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Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistanby Doug Stanton
November 24-25, 2001
Trouble came in the night, riding out of the dust and the darkness. Trouble rolled past the refugee camp, past the tattered tents shuddering in the moonlight, the lone cry of a baby driving high into the sky, like a nail. Sunrise was no better; at sunrise, trouble was still there, bristling with AKs and RPGs, engines idling, waiting to roll into the city. Waiting.
These were the baddest of the bad, the real masters of mayhem, the death dealers with God stamped firmly in their minds. The city groaned and shook to life. Soon everyone knew trouble had arrived at the gates of the city.
Major Mark Mitchell heard the news at headquarters nine miles away and thought, You're kidding. We got bad guys at the wire?
He ran downstairs, looking for Master Sergeant Dave Betz. Maybe he would know what was happening.
But Betz didn't know anything. He blustered, "One of the Agency guys came down and told us we got six hundred Taliban surrendering. Can you believe that?"
Surrendering? Mitchell couldn't figure out why. He thought the Taliban had fled from the approaching forces of the Northern Alliance to Konduz, miles away. American Special Forces and the Northern Alliance had been beating them back for weeks, in battle after battle, rolling up territory by coordinating airstrikes from the sky and thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers on the ground.
They now stood on the verge of total victory. Konduz was where the war was supposed to go next. Not here. Not in Mazar. Not at Club Mez.
Besides, these guys didn't surrender. They fought to the death.
Die fighting and you went to paradise.
Mitchell stood at the dirty plate-glass windows and watched. Here they came, a motley crew of the doomed, packed into six big trucks, staring out from the rancid tunnels of their scarves. Mitchell could see their heads over the barricade that ringed his headquarters, a former schoolhouse at the junk-strewn edge of the city. The prisoners — who surely included some Al Qaeda members — were still literally in the drivers' seats, with Northern Alliance soldiers sitting next to them, their AKs pointed at the drivers' heads. The prisoners turned and stared and Mitchell thought it was like looking at hundreds of holes punched in a wall.
"Everybody get away from the windows!" said Betz.
Major Kurt Sonntag, Captain Kevin Leahy, Captain Paul Syverson, and a dozen other Special Forces soldiers knelt behind the black and white checked columns in the room, their M-4 rifles aimed at the street. Behind them, in the kitchen, the local cook was puttering — the air smelled of cooked rice and cucumber — and a radio was playing more of that god-awful Afghan music that sounded to Mitchell like somebody strangling a goose.
He had been looking forward this morning to overseeing the construction of the medical facility in town, and the further blowing up of mines and bombs that littered the area like confetti. Each day, a little bit more of the war seemed to be ending. Mitchell had even started to wonder when he would get to go home. He and a team of about a dozen Special Forces soldiers had moved into the schoolhouse only forty-eight hours earlier. Their former headquarters inside the Qala-i-Janghi Fortress, nine miles off, in Mazar's western quarter, had given them the shits, the croup, and the flu, and Mitchell was glad to have moved out. It seemed a haunted place. Known as the House of War, the fortress rose like a mud golem from the desert, surrounded by struggling plots of wind-whipped corn and sparse cucumber. Its walls towered sixty feet high and measured thirty feet thick under the hard, indifferent sun.
The Taliban had occupied the fortress for seven years and filled it with weapons — grenades, rockets, and firearms, anything made for killing. Even Enfield rifles with dates stamped on the bayonets — 1913 — from the time that the Brits had occupied the area. Before their hurried flight from the city two weeks earlier, the Taliban had left the weapons and smeared feces on the walls and windows. Every photograph, every painting, every rosebush had been torn up, smashed, stomped, ruined. Nothing beautiful had been left behind.
After three years of Taliban rule, there were old men in Mazar with stumps for hands. There were women who'd been routinely stoned and kicked on street corners. Young men who'd been imprisoned for not wearing beards. Fathers who'd been beaten in front of their sons for the apparent pleasure of those swinging their weapons.
The arrival of Mitchell and his soldiers on horseback had put an end to that. The people of Mazar-i-Sharif, the rugmakers and butchers, the car mechanics and schoolteachers, the bank clerks and masons and farmers, had thrown flowers and kisses and reached up to the Americans on their horses and pulled affectionately at the filthy cuffs of their camo pants. The locals had welcomed the balding, blue-eyed Mitchell and two dozen other Special Forces soldiers in a mile-long parade lining the highway that dropped into town out of the snowy mountains. Mitchell had felt like he was back in World War II, his grandfather's war, riding into Paris after the Nazis fled.
