I spent much of October and November 2001 in northeastern Afghanistan, in the company of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan army then battling the Taliban. The front lines were hot — it was the first time I had ever been shelled or shot at — but they weren’t moving. We’d crouch in trenches a few hundred metres away from the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance and Taliban soldiers would trash-talk each other on their walkie-talkies in between bursts of gunfire and mortar strikes. But everyone was sleeping in the same trenches they had occupied the night before, and the night before that.
Then one night I reached my editor back in Canada, who told me that Mazar-i-Sharif, a Taliban-held city some 300 kilometres away, had fallen to the Northern Alliance and, reportedly, a handful of American soldiers on horseback. It was surprising news.
Horse Soldiers, by Doug Stanton, is an excellent account of what happened. American Special Forces were dropped into virtually impenetrable mountain valleys south of the city and fought their way north, calling in air strikes ahead of their Afghan allies charging Taliban lines on horseback. It was a remarkable military victory, and it is an extraordinary story.
There are lessons in it that apply to NATO’s current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The American Special Forces members earned the trust of their Afghan counterparts because they ate, slept, suffered, rode, and fought beside them. They didn’t barricade themselves behind the concrete walls of their bases. And their willingness to help didn’t end when confronted with combat.