In Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton begins in medias res his account of the American forces who were the first to enter Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to assist the Northern Alliance in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After many weeks of grueling work, by the last week of November, 2001, they have managed to capture a Taliban stronghold and are astonished to find six hundred Taliban prisoners (among them John Walker Lindh) about the enter the fort, where a huge amount of Taliban weaponry remains stored. Two Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers, Mike Spann and Dave Olsen, decided to interrogate some of the prisoners, but they are suddenly attacked, Spann is shot, and the Taliban prisoners begin to riot.
Stanton shifts his narrative to a few months earlier, immediately after al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. The effect of this attack on Cal Spencer and other Special Forces soldiers is sudden and swift: On a training mission with some men along the Cumberland River in Tennessee when he hears the news, Spencer speeds back to his base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Dean Nosorog, married only four days earlier, aborts his honeymoon in Tahiti, knowing he will also be needed at Fort Campbell. Mark Mitchell, then the operations officer for the Third Battalion, Fifth Special Forces Group, can scarcely believe what is happening, but it is his responsibility to have the men ready for deployment anywhere in the world. Greg Gibson, a helicopter pilot, tells his crew to get ready to break down their Black Hawks and Chinooks for travel.
U.S. Air Force planes have already begun bombing suspected Taliban sites, though very ineffectively, when the first contingent of Special Forces soldiers arrives to set up camp in Uzbekistan, adjacent to Afghanistan. The various warlords opposed to the Taliban, including generals Dostum, Atta, and Mohaqeq, are glad the Americans are coming, as they have been fighting for many years and by now are running low on food, clothing, and arms. The Americans’ base at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) in Uzbekistan is where the small number of expert troops arrive to aid Dostum and Atta, particularly in spotting targets accurately for bombing raids. From K2, planes also drop supplies for both the Americans and the Northern Alliance armies.
The trip by helicopter from K2 to General Dostum’s location is anything but easy. Sandstorms and other inclement weather conditions make flights extremely hazardous, to say nothing of the dangerous mountainous terrain, which forces the helicopters to fly much higher than usual. At one point, lacking oxygen, most of the soldiers black out during the trip. Despite every difficulty, Captain Mitch Nelson and his team manage to arrive in mid-October at an Afghani village called Cobaki to begin their work assisting Dostum and his allies.
Nelson and his men learn that they will have to travel to the front lines on horseback. The difficult terrain and the absence of motor vehicles make this necessary. Although Nelson is an experienced horseman, most of his men are not; in fact, few have ever even been on a horse. The horses are short, shaggy, and rugged, built for mountain walking. Their saddles, made of three boards hinged together and covered by goatskin, are too small for an average American male, and the stirrups, hammered iron rings hanging down from the saddles on small pieces of leather, are so short that the Americans, when mounted, find their knees reach almost to their chins. Nevertheless, these horses are their means of transportation for most of the next two months, severe saddle sores notwithstanding.
The ultimate objective for the combined Afghan and American forces is the northern town of Mazari-Sharif and the fortress of Qala-i-Janghi, held by the Taliban army. If the Northern Alliance can capture these targets, it will be able to bring under its control all of northern Afghanistan and then proceed to capture the country’s capital, Kabul, farther south. A great deal of fighting and bombing, however, are necessary before this objective can be attained.
Nelson and five of his men set off behind General Dostum and his forces, leaving Cal Spencer, Pat Essex, Charles Jones, Scott Black, Ben Milo, and Fred Falls behind to coordinate logistics and await an air drop of medical supplies and blankets for Dostum’s men. The immediate objective for Dostum and Nelson is the town of Dehi. En route, they pass settlements that have been decimated by the Taliban. At Dehi, Dostum’s men load supplies onto their horses and pack mules and move on toward Chapchal, crossing the cold Darya Suf River. Sam Diller can already feel blood running down his legs from his saddle sores...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)