The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger On the ground with the Special Forces in Afghanistan
Random House, 2003. ISBN: 0375508619.
The liberation of Afghanistan from the rule of the Taliban was one of the most remarkable campaigns in history, and it took place almost entirely out of view of the television cameras. Thus Americans saw little of their fighting forces in action, though they justly took pride in their performance. The Hunt for Bin Laden, by Robin Moore, is the most detailed look yet at the role of the Special Forces in the Afghanistan campaign.
Note the wording. This is not a comprehensive history of the war in Afghanistan and does not pretend to be. Nor is it a complete account the role of America’s special operations forces in the war, which included SEALs, Rangers, and other units besides. The book really isn’t even about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, though that is touched on. Instead. this book focuses on the US Army Special Forces and the role they played in helping the Northern Alliance drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan.
Special Forces teams entering Afghanistan were faced with daunting problems. The US military never expected to fight a war in Afghanistan, and very few SF troopers could speak Dari, the language of used by most Northern Alliance fighters. There were not even Dari phrase books available at the start of the campaign, and communication was at times reduced to “pointee talkee.”. Afghan fighters considered training an insult. Their leaders were difficult to work with as well. Initially, most Afghan warlords regarded the Special Forces merely as paymasters, and were reluctant to let them go to the front lest they be injured or killed. That reluctance quickly disappeared once the Americans demonstrated the havoc and destruction they could call down on the Taliban from the air.
Even so, relations with the warlords had to be handled carefully, and some could not be dealt with at all. One commander had been sent to America by his father to be educated. While there, he joined the Hell’s Angels, which was doubtless an education, but perhaps not what his father had intended. He rode a Harley around the Afghan countryside, and in the territory he controlled, demanded the right to personally deflower all new brides. Eventually the Special Forces stopped supporting him. SF teams were always careful to watch their backs in dealing with any warlord; something the Afghans took note of.
Moore also provides some interesting details about Hamid Karzai, who would become the President of the newly liberated Afghanistan. As Moore tells it, Karzai was not just a skilled politician, but a shrewd military commander as well. It was Karzai’s idea to take a small force of Afghan fighters and Special Forces to seize the provincial capital of Tarin Kowt, seventy miles north of Kandahar. Karzai judged that the Taliban was so hated by the local population that the town would fall easily, and that its fall would be the beginning of the end for the Taliban in the South. This proved to be correct. The Taliban, enraged by this incursion, sent a massive column of troops and tanks to crush Karzai’s force and the Special Forces who accompanied them. American planes directed by Special Forces on the ground annihilated them, and the battle was crucial to breaking the Taliban’s hold on southern Afghanistan.
Although Moore gives us an inside look at the role of the Special Forces in the War on Terror, he has packaged it along with a lot of bias and purple prose. This seriously detracts from the book. Moore is often harshly critical of everyone involved in the American war effort except the Special Forces. Some of his criticisms do not hold water, and others come across as cheap shots. Anyone who has ever disagreed with Moore’s beloved Special Forces is WRONG, and probably a wimp to boot. He several times takes aim at General Tommy Franks, for being too conventional. He gives an account of Operation Anaconda in which he claims that American infantry was used solely because the conventional generals wanted to get into the battle, and that Special Forces leading Afghan troops could have done a much better job with lower American casualties. In fact, as Moore admits in his account, Special Forces were involved in Anaconda. The battle opened with a force of Afghan fighters and Special Forces moving into the Shah-i-Kot valley. They were quickly ambushed and rendered combat ineffective.
Moore’s treatment of the CIA is nothing short of scathing. He essentially calls them wimps, and harshly criticizes the conduct of “Dave”, the CIA officer who worked with Mike Spann, the Agency operative who died in an uprising of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners. Moore reveals details about the riot and Spann’s death that were kept secret at the time. He also reveals that Spann’s widow, Shannon, was herself a CIA officer, and that the two had met in 1999 while attending a Clandestine Service Officer’s training course. Whatever Moore’s opinion of the Agency, that last revelation, if true, seems unnecessary and irresponsible.
The book is illustrated with excellent color photos, and with maps. The maps are uninformative. They show the approximate infiltration routes of the Special Force A detachments, but little of the ground actions that followed. There is a map of the Operation Anaconda battle area, but no troop positions are shown, and there is no scale of distance.
Moore assures the reader that “If bin Laden surfaces...the Green Berets will execute him. They will hunt him, they will track him, they will hound him, and they will pursue him to the ends of the Earth. They are America’s avenging angels...They will continue to hunt al-Qaeda across the face of the globe into the mountains, the valleys, the remote regions where evil always hides.” (Cue up The Ballad of the Green Berets at this point...) You get a lot of that sort of chest thumping in this book, and a little of it goes a long way. Still, The Hunt for Bin Laden is fairly enjoyable, and will certainly leave the reader with an appreciation of the skill, courage, and ingenuity of the Special Forces. It may also leave him looking forward to books about the war in Afghanistan that are more complete, more evenhanded, and perhaps a bit more mature.