A book like Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers gives readers a perspective on America’s engagement in Afghanistan that is too often overlooked. With headlines marking the many days of struggle and the deaths of so many, it’s easy to forget that the battles fought against 50,000 by a small number of Special Forces soldiers and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters over the course of five weeks was the most successful campaign of America’s eight long years in Afghanistan.
Kept top secret at the time, these operations were unknown to most of the American public, who would have been astounded to realize that American soldiers equipped with sophisticated weaponry were crossing mountainous terrain and carrying out guerrilla assaults while mounted on horses with wooden saddles. Yet these operations proved to be one of the best ways to win both those early battles and the hearts of the Afghan people.
“Horse Soldiers” recounts the remarkable story of the five-week campaign – conducted by the Northern Alliance with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Forces, Fifth Special Forces Group – which culminated with the successful takeover of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. What happened in those five weeks, the Pentagon had thought would take at least two years – an early sign that the US government was entering territory about which it knew very little.
The morning the planes hit the World Trade Center I was in a unique position, participating in a military exercise in Hungary with Army Special Forces. I was scheduled to work the night shift and had just sat down to eat my breakfast when the television snapped on to images of the World Trade Center tower smoking. One month later, my unit was forward-deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, assigned to support and supply the Special Forces troops Stanton describes in his book.
The mission of our unit in Incirlik was both specific and vague – we knew there were “friendlies” on the ground helping the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban, but even we were not given the details. Stanton’s ‘Horse Soldiers’ relies on hundreds of interviews and extensive research to fill in the many gaps, including the day-to-day stories of the men and how they achieved victory so quickly.
“Horse Soldiers” is so carefully detailed that readers will be able to track the timeline of events for certain of the soldiers from the moment they hear of the terrorist attacks to the times when they are being bombed by Taliban forces, and then on to the second their wives pick them up at deserted bus stations.
Unlike the Iraq war, the beginning of this war was silent – no press was invited to the show. The media didn’t arrive on site until the end of November – before the three-day prison uprising at Qala-i-Janghi that led to the first American casualties. There were no press photographers to capture the fall of countless villages on the way to Mazar-e-Sharif, no Department of Defense press briefings showing precise missile strikes on enemy positions.
For many readers, Stanton’s book will be the first opportunity to learn about the operation. Yet even with Stanton’s close attention to detail, it is hard to grasp the full extent of the hardships these soldiers had to endure. In one case, a member of the Fifth Special Forces Group noted, after leading a group of Afghans toward Mazar-e-Sharif, that he had lost 30 pounds in 10 days, and could feel the blood soaking through his pants from riding on the wooden saddle In the months after returning from Afghanistan, some of these soldiers would wonder whether the large amount of killing they had participated in could ever be forgiven.
This book is a great read with amazing detail. I would recommend it to any reader, but particularly those interested in understanding a different aspect of war – the one fought by the US Special Forces.
Kevin Curley is a marketing analyst for the Monitor. He served as a special operations intelligence analyst in the US Air Force from 1998 to 2002.