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Review of “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton

“Playbook for the Invasion of Afghanistan”

Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton tells the story of the first few weeks of the invasion of Afghanistan as told from the perspective of Special Operations leaders on the ground. It is an excellent read that sheds light on complexities of beginning a military campaign in a foreign land, particularly one as formidable as Afghanistan. Stanton takes a quagmire of an invasion for which most Americans would not know where to start the plan, and lays out the logic and strategy behind each step the United States took to successfully gain a foothold in the country. He simplifies the timeline without losing the significance and implications of each move.

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Ethnic and Religious sensitivity play a significant role in the Special Operators success in their ability to win the support of the local leaders they were working with. This is perhaps an area in which conventional forces could use a greater depth of understanding. In order to truly gain the respect of a population, Stanton affirms that understanding the local customs and ethnic relations is imperative. It’s not as simple as “the Taleban” vs. “Afghanistan and the U.S”. Rather, we must deal with the ethnic tensions between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras and coalesce their separate military forces. We must understand languages ranging from Pashtun, Dari, Urdu, and Farsi. We operate alongside leaders whom one nation may call a General while another calls him a Warlord. Even the Taliban itself is not homogeneous. There is the Afghan Taliban whose soldiers are conscripted teachers, doctors, and other civilians who have little desire to serve in an oppressive regime. But there is also the Arab Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants made of foreign fighters who have come with a passion for Islam and the will to kill anything that hinders its spread.

Stanton uses the simple act of calling for an artillery target to describe the challenges of operating in such an environment. Imagine the leap of faith that a Special Operator has to take when the Commanding General of a Pashtun Army asks him to call in artillery strikes on enemy forces over eight miles away. Is that really a Taliban target? Could he be manipulating a vulnerable soldier in order to strike a competing tribe or ethnic group? Is it prudent to question the General’s orders when his Army’s compliance and the soldier’s life are at risk? These are questions that I would guess most Army leaders are unsure of how to answer; but awareness of these conflicts is the first step in making better decisions for the future.

Beyond the ethnic tensions, the book also conveys how the technology and education rifts between the American and Afghan forces continue to be an obstacle to success. The U.S. Army is the most elite trained military in the world. We are sons and daughters bred on laptops, I-pods, X-boxes, and smartphones. We thrive on technology. We roll in armored vehicles, we shoot with precision weapons, we communicate with advanced GPS systems and radios with a strict protocol. On the other hand, many Afghans still ride on horseback or walk barefoot. Perhaps the few literate soldiers will be able to read the manuals on how to use what little equipment they have left over from the Soviet engagement. How does an Army like ours, fixed in so many standards of technology and communication, even begin to prepare the Afghan forces to defend their own nation? I imagine it requires a lot of patience, and the ability to always resort back to the fundamentals of soldiering. We have to remember how to fight with just a rifle, map, and compass.

For me, the most unique aspect of this book were its concurrent stories that Stanton uses to bring insights onto the difference in mentalities between the Special Forces, CIA Paramilitary forces, Special Operations Aviation, their wives and children back home., and even a rogue American teenager who found himself in the middle of Masar-e Sharif fighting alongside the Taliban. These accounts add a multi-dimensional view of the many moving parts to defense and foreign policy: the diplomatic and intelligence efforts needed to prepare and sustain combat, the loved ones with whom these soldiers are able to share so little of their lives, and even the pressures on the students of Islam which can drive someone to abandon a safe American family for the mountains of Afghanistan.

Horse Soldiers mixes the thorough research of a Tom Clancy novel with the exciting intertwined first-person accounts of a Jeffrey Archer thriller. I highly recommend to any of my Afghanistan-bound colleagues or anyone simply interested in better understanding the initial steps in the war on terror.

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