The odds are that you've never heard about the covert 2001, horse-mounted mission that saw a 14 man Green Beret A-Team and 6 CIA Special Activity Division operatives unite with a Taliban-killing Afghan Mongol warlord's horsemen to break out of the Hindu Kush mountains, seize a symbolic ancient shrine, and overthrow the Taliban regime. Few Americans know that there was no mass-armor invasion of Afghanistan by 150,000 troops of the sort needed to conquer California-sized Iraq in 2003, it only took approximately 300 US Special Operators to overthrow the Taliban who controlled a much larger, Texas-sized Afghanistan in 2001. That, and the help of an indigenous rebel leader whose Uzbek Mongol horsemen had a blood feud with the Aryan Taliban and a fighting force of 2,000 hardened riders.
The rebel warlord's tough horsemen, the direct descendants of Genghis Khan's world-conquering Mongol hordes, offered the Green Beret Special Forces team code-named Tiger 02 and the CIA operatives crucial "hooves on the ground" allies. It was an unlikely alliance of men from worlds as far apart as Alma, Kansas, home to the Green Beret commander Mark Nutsch (to be played by Chris Hemsworth who has carved out a globally loved role for himself as the hammer-wielding Norse god Thor in the Avengers movies) and the much-feared Uzbek rebel general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, from the clay-walled village of Khoja Dokoh. Director Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave us such classics as Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Emmy award winning Danish Producer Nicolai Fuglsig have chosen the Iranian acting genius Navid Negabhan, who stole the show in the TV series Homeland with his compelling depiction of a terrorist Abu Nazir, to play the warlord Dostum. Not since Peter O Toole played Lawrence of Arabia alongside the legendary Omar Sharif as 'Sherif Ali,' in a similar movie about a Westerner leveraging local tribes to fight the enemy during World War I, has there been such a depiction of Muslims and Westerners fighting side by side against a common enemy. In an era where many are tempted to paint in broad brush strokes about all Muslims as being members of a faith linked to terrorism, it is refreshing to see Hollywood do a more accurate/nuanced portrayal of a Muslim commander waging war against the terrorists.
For fifteen years the story to be brought to life by Hemsworth and Negahban of the alliance between Captain Nutsch and General Dostum that led to an improbable victory that shocked U.S. Central Command as much as it did Bin Laden has been unknown to most Americans. It has only appeared in two books, one The Horsesoldiers, which tells the story of all the A-Teams operating in Afghanistan in 2001, and the second, The Last Warlord, which tells the story of Tiger 02's mission alongside Dostum from the largely overlooked Afghan (Uzbek) perspective. But now, with the star power of Hemsworth, Negabhan as well as Michael Peña who starred in such movies as Fury, The Martian, and Ant Man and Michael Shannon (the Academy Award nominee who brought life to Boardwalk Empire) who will all play members of the Green Beret A-Team, the story will finally reach audiences across the globe. It will be the first Green Beret movie since the legendary John Wayne mainstreamed this elite force of shadow warriors with his classic 1968 film Green Berets.
But what is the true story behind Task Force Dagger, the covert Special Forces operation launched in October 2001 to spearhead the invasion of Afghanistan by a much larger force of 50,000 that was being organized for the spring of 2002? It is a story I am familiar with from both the perspective of both General Dostum, whom I lived with for the summers of 2003 and 2005 in his compound in Sheberghan, northern Afghanistan carrying out interviews, and from the CIA and Green Beret perspective due to my interviews with these special operators. A brief recount of this story that is the foundation for Bruckheimer's epic movie with Lion Gate will shed a light on this long hidden story and the equally remarkable story of how Negahban was able link up with the Taliban-killing warlord Dostum to help authenticate the movie.
The Real Story Behind the Horsesoldiers
The making of this improbable alliance between the Green Berets, an elite Army Special Forces branch created to work behind enemy lines to rally opposition forces and create mayhem (never to be confused with the Navy SEALs who do swift raids), and the Uzbek descendants of Genghis Khan's forces began in the days after 9/11. When General Dostum, who was holed up in a mountain base in the Hindu Kush Mountains in northern Afghanistan with his rebel band, heard about the attacks on America he contacted the CIA and offered them his assistance. Intrigued by the offer of a Muslim anti-Taliban rebel with boots on the ground behind enemy lines inside Afghanistan, the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center deployed a team of Special Activities Division Operators and two Green Berets to liaise with him. These operators were flown by Black Hawks into the high Hindu Kush mountain valley of the Darya Suf (Valley of Caves) in mid October 2001. There, the Uzbek speaking operatives met with Dostum who offered his condolences for the loss of American lives on 9/11 and brought out his legendary, hand drawn massive map of northern Afghanistan. As his turbaned commanders Lal, Fakir, Sattar, Akrem and Ahmed Khan joined him, he laid out his bold strategy.
