Victory from the saddle
By Steven Martinovich
It is rare that fiction is just as strange as reality. Based on an 1888 Rudyard Kipling story, the 1975 movie The Man Who Would be King told the story of two ex-British soldiers who travel to Afghanistan. Armed with Martini-Henry rifles, then perhaps the best weapons technology in the world, and in concert with local tribes, they eventually take over a remote part of the nation and one declares himself the successor to Alexander the Great. Before their eventual downfall, the two have united warring tribes armed with little more than advanced technology and diplomacy.
One might be forgiven for being reminded of that movie when reading Doug Stanton's Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, minus the bleak ending, of course. Stanton tells the story of handful of Special Forces soldiers who helped unite the tribes that made up the Northern Alliance and with the aid of American air power broke the back of the Taliban during the fall and winter of 2001. It's the kind of story that should inspire movies and stories in the future.
Stanton's account opens with a November 2001 uprising at the fortress known as Qala-i-Janghi just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif that was housing hundreds of Taliban prisoners, including one named John Walker Lind. The rebellion took days to quell and claimed the life of Special Forces officer Mike Spann, the first American killed in post-9/11 conflict. It was a tragic end to an opening campaign which was inspired in its originality and skilful execution and should serve as a template for future wars in the region.
From there Stanton moves the story back to September 11, 2001. The nation's black ops soldiers knew immediately that they would serve as the tip of the spear. Within weeks they were airdropped into Afghanistan with a unique mission: Join up with disparate elements of the Northern Alliance and assist them against their fight with the Taliban, host of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, by calling in airstrikes against targets. Along with the bullets they brought, the Special Forces soldiers were expected to use diplomacy to bring about the end of the Taliban.
For although it was named the "Northern Alliance", Stanton's account makes it clear that its key leaders were distrustful of each other. Each jockeyed for power and the favour of the Americans, and although they all despised the Taliban and wished their end, sometimes more petty concerns would intrude, such as requesting airstrikes on the homes of ethnic rivals. Complicating matters for the Americans was the fact that since most of the Taliban were ethnic Afghanis, Northern Alliance leaders often accepted them in their ranks after surrender, creating a potential fifth column even while victory was added to victory.
Even with American airpower, victory wasn't assured. Horse Soldiers chronicles the ferocious combat the Americans and their allies experienced in the mountains of Afghanistan. He tells of Taliban ostensibly surrendering and then taking his and a captor's life thanks to a hidden grenade. Sweeping charges on horseback were generally met with savage hails of machinegun and RPG fire, cutting men apart and horrifically wounding others. In the landscape of Afghanistan, every hill and valley held dangers for the unwary. Only the rain of American bombs terrified the Taliban and set them on the defensive.
Stanton managed to craft this incredible story thanks to unprecedented access to the men who fought the war, both American and Afghan, their families and by walking the same ground the campaign took place on. In his skilled hands he takes what could have been just another story in the war against terrorism and turns it into a page turning epic, effortlessly combining the personal tales of the men on the ground with the wider ramifications of the war. We come to know these men, who prefer to remain in the shadows, and their families intimately and ultimately grieve the loss of one of their brothers.
Americans are war weary these days thanks to a troubled Iraqi campaign and setbacks in Afghanistan and it's doubtful that Horse Soldiers can restore the zeal for justice that the nation felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It should, however, serve as a testament to the brave souls and their allies who prosecuted America's war in Afghanistan. Although the final chapter in that conflict is yet to be written, and as of this writing the Taliban are resurgent, the accomplishments of Mike Spann and his fellow soldiers can never be forgotten – nor praised sufficiently. With Horse Soldiers Stanton came as close as a writer can.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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