Now thirty-six, Mitchell was the ground commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group/Third Battalion's Forward Operating Base (FOB). It had been a distinguished nearly fifteen-year career headed for the top of the military food chain. His best friend, Major Kurt Sonntag, a thirty-seven-year-old former weekend surfer from Los Angeles, was the FOB's executive officer, which technically meant he was Mitchell's boss. In the tradition of Special Forces, they treated each other as equals. Nobody saluted, including less senior officers like Captain Kevin Leahy and Captain Paul Syverson, members of the support company whose job it was to get the postwar operations up and running, such as providing drinking water, electricity, and medical care to the locals.
Looking at the street now, Mitchell tried to figure out why the Taliban convoy was stopping. If anything went bad, Mitchell knew he was woefully outnumbered. He had maybe a dozen guys he could call on. And those like Leahy and Syverson weren't exactly hardened killers. Like him, these were staff guys, in their mid-thirties, soldiers who had until now been largely warless. He did have a handful of CIA operators living upstairs in the schoolhouse and eight Brits, part of a Special Boat Service unit who'd landed the night before by Chinook helicopter, but they were so new that they didn't have orders for rules of engagement — that is, it wasn't clear to them when they could and could not return fire. Doing the math, Mitchell roughly figured that he had about a dozen guys available to fight. The trained-up fighters, the two Special Forces teams that Mitchell had ridden into town with, had left earlier in the day for Konduz, for the expected fight there. Mitchell had watched them drive away and felt that he was missing out on a chance to make history. He'd been left behind to run the headquarters office and keep the peace. Now, after learning that 600 Taliban soldiers had massed outside his door, he wondered if he'd been dead wrong.
The street bustled with beeping taxis; with donkeys hauling loads of handmade bricks to the city-center bazaar; with aged men gliding by on wobbling bicycles and women ghosting through the rising dust in blue burkhas. Afghanistan. Never failed to amaze him.
Still the convoy hadn't moved. Ten minutes had passed.
Without warning, a group of locals piled toward the trucks, angrily grabbing at the prisoners. They got hold of one man and pulled him down — for a moment he was there, gripping the battered wooden side of the truck, and then he was gone, snatched out of sight. Behind the truck, out of sight, they were beating the man to death.
Every ounce of rage, every rape, every public execution, every amputation, humiliation — every ounce of revenge was poured back into this man, slathered on by fist, by foot, by gnarled stick. The trucks lurched ahead and when they moved on, nothing remained of the man. It was as if he'd been eaten.
The radio popped to life. Mitchell listened as a Northern Alliance commander, who was stationed on the highway, announced in broken English: The prisoners all going to Qala-i-Janghi.
Remembering the enormous pile of weapons cached at the fortress, Mitchell didn't want to hear this. But his hands were tied. The Afghan commanders of the Northern Alliance were, as a matter of U.S. strategy, calling the shots. No matter the Americans' might, this was the Afghans' show. Mitchell was in Mazar to "assist" the locals in taking down the Taliban. He figured he could get on a radio and suggest to the Afghan commander presiding over the surrender that the huge fortress would not be an ideal place to house six hundred angry Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. But maybe there was a good reason to send them there. As long as the prisoners were searched and guarded closely, maybe they could be held securely within the fort's towering mud walls.
And then Mitchell thought again of the weapons stockpiled at Qala-i-Janghi, the piles and piles of rockets, rifles, crates of ammo — tons of violence ready to be put to use.
Not the fort, he thought. Not the damn fort!
Belching smoke, grinding gears, the convoy of prisoners rumbled past the fortress's dry moat and through the tall, arched entrance. The prisoners in the trucks craned around like blackbirds on a wire, scanning the walls, looking for guards, looking for an easy way out.
In deference to the Muslim prohibition against men touching other men intimately, few of the prisoners had been thoroughly searched. No hand had reached deep inside the folds of their thin gray gowns, the mismatched suit coats, the dirty khaki vests, searching for a knife, a grenade, a garrote. Killer had smiled at captor and captor had waved him on, Tashakur. Thank you. Tashakur.
