The following guest post by Doug Stanton is an excerpt from his recently released book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.
November 24-25, 2001
Trouble came in the night, riding out of the dust and the darkness. Trouble rolled past the refugee camp, past the tattered tents shuddering in the moonlight, the lone cry of a baby driving high into the sky, like a nail. Sunrise was no better; at sunrise, trouble was still there, bristling with AKs and RPGs, engines idling, waiting to roll into the city. Waiting.
These were the baddest of the bad, the real masters of mayhem, the death dealers with God stamped firmly in their minds. The city groaned and shook to life. Soon everyone knew trouble had arrived at the gates of the city.
Major Mark Mitchell heard the news at headquarters nine miles away and thought, You’re kidding. We got bad guys at the wire?
He ran downstairs, looking for Master Sergeant Dave Betz. Maybe he would know what was happening.
But Betz didn’t know anything. He blustered, “One of the Agency guys came down and told us we got six hundred Taliban surrendering. Can you believe that?”
Surrendering? Mitchell couldn’t figure out why. He thought the Taliban had fled from the approaching forces of the Northern Alliance to Konduz, miles away. American Special Forces and the Northern Alliance had been beating them back for weeks, in battle after battle, rolling up territory by coordinating airstrikes from the sky and thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers on the ground. They now stood on the verge of total victory. Konduz was where the war was supposed to go next. Not here. Not in Mazar. Not at Club Mez.
Besides, these guys didn’t surrender. They fought to the death.
Die fighting and you went to paradise.
Mitchell stood at the dirty plate-glass windows and watched. Here they came, a motley crew of the doomed, packed into six big trucks, staring out from the rancid tunnels of their scarves. Mitchell could see their heads over the barricade that ringed his headquarters, a former schoolhouse at the junk-strewn edge of the city. The prisoners — who surely included some Al Qaeda members — were still literally in the drivers’ seats, with Northern Alliance soldiers sitting next to them, their AKs pointed at the drivers’ heads. The prisoners turned and stared and Mitchell thought it was like looking at hundreds of holes punched in a wall.
“Everybody get away from the windows!” said Betz.
Major Kurt Sonntag, Captain Kevin Leahy, Captain Paul Syverson, and a dozen other Special Forces soldiers knelt behind the black and white checked columns in the room, their M-4 rifles aimed at the street. Behind them, in the kitchen, the local cook was puttering — the air smelled of cooked rice and cucumber — and a radio was playing more of that god-awful Afghan music that sounded to Mitchell like somebody strangling a goose.
He had been looking forward this morning to overseeing the construction of the medical facility in town, and the further blowing up of mines and bombs that littered the area like confetti. Each day, a little bit more of the war seemed to be ending. Mitchell had even started to wonder when he would get to go home. He and a team of about a dozen Special Forces soldiers had moved into the schoolhouse only forty-eight hours earlier. Their former headquarters inside the Qala-i-Janghi Fortress, nine miles off, in Mazar’s western quarter, had given them the shits, the croup, and the flu, and Mitchell was glad to have moved out. It seemed a haunted place. Known as the House of War, the fortress rose like a mud golem from the desert, surrounded by struggling plots of wind-whipped corn and sparse cucumber. Its walls towered sixty feet high and measured thirty feet thick under the hard, indifferent sun.
The Taliban had occupied the fortress for seven years and filled it with weapons — grenades, rockets, and firearms, anything made for killing. Even Enfield rifles with dates stamped on the bayonets — 1913 — from the time that the Brits had occupied the area. Before their hurried flight from the city two weeks earlier, the Taliban had left the weapons and smeared feces on the walls and windows. Every photograph, every painting, every rosebush had been torn up, smashed, stomped, ruined. Nothing beautiful had been left behind.
After three years of Taliban rule, there were old men in Mazar with stumps for hands. There were women who’d been routinely stoned and kicked on street corners. Young men who’d been imprisoned for not wearing beards. Fathers who’d been beaten in front of their sons for the apparent pleasure of those swinging their weapons.
The arrival of Mitchell and his soldiers on horseback had put an end to that. The people of Mazar-i-Sharif, the rugmakers and butchers, the car mechanics and schoolteachers, the bank clerks and masons and farmers, had thrown flowers and kisses and reached up to the Americans on their horses and pulled affectionately at the filthy cuffs of their camo pants. The locals had welcomed the balding, blue-eyed Mitchell and two dozen other Special Forces soldiers in a mile-long parade lining the highway that dropped into town out of the snowy mountains. Mitchell had felt like he was back in World War II, his grandfather’s war, riding into Paris after the Nazis fled.
Now thirty-six, Mitchell was the ground commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group/Third Battalion’s Forward Operating Base (FOB). It had been a distinguished nearly fifteen-year career headed for the top of the military food chain. His best friend, Major Kurt Sonntag, a thirty-seven-year-old former weekend surfer from Los Angeles, was the FOB’s executive officer, which technically meant he was Mitchell’s boss. In the tradition of Special Forces, they treated each other as equals. Nobody saluted, including less senior officers like Captain Kevin Leahy and Captain Paul Syverson, members of the support company whose job it was to get the postwar operations up and running, such as providing drinking water, electricity, and medical care to the locals.
