Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan
By Doug Stanton
Scribner, $28, 393 pp.
Review by David Forsmark
It's one of the most iconic images of the war on terror: bearded American soldiers on horseback and native tribesmen charging Taliban positions in Afghanistan.
Seven years later, the photo still resonates -- partly because it's such a classic American image, partly because it’s one of the few heroic images of allied soldiers widely disseminated by the mainstream media.
In his thrilling new book, Horse Soldiers, bestselling author Doug Stanton for the first time tells the complete story of the two teams of about a dozen Special Forces soldiers and CIA paramilitary operators who defeated the Taliban and sent al Qaeda on the run for the caves of Tora Bora.
Stanton -- whose In Harm’s Way told the chilling World War II story of the USS Indianapolis, whose crew was decimated by sharks when the ship went down -- again shows his terrific knack for getting veterans to open up and tell a great war story.
While the beginning of Horse Soldiers has some irritating historical errors and the wrap-up goes way out of its way to appease anti-war readers, this is an exciting, action-packed story, and the 300 pages that cover the mission through the eyes of a small band of American warriors offers great reading.
For the only time in history, CIA bureaucracy did not prevent gung-ho operatives from acting like characters in a Vince Flynn novel on a grand scale, and the results were spectacular.
The book, however, gets off to a rocky start as Stanton crams a lot of background information in placing Special Forces soldiers in context historically and in the aftermath of 9/11.
For instance, he claims the 5th Special Forces had a black mark to overcome because in Vietnam, they had “committed some of the conflict’s worst atrocities.” This is, at best, sloppily put. Even if one accepts the darker interpretations of, say, SOG and Operation Phoenix, nothing attributed to the 5th approaches the atrocities committed by the communist forces, regular or irregular.
In quickly establishing commando-style warfare as having its roots in America’s very origins, Stanton commits a rather large blunder when he states “ a particularly rough group of marauders named Rogers’ Rangers had terrified the British with their lightning raids.”
As probably most of the Horse Soldiers themselves could have told the author, 18th century frontiersman Robert Rogers is, indeed, the godfather of American Special Forces, but he gained fame as an officer fighting for the British in the French and Indian War. (He later lost his lustre for being a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War.)
The error obscures what could have been a very important point: No group of American fighting men since Rogers’ Rangers were given the freedom and wherewithal to implement Rogers’ doctrines since his exploits on the New England frontier.
While General Tommy Franks hit the big-bucks speaking circuit immediately after the success in Afghanistan, he was no fan of Special Forces. In fact, Stanton asserts, Franks had told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that major offensive operations should wait until he could assemble a force of at least 60,000 soldiers.
Victory in Afghanistan ultimately was achieved with about 59,900 fewer troops. Stanton gives Rumsfeld a lot of credit for allowing the Special Forces their latitude; and attributes to George Tenet the idea of quickly putting CIA and SF teams in the field to coordinate targeting with the Air Force.
Mitch Nelson, the Army Special Forces captain in charge of the team sent to Afghanistan, coordinated the Air Force’s bombing of targets with the Afghan Northern Alliance. Nelson would prove himself the ultimate example of Rogers’ doctrine of the warrior who is highly trained, highly intelligent and, most importantly, able to adapt to the situation at hand in a bold and decisive manner.
No plan crafted by George Tenet, the risk-averse CIA director, would have included:
- Ignoring the first rule of covert ops, “Trust no one,” and putting the team’s fate under the control of an Afghan warlord within hours of the first meeting.
- Splitting their already small team between two Afghan groups despite having only sketchy communications.
- Flying blind in a sandstorm through 15,000-foot mountains in helicopters designed to operate below 5,000 feet.
- Charging enemy lines that included armor and heavy guns on horseback.
- Sending one team member, Sgt. Sam Diller, out on horseback to roam around the country with Afghan guides calling in air strikes on targets of opportunity. The mission lasted for weeks until Diller collapsed from hunger and exhaustion; he was barely able to rejoin his teammates.
CIA reformer Ishmael Jones would later write that the operation was successful because it moved too fast for the CIA bureaucrats to be able to set up shop, establish their turf and be on hand to memo risky operations to death.