The line of six trucks halted inside the fort, and the prisoners stepped down under the watchful eye of a dozen or so Northern Alliance guards. Suddenly one prisoner pulled a grenade from the belly-band of his blouse and blew himself up, taking a Northern Alliance officer with him. The guards fired their rifles in the air and regained control. Then they immediately herded the prisoners to a rose-colored, plaster-sided building aptly nicknamed "the Pink House," which squatted nearby in the rocks and thorns. The structure had been built by the Soviets in the 1980s as a hospital within the bomb-hardened walls of the fortress.
The fort was immense, a walled city divided equally into southern and northern courtyards. Inside was a gold-domed mosque, some horse stables, irrigation ditches encircling plots of corn and wheat, and shady groves of tall, fragrant pine trees whipping in the stiff winds. The thick walls held secret hallways and compartments, and led to numerous storage rooms for grain and other valuables. The Taliban had cached an enormous pile of weapons in the southern compound in a dozen mud-walled horse stables, each as big as a one-car garage and topped with a dome-shaped roof. The stables were crammed to the rafters with rockets, RPGs, machine guns, and mortars. But there were more weapons. Six metal Conex trailers, like the kind semitrucks haul down interstates in the United States, also sat nearby, stuffed with even more guns and explosives.
The fortress had been built in 1889 by Afghans, taking some eighteen thousand workers twelve years to complete, during an era of British incursions. It was a place built to be easily defended, a place to weather a siege.
At each of the corners rose a mud parapet, a towerlike structure, some 80 feet high and 150 feet across, and built strong enough to support the weight of 10-ton tanks, which could be driven onto the parapet up long, gradual mud ramps rising from the fortress floor. Along the parapet walls, rectangular gunports, about twelve inches tall, were cut into the three-foot-thick mud — large enough to accommodate the swing of a rifle barrel at any advancing hordes below.
In all, the fort measured some 600 yards long — about one third of a mile — and 300 yards wide.
At the north end, a red-carpeted balcony stretched high above the courtyard. Wide and sunlit, it resembled a promenade, overlooking a swift stream bordered by a black wrought-iron fence and rose gardens that had been destroyed by the Taliban. Behind the balcony, double doors opened onto long hallways, offices, and living quarters.
At each end of the fort's central wall, which divided the interior into the two large courtyards, sat two more tall parapets, equally fitted for observation and defense with firing ports. A narrow, packed foot trail, about three feet wide, ran around the entire rim along the protective, outer wall. In places, a thick mud wall, waist-high, partially shielded the walker from the interior of the courtyard, making it possible to move along the top of the wall and pop up and shoot either down into the fort, or up over the outer wall at attackers coming from the outside.
In the middle of the southern courtyard, which was identical to the northern one (except for the balcony and offices overlooking it), sat the square-shaped Pink House. It was small, measuring about 75 feet on each side, too small a space for the six hundred prisoners who were ordered by Northern Alliance soldiers down the stairs and into its dark basement, where they were packed tight like matchsticks, one against another.
There, down in a dank corner, on a dirt floor that smelled of worms and sweat, brooded a young American. His friends knew him by the name of Abdul Hamid. He had walked for several days to get to this moment of surrender, which he hoped would finally lead him home to California. He was tired, hungry, his chest pounding, skipping a beat, like a washing machine out of balance. He worried that he was going to have a heart attack, a scary thought at age twenty-one.
Around him, he could hear men praying as they unfolded hidden weapons from the long, damp wings of their clothing.
The following morning, November 25, two CIA paramilitary officers, Dave Olson and Mike Spann, kitted up at headquarters in Mazar and prepared to drive across town to the fort. Both men hoped to interrogate as many prisoners as possible.
Mitchell was in the school cafeteria, drinking chai and eating nan, a delicious, chewy flat bread, when Spann and Olson walked up. Mitchell knew Olson the better of the two. Spann, a former Marine artillery officer, had joined the Agency three years earlier. He wore blue jeans and a black sweater, and was of medium height, with severe cheekbones and a crooked smile, his blond hair cut close. Olson was tall and burly, with a thin salt and pepper beard over an old case of acne. He spoke excellent Dari, the glottal, hissing language of the local Northern Alliance fighters, and he was dressed in a black, knee-length blouse, called a shalwar kameez, over beige pants.
