Horse Soldiers is the untold story of how a small band of U.S. Special Forces soldiers secretly entered Afghanistan in 2001, just five weeks after September 11, saddled up on horses, and rode to an improbable victory against a vastly larger Taliban and Al Qaeda army. That they did this and achieved victory, and how they did it -- has remained a secret, until now.
While researching Horse Soldiers, I conducted over 100 interviews in the U.S. and in Afghanistan, and in Afghanistan I walked and studied key sites that appear in the book. I was able to capture not only the Americans' point of view but the Afghans' as well. I was drawn to the story's action and to the humanity of the people involved. I wanted to tell this story as if it were an epic unfolding around a kitchen table, a tale about survival and courage.
I had first encountered people who also quietly embodied these characteristics while writing In Harm's Way, about World War Two. With Horse Soldiers , I wanted to write about modern soldiers in the way I had approached the older veterans -- as people, as our fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and husbands. People who are doing something incredibly hard, unbelievable, memorable, and who survive.
As we turn our attention back to Afghanistan in 2009, there are important and relevant things to say about the campaign of these Special Forces soldiers and the war they fought: namely, that it is a template for the future war in Afghanistan, and for wars to come.
Working alongside thousands of eager but ill-equipped Afghan fighters, the U.S. collapsed the Taliban in approximately two months and accomplished what military planners had thought would take at least a year. Planners had also thought that the men were embarking on a suicide mission. Upon entering the cities, the Americans and Afghans were welcomed as liberators. As Special Forces Major Dean Nosorog says in Horse Soldiers, Al Qaeda still considers the Afghanistan campaign its worst defeat to date.
The present policy of the Obama administration seems to be built on the lessons of this historic 2001 campaign. American warriors, fighting on horse back and outnumbered, were able to wage and win an ancient kind of guerrilla campaign, relying not only on bullets and high tech bombs, but also on social nuance, cultural empathy, and ad hoc diplomacy.
These men understood that the war would be won not only on the battlefield, but also by creating new political will among the Afghans to resist Taliban control. That's what made the difference in the victory in 2001, and it will mean a world of difference in 2009, and for years to come. As we return to Afghanistan, we are, in some ways, returning to the country as we had left it: a society unraveling with dire consequences. But we are returning with a model for success.
The future of this fight is in good hands. Colonel Mark Mitchell, whom I first met when he was a major, will be taking command of 5th Group Special Forces at Ft. Campbell this summer, as U.S. forces head back to the Middle East. For his heroism in the battle at Qala-I-Janghi fortress in Mazar-I-Sharif, Mitchell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; that shocking, "Alamo" kind of battle is the pivot for the last third of the book. It was at Qala-I-Janghi, a.k.a. the "House of War," that CIA paramilitary officer Mike Spann was killed, and where "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh was discovered among Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The news of Spann's death, and of Lindh's discovery, riveted the world.
The action of Horse Soldiers is back-dropped by the story of how America went to war with little time to prepare, but with a lot of moxie. Unlike Iraq -- in fact, this could not have been more different from the deployment of troops to Iraq -- these soldiers entered the country quietly, in secret, and immediately went to work blending in with the local social fabric. Because of their hurried, surprise deployment, the men were unable to plan or supply themselves by normal channels. They scrambled to get ready, driving themselves to a nearby mall to buy batteries for their GPS's, which in turn they'd ordered from camping stores on the Internet. They said goodbye to family and friends and tried to keep everything "normal" on the home front, even though their commanders had told them that they wouldn't be coming back alive from this mission. Twelve men, hastily equipped and eternally optimistic, were about to face an army of 25,000-plus Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. (Other Special Forces teams, followed by a large presence of regular U.S. Army troops, would soon enter the country.)
And they would win. But then they were drawn away, too early, to prepare to fight in Iraq.
They now have provocative as well as common sense things to say about the present situation in Afghanistan. At one point in the battle, the entire success of the campaign rested on Sergeant Sam Diller's shoulders, while he and two other Americans rode exhausted horses deep into Taliban territory. Today, he lives in a quiet house in the country. Throughout their twenty-plus year careers in Special Forces, men like Diller have never expected any notoriety or recognition, and that is how they have liked it.
The same is true of Major General Geoffrey Lambert (now retired), who commanded all of Special Forces around the world in 2001. General Lambert took part in the decision to deploy Diller and his teammates on this historic, never-been-done-before mission. He is articulate and smart, and had spent his career in the front lines of unconventional war around the world, and he also has surprising things to say.
At the beginning of my research, I quickly learned that meeting Special Forces soldiers to interview would be easier said than done. They were indeed "The Quiet Professionals." However, after several trips, I met soldiers who knew soldiers who'd fought in the campaign on horseback.
One day early on, I walked into a team room filled with muddy gear, weapons, radios, and maps, and asked if a soldier named Mark House happened to be there. His name had been given to me as someone who might be willing to meet with me.
One of the soldiers stepped forward and asked what I wanted. He looked at me suspiciously.
"I'm working on a book," I said.
Then I threw a hail-mary: I told him that I wanted to know what it was like to wake in the pre-dawn hours on a tree-lined street in the middle of America and leave for war . . . Children's toys fill the cracked driveways of the neighbors' houses up and down the street . . .
A man steps outside, walks to his car, and turns for a last look. He may not see this place again.
This was the face I wanted to see, I said to the soldier -- the face of that man, in those private hours.
He smiled. "I'm Mark House," he said.
He held out his hand. "You found him."
©2009 Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.