Dostum's plan was daring and seemed to fit the incomplete profile the CIA analysts had developed of him since his initial phone call, that he was an energetic leader with a deep hatred for the Taliban. He meant to punch his way through the Taliban defenses, one after another, and drive down the Darya Suf Valley, then turn north and push his way down the larger Balkh Valley. From there he aimed to push northward through a heavily guarded pass known as the Tangi Gap and break his way out onto the plains around Mazar i Sharif. Then he planned to charge on horseback across the open plain and seize the holy shrine of Mazar i Sharif before the Taliban could react. Having captured the ancient shrine that was believed to bestow the mandate of Allah to rule Afghanistan on its possessors, he was confident the Taliban's morale would collapse and so would their army.
The only things standing in his way were thousands of fanatical Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters armed with T-62 tanks, ZSU 23 anti-aircraft guns, BM 21 multiple rocket launchers, RPGs and small arms. This much larger force had one job, to keep the anti-Taliban rebels bottled up in the mountains at all costs.
While the CIA operatives, including Alex, David Tyson, JR and Micheal Spann appeared to be skeptical, they promised to do what they could to make Dostum's dream of seizing Mazar i Sharif come true. They also began to prepare for the arrival of a 14 man Green Beret A-Team that was awaiting deployment orders in Karshi, Uzbekistan.
Two nights later word came that the Special Force team ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) 595 code named "Tiger 02" was ready to deploy. ODA 595 was chosen by Colonel Mulholland to be the spearhead of Task Force Dagger because its members had previously been training Uzbekistani spestnaz special forces. Its members were specialists in Unconventional Warfare and could act as 'force multipliers' behind enemy lines.
Then, on the night of October 19th-20th the team was given their orders, they were to "conduct unconventional warfare in support of General Dostum in order to render his operational area unsafe for the Taliban." Their "ride" into Afghanistan would be aboard helicopters flown by the 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) "Night Stalkers."
Once again Dostum and his rebel fighters lit up a helicopter landing zone between the villages of Darya Kamach and Dehi and waited with excitement for their American allies. America's elite Special Forces soldiers were now entering the "Afghan Graveyard of Empires" to wage war with the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. Upon arrival Captain Mark Nutsch, a Kansan who was a former rodeo rider, and his team were warmly greeted by Dostum and his turbaned warriors. They then asked the Americans what sort of help they could provide to destroy the Taliban forces blocking their exit from the mountains.
It was at this time that Nutsch taught the Uzbeks about the revolutionary power of J.D.A.M.s (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or satellite guided bombs. Nutsch and his team had been given S.O.F.L.A.Ms (Special Operations Forces Laser Acquisition Markers) which could be used by on the ground spotters to call in precision strikes from giant B-52 Stratofortresses flying from the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia and F-18s flying from aircraft carriers. Spying from a dugout overwatch looking down on the distant Taliban, Nutsch and his men began to call in bomb strikes on the Taliban in the distance.
As the bombs fell on Taliban tanks and positions, Dostum's men charged through the bomb smoke on horseback wiping out the dazed Taliban. Captain Nutsch, or Kommandan Mark as he became known, quickly earned the deep friendship of a grateful Dostum and his elated riders. Dostum, a colorful larger than life character who had fought in Afghanistan against the mujahideen holy warriors (including Bin Laden) in the 80s and ruled northern Afghanistan before being defeated by the Taliban in 1998, was described to me by one of the CIA Special Activities Division operators who rode with him as "Afghan Patton." In my extensive interviews with Nutsch, he told me Dostum pushed his men hard to achieve his dream of taking Mazar. The horse riding Green Berets had to work hard to keep up the Uzbek general who drove his men hard through the cold mountains in late October and early November 2001.
