map.  He jabbed at the paper and started speaking rapidly.

The key to controlling the country, he explained, meant taking Kabul.  The key to Kabul was taking Mazar.

Nelson and Spencer nodded in agreement.

The key to Mazar, Dostum continued, was taking the Darya Suf River Valley.  And if they took Mazar, the north would fall.  All six provinces.  Without question.

Next would come Kabul.  And with the north in control, you could take Kandahar in the south.  In this way, you could capture the country.

And that was that:  War on Terror for all intents and purposes won – because if you could capture the country, you could control Southwest Asia.  If you could control Southwest Asia, you could control the Gulf.  If you controlled the Gulf, you could control the Middle East, and, if you controlled the Middle East, the main strategic threat to American global military dominance, and to homeland security, would be checked.

And all it took was 12 guys, a bunch of scruffy undernourished Afghans on horseback, and this:

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Okay – so there’s a little bit more to it all than that – more to it strategically, and more to what happened in the Fall of 2001, when, still reeling from 9/11 and still uncertain of the challenges we faced, we sent a mere handful or two of Special Forces and CIA operatives into Afghanistan looking for… anything… maybe some payback… maybe a miracle… maybe an experiment that few would ever know about.

Author Doug Stanton, working from extensive interviews with almost all of the leading figures in his story (the main exceptions being the ones who have not survived), excels at recalling that peculiar moment in time in all its as-lived uncertainty.  He shows us the first phase of the Conflict Formerly Known As The War On Terror, from the vantage point of far-flung operatives who knew virtually from the moment the second plane hit the second tower that they would be on the move, and more or less where to.  Yet, as he follows them for the succeeding weeks and months through the completion of the Afghan warlord’s initial campaign plan, the emphasis is on what they didn’t and couldn’t know, what they suffered and risked, and how close the whole thing came either to having never been attempted, or to having completely fallen apart.

General Tommy Franks, theater commander, once summed up the operation as “the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones,” and, though there’s an element of truth to the statement, it sanitizes what was taking place to the point almost of reverse obscenity.  Some of the military capacities being employed were, indeed, like something out of the science fiction of not too long ago, but the paucity of information and the after-images of Gulf War nose camera video may have led civilians to imagine something almost effortless – spic-and-span supersoldiers, James Bonds with newly grown beards, who might as well have beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, placed a cursor over an icon or two, and blasted however many thousand soldiers to Paradise on a moment’s notice.

Reality, as ever, was a lot dirtier, uglier, and harder, yet in other ways just as or more astonishing.  You don’t think of George Jetson huddled in a freezing cold helicopter being flown doubly blind – at night and through instrument-defeating fog of a sort never before encountered – through hundreds of miles at way-off-the-specs altitudes over the world’s highest mountains.  Cartoon characters don’t ride horses for days on end, chafed bloddy in their saddles, subsisting on starvation rations.  Nor can LiveLeak “war porn” reveal how difficult spotting a bomb onto a target in a combat situation is:  the verbal altercations with pilots demanding impossible proof that targeted hostiles really are hostile; the tricks of light, distance, terrain, weather, and timing that can send a precision-guided munition a useless or self-destructive few hundred feet off.  Eventually, the spotters and pilots developed tremendous effectiveness, but at first their efforts led to merely aesthetic improvements – bombs that, instead of precisely disturbing the middle of nowhere, precisely disturbed the nothing next door.

To dwell much more on logistics, tactics, and technology would give the wrong impression of a book that’s less reminiscent of an after-action report, or even of previous Afghanistan-based war narratives like Lone Survivor or Roberts Ridge, than of a character-driven suspense thriller in the vein of Gerald Seymour – the characters including John Walker Lindh, the pathetically weird American Taliban from Marin; the doomed, recently re-married CIA paramilitary Mike Spann, Lindh’s diametrical opposite, who was already there before it was anywhere to the rest of us; the gallery of endlessly self-ironic Special Forces heroes, everyday informal American dudes who kind of just happen to be the world’s most capable, highly trained and intellectually sophisticated warriors; the dutifully suffering wives desperately sharing tidbits from rare, self-censored phone calls; the variously stolid, visionary, and dim generals, politicians, and officials.  Among the Afghans – both allies and enemies, taunting each other by radio, as quirky as they are profoundly brave or, in some cases and sometimes the same ones, profoundly evil – the warlord Dostum stands out the most, both for his central role and also as a complex and colorful man.  I kept on picturing Jonathan Rhys-Davies from the Indiana Jones movies whenever he strode onto the page, but he comes across as far more than comic relief.

