The mission of American Special Forces in Afghanistan in October-November 2001 was direct: help the local Northern Alliance forces defeat the Taliban, the proximate source of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, just one month before. But the infrastructure of Afghanistan was anything but modern and the best way to get around was by horse. The adaptable SF team mounted up and rode side-by-side with the Northern Alliance to victory. This swashbuckling story is an exciting and inspiring tale, but has deeper implications for warfare in the 21st Century: be ready for anything, including a mix of the most modern technology with methods and means long considered obsolete, like pack mules.
American Special Forces troops used pack animals to carry equipment during their collaboration with members of the Northern Alliance, Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan, 12 Nov 2001.
U.S. Special Forces ride horseback working with members of the Northern Alliance, Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan, 12 Nov 2001.
In a letter to General Innis P. Swift (9 June 1941), the last Chief of Cavalry, Major General John K. Herr, predicted:
If we can get by this period of ignorance and prejudice and prevent these shortsighted gumps from wiping us out of the picture in their mistaken belief that the iron horse replaces one of flesh and blood, we will surely come into our own.
Gen. Herr was hoping for a restoration of the horse to a prominent place in the Army's concept of Cavalry, but that was not to be. Mechanization was nearly complete within a few years of that letter, and the horse faded into Army history. Still, old line Cavalry officers retained an affection for their horses and knew that someday the horses would ride again. Their belief was not misguided.
On 19 October 2001, just more than a month after 9-11, a Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopter rose from Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase, Uzbekistan, to cross 14,000 foot mountains with ugly weather into Afghanistan. Its mission: to carry soldiers of the Fifth Special Forces Group to an Afghan landing zone where they would join CIA teams already on the ground. The helicopter ride over the mountains was itself a harrowing adventure, but in this case just the prelude to much starker tests to come. The SOG team joined CIA-recruited Northern Alliance warlords, the sworn enemies of the Taliban who devastated their country. Skillfully maintaining the right balance of cultural awareness, political ties, and military incentives, the SOG team found ways to help the Northern Alliance leaders defeat the Taliban without stirring up resentment of American involvement. As the Americans proved themselves on horseback, in battle, and in the shared privations of life on the Afghan hardscape, they became cherished partners who earned the affection of their Afghan hosts and fellow warriors.
The campaign was a weird combination of space-age gadgetry (cell phones, GPS, laser targeting, aircraft and satellites, advanced comm gear and weapons) meshed with medieval combat (men on horseback, cavalry charges, hand-to-hand butchery, clanish rivalries, and primitive infrastructure). The role of horses was central since there was no other transportation for the tasks as hand. Failure to adapt to horseback would have doomed the effort, so adapt they did, though painfully since few of the SOG soldiers were horsemen.
In his Commencement Address at the U.S. Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, CO) on 31 May 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had this to say:
Just before Christmas in 2001, I traveled to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. I visited with a group of special operations forces that were operating in truly remarkable ways. In preparation for performing a mission the month before, they had asked for the usual supplies, but one item stood out. They asked for horse feed.
From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, our forces began adapting to the circumstances on the ground, as they had to. And they ended up riding horses that had been conditioned to run through machine gun fire. They used pack-mules to transport equipment across some of the roughest terrain in the world, riding in darkness, and along narrow trails with sheer drops.
Some of those forces operating in Afghanistan were combat controllers from the U.S. Air Force. And those Airmen likely thought they would have sooner found themselves riding jet aircraft rather than horses, but they joined the American tradition of daring and ingenuity that has defined Airmen for generations.
The stunningly successful Special Forces effort in Afghanistan has reopened the book on the use of horses and mules in the U.S. military, potentially part of solutions for military problems of the 21st Century.
Recommended Book About U.S. Military Horses in Afghanistan