Mitchell noticed immediately that the two CIA guys weren't carrying enough ammunition. For whatever reasons, they had about four ammo magazines between them. Mitchell preferred the standard operating procedure of bringing four magazines apiece on a mission. Olson and Spann carried folding-stock AK-47s slung over their shoulders and 9mm pistols strapped in holsters on their legs. Spann carried another pistol tucked at the small of his back in his pants' waistband. Neither man had a radio, which Mitchell also thought was strange. But then again, these CIA guys had always brought their own party with them. He figured that whatever Olson and Spann were doing this morning, it was their own educated business.
Olson announced, "We're going out to Qala to talk to these guys, see what we can find out."
The previous night, there had been a brief gunfight outside the schoolhouse, and Mitchell, sensing that the situation in the city was increasingly tense, had asked Olson if he himself and a couple of his men could go and provide security while the two CIA officers conducted their interrogations at Qala. Mitchell knew that interrogating prisoners was officially the CIA's job, but he was worried about his friends' safety. No, said Olson, you guys need to stay away. To Mitchell's thinking, he was a bit nonchalant about the whole thing.
All three men knew that the prisoners included many hard cases: Chechnyans, Pakistanis, Saudis — the epicenter of Al Qaeda. The men who had surrendered were the heart of Osama bin Laden's most skilled army. Maybe — just maybe — one of them knew where bin Laden was.
Watch your back, thought Mitchell.
Olson and Spann started out the lobby's front door to a truck parked in the circular drive. Beyond the wall, the busy midmorning traffic buzzed by. The vehicle slipped into the stream of cars, trucks, and donkey carts, and was gone.
Sergeant Betz walked up and stood beside Mitchell, watching them go. He said, "I don't like the looks of that."
Mitchell asked him why.
"I dunno," said Betz. "I like a guy to carry a lot of ammo when he leaves."
About a half hour later, Olson and Spann entered Qala.
At the fort, Abdul Hamid climbed the steps from the basement of the Pink House and blinked in the morning sun, his arms tied behind him with a turban. The stairway resembled a collapsed brick chimney as it emerged from the dark hole that reeked of piss and shit.
Abdul was led past the Pink House, the walls of the fort soaring around him. About a hundred other prisoners had already been led into the courtyard, also trussed with their own clothing, arms behind their backs, sitting cross-legged on an apron of trampled weeds twisting up from hardpan mud.
Mike Spann bent down and peered at Abdul.
For the life of him, he couldn't figure out where the kid was from or who he was. Arab? Pakistani? Canadian? He studied Abdul's tattered British commando sweater, sensing that the prisoner — what was he, twenty, twenty-three? — could speak at least some passable English.
"Where are you from?" Spann demanded. "You believe in what you're doing here that much, you're willing to be killed here?"
No answer came.
"What's your name? Who brought you here to Afghanistan?"
The kid on the carpet dropped his head, stared at the shalwar kameez bunched around his knees.
"Put your head up!" Spann yelled.
The young man's face was sunburned, his eyes the color of cold tea.
Spann let his gaze linger, and then raised a digital camera and framed a shot. The photo would be sent by encrypted satellite communications back to headquarters, where the image would be crossreferenced against a digital lineup of terrorists and known Al Qaeda soldiers.
It was Olson, lumbering across the dusty courtyard. He'd spent the last five minutes talking with another group of prisoners. Olson towered over the young man on the ground.
"Yeah," said Spann, "he won't talk to me...I was explaining to the guy we just want to talk to him, find out what his story is."
"Well, he's a Muslim, you know," mused Olson. "The problem is, he's got to decide if he wants to live or die....We can only help the guys who want to talk to us."
It was Spann's turn: "Do you know the people here you're working with are terrorists, and killed other Muslims? There were several hundred Muslims killed in the bombing in New York City. Is that what the Koran teaches? Are you going to talk to us?"
Then it was back to Olson: "That's all right, man. Gotta give him a chance. He got his chance."
Olson scuffed the dirt with his boot; Spann, exasperated, hands on hips, looked at the prisoner.
Finally, Spann said, "Did you get a chance to look at any of the passports?"
"There's a couple of Saudis, and I didn't see the others."
They agreed that the young man wasn't going to tell them anything, nd the two CIA officers started walking away along a gravel path lined by pine trees toward the gate in the middle of a tall mud wall that divided the fort into its separate courtyards. They were headed to the former headquarters to regroup.