To multiply their ability to assist Dostum's riders, Nutsch explained to me that he divided his team into four cells known as Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta, and these teams roamed over vast distances calling in deadly airstrikes on any massed Taliban position. In my interviews with Dostum and his commanders Lal, Fakir and Ahmed Khan on the porch of his compound they spoke with awe of the Green Berets' ability to call down devastating airstrikes before their cavalry charges. Recalling the bombing strikes Dostum told me "We had only seen clumsy Russian built Mig jets before and they rarely hit their targets. Kommandan Mark and his team wiped out armor and tanks and allowed our men to charge in the wake of the bombings and slaughter the Taliban over and over again. They were real jasurs (braves) and fought everywhere like tigers. They became our blood brothers in the Darya Suf campaign. I told the Taliban over the radio that I had a death ray and they began to flee in panic after the rain of precision bombs."
On one occasion, when the Uzbek cavalry stalled at the heavily defended Tangi Gap, Mark and his horse mounted Green Berets rallied them and rode with them. It was dangerous work and hundreds of Uzbeks died or were horribly wounded in the bloody charges against a fanatical enemy, but in the end the Uzbek-Green Beret-CIA alliance succeeded in breaking out of the mountains and seizing the blue domed holy shrine of Mazar i Sharif on the northern plains on November 9th. It was an epic arrival in the shrine town as tens of thousands of Mazaris came out to chant "Dostum" as he and his American allies made a pilgrimage to the ancient mosque of Mazar i Sharif. There, Dostum said prayers for the hundreds of Uzbeks mowed down in the cavalry charges in the mountains and Mark and his team buried pieces of the World Trade Center that had been given to them before the campaign to symbolically place in the site of victories over the enemy.
The taking of Mazar proved to be decisive and, as Dostum had predicted, the Taliban house of cards soon collapsed. It was the first victory in the War on Terror. While the public knew little about it (there were no embedded reporters as in the Iraq invasion), a statue of a horse mounted Green Beret was dedicated in a closed ceremony on a small hill at Ground Zero overlooking the Reflection Ponds where the former World Trade Centers once stood this September. There, I had the honor of taking Dostum's son, Batur, and a delegation from his father (now Vice President of Afghanistan) to meet the man who directed the invasion John Mulholland (now a four star general and head of Special Operations Command Associate Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for Military Affairs) as well several other members of the horsesoldiers from other units and Doug Stanton the author of Horsesoldiers. It was there that I heard the book was being made into a movie.
When I heard the news that Navid Negahban had been chosen to play Dostum I was thrilled. I had been mesmerized by his performance as the notorious terrorist Abu Nazir in Homeland and was delighted that he would be playing the warlord that I too had brought to life in my book The Last Warlord. I lost no time in telling Dostum that he would be portrayed by a real acting talent and he was equally thrilled. I then reached out to Navid himself on his Twitter account to tell him the news. On the odd chance that he would be interested in learning more about the colorful commander he was playing, I left him my cell number. An hour later it rang and Navid was on the phone.
True to form, Navid wanted to learn everything he could about Dostum so he could immerse himself in the character and breath him to life, just as he done so effectively in Homeland as the notorious Abu Nazir. To facilitate this immersion, I had tapes of Dostum's campaign that were taken by one of his bodyguards shipped to Navid in his hotel in New Mexico where they were filming in early December. I also put him in contact with Dostum's chief of staff, Governor Farahmand, and suggested that Vice President Dostum send the actual chapan riding jacket, boots, turban and gupi under coat to Navid for enhanced authenticity. He immediately arranged to have Dostum's roving ambassador Ayoob Eefani bring the famous chapan padded riding coat, boots, turban and other personal items worn by Dostum transported from Kabul, Afghanistan to New Mexico. In this and many other ways, Navid has worked tremendously hard to make sure his character is true to form as an "Afghan Patton," and not some quaint indigenous backdrop for American heroics.
It is this sort of worthy effort towards authenticity and verisilimitude that will ultimately help make this movie a fitting tribute to the legendary Green Berets, the CIA, their local Afghan allies, and the two and half million American men and women in the U.S. military and their families. The filming of Horsesoldiers is expected to go through February. The movie is tentatively slated to be in the box office by December of next year and looks to be an epic rendition of the most effective Special Forces campaign in modern history.
For more on the real Dostum, see The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who led U.S. Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime.