”I asked for a few Americans,” said General Abdul Rashid Dostum. “they brought with them the courage of a whole army.”The Famous Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan.
Dostum was ruling Northern Afghanistan when the Taliban captured Masar-i-Sharif in 1998 and blew up the ancient Buddhas that had watched over the town for centuries. ”What man had the right to write the future by blowing up the past?”
The Taliban wanted a pure state, a return to a brand of Islam that is true to their interpreted beliefs of the Koran. So Dostum, an advocate of educating women and a more western approach to life, spent the next three years trying to push back the tide of radical Talibanism.
I was in Spencer, Iowa in a McDonalds when I happened to glance up at the TV suspended in the corner of the room and saw the burning tower. I was processing that image just as the second plane flew into the twin of the first. Everything stopped for a few seconds as my mind tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
I was a helpless child.
To Dostum and the other General’s propping up the Northern Alliance, outgunned by the Soviet tanks and hardware of the Taliban, it was a blessing. They whispered to each other...the Americans are coming. American Special Forces grew beards to better fit with the culture.
We sent twelve special forces soldiers. They landed in Afghanistan in October of 2001. Support people were brought over, pilots and crews that had to assemble helicopters within 48 hours because Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already on the phone screaming for results. He had the press so far up his ass he was in need of something to tell them, to assure the American people that something was being done. Before leaving the states the special forces guys bought up all the batteries, gloves, and blankets they could find. They, like the rest of the armed forces, was unprepared for war with no time to get prepared. It reminds me of the cold fury I felt when I realized so many of our soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan and Iraq without proper equipment. I remember stories of small communities raising money quickly to add armor to humvees so their children who were riding to war for us would have adequate protection. I remember a president when asked what the American public could do to help suggested that we should just go shopping.
Shopping. That’s all you got.
We needed to be involved. We wanted to be involved. We remembered another president saying Don’t Ask What Your Country Can Do For You, But Ask What You Can Do for Your Country. We were asking and you told us...to go...shopping.
The special forces brought 21st century technology to a war being fought on a 19th century scale. The Northern Alliance attacked tanks, planes, and rocket launchers from horseback. Insanity...and the Americans were suddenly thrust back into the classroom trying to remember what they had studied on the battlefield tactics of Civil War generals J.E.B. Stuart and John “The Gray Ghost” Mosby. Colonel John S. Mosby. The Gray Ghost.
They had to learn to ride horses, not tame plodding horses, but stallions that when not busy riding into battle were viciously fighting each other. It boggles the mind to think of our special forces riding horses to a hilltop overlooking a battle involving horses riding against tanks while calling down bombs from the heavens. Smart bombs that were targeted by sophisticated technology that would allow them to drop from 20,000 feet and land on a specific coordinate on the ground or to follow a laser locked on as a beacon after a truck racing along the desert floor. It boggled the minds of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. It was magic, powerful magic.
I am the kit fox,
I live in uncertainty.
If there is anything difficult,
If there is anything dangerous to do,
That is mine.
--Sioux warrior’s song
It is so ironic that this group called themselves Taliban, meaning seekers of knowledge, when their mandate was to send Afghanistan back to the stone age. The opposite of learning, evolving, creating a safer more tolerant society.”Theirs was the perfect world. Since taking control of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban had banned music, kite-flying, photography, movies, and even perfume. Husbands were ordered to paint their house windows black so no one could see the women inside, and the women themselves were forbidden to leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. Women were to be as pliant as cattle, silent as stone. As many as 100,000 girls were ordered not to attend school. Literacy rates among the total population dropped as low as 5 percent. Denied proper obstetrical care, one out of three mothers died in childbirth. The life expectancy for men dropped to forty-two years. Suicide rates among women soared as they were driven mad by privation.”Oh yeah and they...”broke down doors, smashed TV’s, tore paintings from the walls, and dragged men into the street and shot them. They broke into hospitals and slit the throats of Hazara patients. They raped Hazara women who ate handfuls of rat poison in the aftermath, preferring death to the shame of their violation. They urged residents to convert on the spot from the Shia version of Islam to the Sunni brand, practiced by the Taliban.””and they brought back something that should have been left in the gladiatorial coliseums of ancient rome.”The Taliban executed women in the soccer stadium for sleeping with men who weren’t their husbands. They cut off the hands of robbers. White-coated doctors would anesthetize them on the warm grass on the soccer pitch and do the operation in front of thousands of cheering people”
We can’t forget about Al-Qaeda the militant Islamic organization founded by Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban were even scared of them. Made up of disenfranchised men from neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uzbekistan. They hate women. They hate America. They live to die gloriously. They would not be taken alive.
The changing alliances in the book are confusing to the Americans. Captured Taliban troops were given a choice, to either join the Northern Alliance or go home and not fight anymore. Many of them are men who were subjugated into fighting for the Taliban and were happy to join the Northern Alliance, I guess, until they were captured again and then would fight for the Taliban. This all leads up to the first defining moment in the American involvement in Afghanistan. Google Map of Qala-i-JanghiThe Battle at Mazar-i-Sharif
Hundreds of Taliban soldiers have surrendered to the Horse Soldiers and the Northern Alliance. They are penned up in an old fort called Qala-i-Janghi which in English means the House of War. The Taliban are not searched as is customary among Afghans as it is considered an insult to do so. In their midst is a young American named John Walker Lindh, a man now serving twenty years in an American prison. There are huge containers in the fort filled with captured Taliban weapons. Two CIA operatives are sorting through the prisoners trying to find the ones they think will be useful for intel. The prisoners revolt, pulling grenades and weapons from their clothing. One of the CIA operatives, Mike Spann is killed, becoming the first American casualty of the Afghanistan War.
Doug Stanton goes on to write about the desperate struggle to gain back control of the city that the special forces fought so hard to liberate. The Americans realize that if they lose control it will take months of bloodshed to win back the city. Stanton interviewed hundreds of people to write this book and it shows. He knows every nuance of the battle and explains it to us in vivid detail. He tells us what the wives of these men were thinking and the gut wrenching stress of knowing nothing, but able to imagine the worst. He brings us background from the Afghans who were so excited about the Americans coming to free them from this tyranny. The most amazing part for me was the melding of American technology and Afghan battlefield tactics and the ability of a handful of special forces men to turn the tide of a war is simply astounding.
And let’s not forget about the horses, the brave and crazy horses, and the men who rode them. ”Wars, as the earlier military thinker Carl von Clausewitz pointed out, are not fought to kill people; they are fought to effect political change. They are violent, expensive, and represent one of the universe’s great rifts in the social contract. To study peace, then, is, de facto, to study war. Any political and social movement, of any stripe, that does not grasp the degree to which these opposites are actually twins is fruitless."