At one point, Olson turned to see Spann stopped on the path, joking with a group of Northern Alliance soldiers. He turned back and kept walking.
By the time Olson reached the middle gate he heard the explosion of a grenade, followed by a burst of gunfire. He turned.
Spann was frantically attempting to fight off a gang of prisoners who were beating at him with their fists and screaming, Allah Akbar! — God is Great!
Olson started running toward Spann, and as he did so, Spann emptied his pistol into the crowd, then reached behind to the other gun, hidden in his waistband. He fired and fell to the ground under the storm of flesh.
Seeing that Spann was down and thinking he was already dead, Olson spun around to see a Taliban soldier running at him, firing from the hip with an AK-47.
Olson could hear the snap of the rounds passing and was amazed he hadn't been hit. The guy kept coming, and finally Olson, momentarily frozen on the spot, raised his pistol and shot him.
The man skidded to a stop at Olson's feet, so close Olson could almost touch him with his boot.
He next turned and fired at the crowd of people beating on Spann. He was pretty sure he killed a few of them. He sensed he was being rushed again and spun to shoot another man running at him. By now, he was out of bullets. And so he ran. He ran down the path and into the northern courtyard, past the ruined rose garden fronting the grand balcony. He ran up the steps and into the inner courtyard, where he made a phone call, alerting Mitchell and Sonntag back at the schoolhouse.
"I think Mike's dead," Olson said over the phone. "I think he's dead! We are under attack. I repeat, I am receiving heavy fire!" RPGs were hitting the balcony wall, rocking the place.
Back in the southern courtyard, Abdul Hamid had been shot in the leg and lay in the dirt. He tried crawling back to the basement steps, but it was too far. He wondered if he'd ever see his mother again, in California. He wondered who the strange men were who had been asking him questions. He wondered if they knew his real name: John Walker Lindh.
Meanwhile, one of the prisoners walked up and fired twice, point-blank, at Mike Spann.
By the hundreds, the Taliban prisoners jumped up from the ground where they'd been ordered to sit by Spann and Olson.
They shook off the turbans binding their wrists and looked wildly around, not sure what to do next.
Up on the fortress walls, a dozen or so Northern Alliance guards were pouring fire into the courtyard, raking the hard ground, raising divots of mud, mowing men down.
Several minutes later, the prisoners found the weapons cache.
They swung open the metal doors of the long Conex trailers and beheld hundreds of rifles, grenades, and mortars, spilled at their eet.
They scooped up the weapons and scattered around the courtyard, crouching behind mud buildings, in bushes, inside storerooms built into the walls. They started returning fire. The air roared.
Wounded horses soon littered the courtyard, twitching and braying in the dust, as the hot sun beat down.
Mitchell arrived with a ground force half an hour after Olson's call. He pulled up outside the fortress gate, got out of the truck, and gazed up at the walls. He couldn't believe the intensity of the fight. Several hundred guns must've been firing at once. Mortars started arcing over the walls and exploding around his truck.
He and his men ran to the base of the fort and started climbing.
The wall pitched skyward at about a 45-degree angle. They scuttled up hand-over-hand. At the top, out of breath, Mitchell peered at the mayhem below.
Dead men were scattered up in the grove of pine trees, blown there by grenade blasts. They hung from the tree limbs, heavy and still, like blackened ornaments.
He saw prisoners running among the trees, turning to fire up at the walls. There were six hundred of them down there, Mitchell knew. And they wanted out.
He again counted the number of his own force: fifteen men. Fifteen.
Before leaving for Afghanistan, Mitchell had been asked by his commander, "How will you die?" It was a blunt way of asking how he planned to stay alive. Until now, he hadn't given the answer much thought.
Massive explosions punched the sky. He figured the prisoners had finally found the mortars. It was only a matter of time before they zeroed in on the guards on the walls.
The gunfire was filled with pops, fizzles, and cracks, like the snapping of enormous bones. Mitchell worried that the fighters inside were breaking out. He expected them to pile over the top wall at any moment.
In a matter of minutes, something had gone terribly wrong. We fought so hard. And we won. But now we're losing so damn quickly...
He thought of his wife, then his two daughters. He had been worried that they were growing up without him. And now he thought: They'll never know me at all.
Mitchell took out his pistol and prepared to be overrun.
Copyright © 2009 by Reed City Productions, LLC
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History and Social Science » Military » Afghan War (2001-)