Mini-Book Review: Stanton — Horse Soldiers

Stanton, Doug, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, 2009, 393 pp.

“Horse Soldiers” is a straight-forward account of the CIA/Special Forces (SF) efforts in Afghanistan from October through November 2001, culminating in the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to the forces of the Northern Alliance, and the prisoner revolt at nearby Qala-i-Janghi fortress. The latter led to the death of Mike Spann (CIA paramilitary officer) and the discovery and capture of John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”).

The book opens off with a short passage of the fortress firefight then resets the book in a “how did we get here?” manner to the events Ahmad Shah Massoud‘s assassination and 9/11, and how the individual CIA and SF protagonists experienced that day with colleagues and family. Through this approach, the author sets up a cast of characters for later events, establishes mini-biographies, and gives some sense of background of the people and teams that were assembled for insertion into Afghanistan.

As the weeks unroll, small groups of CIA and SF are moved to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase in Uzbekistan and from there by SF helicopters into northern Afghanistan to help Northern Alliance warlords (primarily Dostum / Usted Atta).

Right off the bat, the theme of under-preparation appears. Equipment is assembled in the US by credit card and frantic phone calls to suppliers and retailers all over the US. Out-of-print books are rush-jobbed back into circulation. SF language skills are substantial but are generally of limited utility (Arabic and Russian, for example). The CIA have the only Dari speakers. Map resources are woefully outdated and largely consist of poached Russian maps.

Even getting the troops into Afghanistan is an unexpected nightmare. The altitude stresses the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) helicopters to their limit. Oxygen supplies are interrupted by break-downs in the helicopter systems so that everyone in the chopper passes out on the run over the mountains from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan … except one pilot with a dedicated oxygen supply. The hypoxia leads to ferocious headaches for everyone once they get down to lower altitude near their landing zone. Previously unknown weather conditions called “black stratus” hit the helicopters at 10,000 ft above sea level, creating white-out conditions that grow from the upper altitudes downwards, often extending almost to the ground.

When the troops are finally deposited (often in the wrong locations), they are immediately required to ride small tough horses to keep up with the Afghans. Most of the troops have never ridden, leading quickly to back damage and bleeding saddle sores. An Afghan preference for riding stallions makes novice riding down the narrow cliff-side trails even more harrowing. A general lack of maps leads to improvised methods for planning and navigating across the landscape. Many of the troops from the Northern Alliance are desperately short of clothing, shoes, blankets, food, and ammunition. Most are illiterate but incredibly tough and very courageous.

Quite quickly, the Americans are calling in air-strikes on Taliban vehicles and troops near the initial drop-sites. Day-by-day the Taliban are driven back. Technical and logistical problems plague the troops. The co-ordination and targeting of aerial bombing is still rather experimental as the SF and USAF work out (by trial-and-error) which parts of the GPS and laser technology actually work in the dusty, high-altitude environments. Day by day, the techniques and tools improve … though problems with planes bombing from too high with over-large bombs continues.

On the ground the Americans are living very lean, suffering from a lack of food and water and in extreme exhaustion from climbing, and traveling along dangerous trails laden with Russian and Taliban mines. Radio communications are also disrupted by inadequate supplies and occasionally failed equipment. Co-ordination across the various teams (still roughly only 50 people) is spotty. On one occasion this leads to the bombing of a building by one team with allies of another team still in it.

Within a matter of days, the Northern Alliance and aerial bombing has pushed the Taliban north into the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The concluding section of “Horse Soldiers” talks about the chaos of the fall of Mazar. A surrender of nearby Taliban troops (courtesy of a bribe worked out with one of the warlords) suddenly places hundreds of un-searched Taliban in close proximity to the city. The warlord decides to place them within in the century-old walls of Qala-i-Janghi fortress. The Americans are horrified when they hear this because there are massive armories still left within its walls that are undestroyed. Sure enough, suicide attacks (with grenades) by some of the Taliban prisoners kicks off an exchange of gunfire between Alliance and Taliban troops. In the melee, CIA officer Spann is killed and another officer barely escapes with his life to another part of the fortress. A rescue crew of SF and UK Special Boat Service (SBS) are cobbled together from different teams within Mazar-i-Sharif and make their way out to the nearby fortress. No proper direct communication links between the CIA and SF had survived the revolt so the stranded CIA officer was borrowing a satellite phone from a reporter (in the wrong place at the wrong time), calling the US consulate in Turkmenistan, who patched him through to US Central Command, who patched him through to the SF troops in Mazar-i-Sharif … 20,000 miles of telecommunication links to call the neighboring town and tell them he was alive and badly needed help.

The battle to re-take the fortress from the Taliban took several horrific days and included the mistaken aerial bombing of US/UK forces. Finally, an AC-130 Spectre gunship was used to destroy the Taliban weapons store and whatever moved above ground in the section of the fortress they controlled. Even yet, in the basement of one of the Russian additions to the fortress, several hundred Taliban had taken refuge. After the Northern Alliance flooded the basement with 6-7 feet of water (drowning the sick and injured), a negotiated surrender was arranged. Up from the hellish basement came 86 men, including the “American Taliban.”

The successful retaking of the fortress was pivotal because it halted a Taliban rollback of Northern Alliance attacks further east of Mazar-i-Sharif. The city, accessible by road from Uzbekistan, was rapidly filling with refugees and reporters. Quite soon, the SF troops were withdrawn entirely from Afghanistan as regular forces were flown in and air bases were re-established, etc.

“Horse Soldiers” is a well-written book pitched for a general audience. It’s neither a “fire-fight fanboy” tall tale, nor an ass-covering general staff briefing. The author isn’t a newspaper reporter. He’s a long-form magazine journalist and, by-and-large, played the story straight. The CIA and Special Forces folks come out looking like heroes, which is entirely justified in light of the physical and military hell they went through over the course of six or eight weeks. The dire poverty and horrific conditions in Afghanistan are laid out in some detail without going over the top. Even an even-handed accounting is harrowing, however.

The Epilogue of the book, including a “where are they now?” section, is a bit more glowing about the significance of the events and the role of SF. Written largely when Iraq was dominating the headlines, it’s not clear that “Horse Soldiers” has much to offer readers on current events in Afghanistan. As someone quoted in the book says, the success of the “horse soldiers” is not likely to ever be repeated. No American adversary in the future will sit around waiting in open country for the B-52s to show up.

Indeed, in many ways, this book seems like ancient history. The US military has adapted in dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to improve their equipment, methods and support for Special Forces troops. There have been many lessons learned from this episode and, like Black Hawk Down, “Horse Soldiers” will make a fine teaching tool for young officers … vivid, specific, well-written, and dramatic. Nonetheless, it is a snapshot of where the US military was, not where it is.

This is a solid book, a smooth and rapid read, and a recollection of a time that already seems “long, long ago.” The author has collated a substantial amount of information to create a concise and lively summary of a uniquely successful SF/CIA operation. “Horse Soldiers” holds up well as a birthday or holiday gift for the right person.

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