Though the focus always returns to America’s 21st Century cavalry to the rescue, Stanton also recalls the moment of strategic uncertainty at the highest levels.  Nowadays, it seems almost to go without saying that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and much of the American military brass gained reputations for stubbornness and closed-mindedness during the occupation of Iraq, but the nowhere-predicted success of the early Afghan campaign wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t rejected off-the-shelf go-heavy war plans and demanded something quicker, faster, and, in the event, quite sufficiently deadly.

A range of immediate lessons, good and bad and contradictory, were drawn from the results.  The culmination of the war was, of course, marred by the escape of Al Qaeda’s #1 and #2 public enemies, and gave rise to the unprovable assertion that investing American divisions in the mountains around Tora Bora, if possible at all, might have led to better returns.  On the other hand, taking down a country “on the cheap” may have contributed to over-promising and under-planning of the Iraqi enterprise, even while increasing motivation in the regular army to get its own kind of war to prove itself. 

Yet the Mazar campaign’s deepest lesson, from Stanton’s perspective, seems to be on the need to work with and among indigenous forces, even to the point of looking the other way as yesterday’s blood enemy becomes today’s blood brother. I think it’s by now widely accepted that in Iraq this approach eventually proved more important than Jetsons technology, and the point is worth keeping in mind today before we react too impulsively to word of negotiations with “moderate” Taliban or of other political or cultural compromises, and even if we also recognize new support for the old wisdom that no war is ever completely won. 

There were Taliban who, it was said, would dismember a child to discourage acts of defiance, and a true Qaedist might be holding a ready grenade as he offered surrender, but, like the eventual Sons of Iraq or the tribal fighters of Pakistan, the rank and file of whatever jihadist army will almost always be made up of men (and boys) who possessed few options on the day they were inducted. Giving them other choices won’t be the primary basis for our extended intervention in their affairs – we have other aims – but in Stanton’s telling, the men in and beyond whatever fragmentary front lines, who can never be accused of squeamishness or cowardice, would be among the first to tell you that co-opting the bad guys, at least the not-too-bad ones, is the only way to destroy the enemy. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be war, and it especially wouldn’t be the War on Terror as we came to know it, if any happy conclusion stood unchallenged. Partnering with the locals, conscripting from the enemy’s ranks, sending the rest home is far from foolproof as a method. It can often mean, may inherently mean, that at the moment of victory you may be closer than ever to defeat. Stanton’s own narrative is structured around the widely known, little understood treacherous mass surrender to unprepared captors at Mazar-i-Sharif’s Qala-i-Janghi prison-fortress, the notorious “House of War.” The near-disaster of the ensuing rebellion, which took Mike Spann’s life and also led to the discovery of John Walker Lindh’s identity, is summed up from the perspective of Special Forces Major Mark Mitchell, surveying the carnage as the battle raged:

Mitchell lowered his binoculars. These guys just won’t die. He had no idea how any man could have withstood yesterday’s bombardment. As he looked down into the fortress, at the blood soaking the dirt floor, he saw hundreds of suicidal Taliban Al Qaeda fighters firing rifles, rockets, throwing grenades.

If these fighters escaped the fortress, if they broke through these walls and escaped into the scrum of Mazar-i-Sharif’s streets, it might take the entire winter to recapture the lost ground. If they escaped, Mitchell reasoned, it might be impossible to hold off the larger enemy force.

At this moment, as Mitchell and his comrades contemplate the prospect of being swept from Northern Afghanistan by an army that just days earlier seemed to be collapsing, Horse Soldiers becomes more than a tale of heroism and daring, just as the Mazar campaign comes to represent more than a set of technological, theoretical, and practical military breakthroughs – more even than a strategic keystone: It becomes the war itself in microcosm.

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan
Doug Stanton
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Scribner (May 5, 2009)

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