Just how creative these men were is illustrated in one of the book’s more humorous passages. While it seemed natural to see American heroes on horseback in news magazines, few of the men had any experience with horses. Here is their complete training session on cavalry tactics:
“‘Listen up,’ Nelson croaked. ‘Here’s how you make this thing go.’ He heeled the horse in the ribs and it walked a few steps. ‘And here’s how you turn,’ he said, pulling a rein and drawing the narrow muzzle around. ‘And here’s how you stop.’ He pulled back the reins and sat looking at the guys. ‘Got it?’”
The Americans learned horsemanship not only under fire but also on wooden saddles in treacherous terrain. A few close calls and more than a few bleeding saddle sores later, they were chasing retreating Taliban across the countryside.
While Nelson is the book's prime mover, and the last act of Horse Soldiers deals with contrasting the more notable personalities of CIA operative Mike Spann and “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, perhaps the book's most memorable character is Abdul Rashid Dostum, the uber-charismatic general who led the Afghan Northern Alliance.
It was Dostum who inspired trust in Nelson in their first meeting. Nelson was at a diplomatic disadvantage and needed to prove himself because the CIA’s past timidity had failed the Northern Alliance on previous occasions, which contributed to the assassination of General Massoud, its heroic leader, on Sept. 9, 2001.
Dostum’s derring-do was legendary. He charged Taliban lines on foot at the crucial battle of Mazar-i-Sharif to stop his men from retreating under withering fire and delivered men and supplies through seemingly impassible terrain, but that's only half the story. Dostum not only kept the alliance together, but also divided the opposition by knowing when to fight, when to offer mercy and constantly taunting the enemy.
Dostum worked his satellite phone and radio like a busy K Street lobbyist and got results, ranging from updating congressmen and journalists on current battle conditions to ridiculing an enraged enemy into revealing his position so a laser-guided bomb could end the argument.
Dostum’s main tactic, approved by Nelson, was simple: Offer mercy to as many Afghans as would switch sides and kill as many foreign al Qaeda fighters as possible. Even Dostum made mistakes, however, and one act of mercy would nearly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The general allowed about 600 hardened Taliban and al Qaeda to surrender after the battle of Mazar, and he housed them in a fortress he had presented the Americans as a spoil of war. Unfortunately, the vastly outnumbered Americans had no way to search the prisoners, and many had smuggled weapons into the fortress—which was doubling as an armory.
This led to the infamous riot where Mike Spann was killed while interrogating John Walker Lindh. But while the riot and the killing of Spann received worldwide coverage, Stanton notes few know the crisis put the allies “within minutes of losing the entire war in Afghanistan.”
Suddenly, the situation went from victory celebrations by liberated townspeople to a Blackhawk Down-type scenario. The Special Forces soldiers, along with some British SAS and a few Navy SEALs who had come to the city on another mission battled 40-1 odds to keep the terrorists from regaining control of the area.
Horse Soldiers also gives lie to the cheap shot taken by liberals that President Bush and Rumsfeld “outsourced” the fight at Tora Bora when it would have been a slam-dunk strategy to send in the Marines. Stanton shows how successful U.S. Special Forces and Afghan fighters were when coupled with air power. There was little reason for the administration to know that the Eastern Alliance would be less effective than the Northern Alliance — though as Dalton Fury, the Delta Force commander at Tora Bora would later reveal, the tactics were extremely effective and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of al Qaeda’s best fighters even though terror mastermind Osama bin Laden escaped.
In his Epilogue, Stanton unfortunately tries to have it both ways on a number of controversial issues;
On one hand, he proposes that the light footprint of the Afghan campaign should be the “template” for “all future wars,” not merely all those in which an unpopular occupying force has created a motivated, armed opposition. Is there no place for conventional warfighting?
On the other hand, he follows very conventional wisdom and asserts that our footprint in the aftermath of Afghanistan was not heavy enough. Stanton over-applies the lessons of Afghanistan to Iraq. He cheaply asserts that “many” SF soldiers opposed the Iraq War, but provides no particular quote from any of his large cast of characters to support that.
Still, none of this should prevent you from picking up one of the best recent accounts of Americans at war. The flaws of Horse Soldiers are minor and few, and its strengths are great and numerous. As a thrilling account of American military valor, Horse Soldiers has few peers.