Looking at the street now, Mitchell tried to figure out why the Taliban convoy was stopping. If anything went bad, Mitchell knew he was woefully outnumbered. He had maybe a dozen guys he could call on. And those like Leahy and Syverson weren’t exactly hardened killers. Like him, these were staff guys, in their mid-thirties, soldiers who had until now been largely warless. He did have a handful of CIA operators living upstairs in the schoolhouse and eight Brits, part of a Special Boat Service unit who’d landed the night before by Chinook helicopter, but they were so new that they didn’t have orders for rules of engagement — that is, it wasn’t clear to them when they could and could not return fire. Doing the math, Mitchell roughly figured that he had about a dozen guys available to fight. The trained-up fighters, the two Special Forces teams that Mitchell had ridden into town with, had left earlier in the day for Konduz, for the expected fight there. Mitchell had watched them drive away and felt that he was missing out on a chance to make history. He’d been left behind to run the headquarters office and keep the peace. Now, after learning that 600 Taliban soldiers had massed outside his door, he wondered if he’d been dead wrong.
The street bustled with beeping taxis; with donkeys hauling loads of handmade bricks to the city-center bazaar; with aged men gliding by on wobbling bicycles and women ghosting through the rising dust in blue burkhas. Afghanistan. Never failed to amaze him.
Still the convoy hadn’t moved. Ten minutes had passed.
Without warning, a group of locals piled toward the trucks, angrily grabbing at the prisoners. They got hold of one man and pulled him down — for a moment he was there, gripping the battered wooden side of the truck, and then he was gone, snatched out of sight. Behind the truck, out of sight, they were beating the man to death.
Every ounce of rage, every rape, every public execution, every amputation, humiliation — every ounce of revenge was poured back into this man, slathered on by fist, by foot, by gnarled stick. The trucks lurched ahead and when they moved on, nothing remained of the man. It was as if he’d been eaten.
The radio popped to life. Mitchell listened as a Northern Alliance commander, who was stationed on the highway, announced in broken English: The prisoners all going to Qala-i-Janghi.
Remembering the enormous pile of weapons cached at the fortress, Mitchell didn’t want to hear this. But his hands were tied. The Afghan commanders of the Northern Alliance were, as a matter of U.S. strategy, calling the shots. No matter the Americans’ might, this was the Afghans’ show. Mitchell was in Mazar to “assist” the locals in taking down the Taliban. He figured he could get on a radio and suggest to the Afghan commander presiding over the surrender that the huge fortress would not be an ideal place to house six hundred angry Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. But maybe there was a good reason to send them there. As long as the prisoners were searched and guarded closely, maybe they could be held securely within the fort’s towering mud walls.
And then Mitchell thought again of the weapons stockpiled at Qala-i-Janghi, the piles and piles of rockets, rifles, crates of ammo — tons of violence ready to be put to use.
Not the fort, he thought. Not the damn fort!
Belching smoke, grinding gears, the convoy of prisoners rumbled past the fortress’s dry moat and through the tall, arched entrance. The prisoners in the trucks craned around like blackbirds on a wire, scanning the walls, looking for guards, looking for an easy way out.
In deference to the Muslim prohibition against men touching other men intimately, few of the prisoners had been thoroughly searched. No hand had reached deep inside the folds of their thin gray gowns, the mismatched suit coats, the dirty khaki vests, searching for a knife, a grenade, a garrote. Killer had smiled at captor and captor had waved him on, Tashakur. Thank you. Tashakur.
The line of six trucks halted inside the fort, and the prisoners stepped down under the watchful eye of a dozen or so Northern Alliance guards. Suddenly one prisoner pulled a grenade from the belly-band of his blouse and blew himself up, taking a Northern Alliance officer with him. The guards fired their rifles in the air and regained control. Then they immediately herded the prisoners to a rose-colored, plaster-sided building aptly nicknamed “the Pink House,” which squatted nearby in the rocks and thorns. The structure had been built by the Soviets in the 1980s as a hospital within the bomb-hardened walls of the fortress.
The fort was immense, a walled city divided equally into southern and northern courtyards. Inside was a gold-domed mosque, some horse stables, irrigation ditches encircling plots of corn and wheat, and shady groves of tall, fragrant pine trees whipping in the stiff winds. The thick walls held secret hallways and compartments, and led to numerous storage rooms for grain and other valuables. The Taliban had cached an enormous pile of weapons in the southern compound in a dozen mud-walled horse stables, each as big as a one-car garage and topped with a dome-shaped roof. The stables were crammed to the rafters with rockets, RPGs, machine guns, and mortars. But there were more weapons. Six metal Conex trailers, like the kind semitrucks haul down interstates in the United States, also sat nearby, stuffed with even more guns and explosives.
The fortress had been built in 1889 by Afghans, taking some eighteen thousand workers twelve years to complete, during an era of British incursions. It was a place built to be easily defended, a place to weather a siege.
At each of the corners rose a mud parapet, a towerlike structure, some 80 feet high and 150 feet across, and built strong enough to support the weight of 10-ton tanks, which could be driven onto the parapet up long, gradual mud ramps rising from the fortress floor. Along the parapet walls, rectangular gunports, about twelve inches tall, were cut into the three-foot-thick mud — large enough to accommodate the swing of a rifle barrel at any advancing hordes below.
In all, the fort measured some 600 yards long — about one third of a mile — and 300 yards wide.
At the north end, a red-carpeted balcony stretched high above the courtyard. Wide and sunlit, it resembled a promenade, overlooking a swift stream bordered by a black wrought-iron fence and rose gardens that had been destroyed by the Taliban. Behind the balcony, double doors opened onto long hallways, offices, and living quarters.
At each end of the fort’s central wall, which divided the interior into the two large courtyards, sat two more tall parapets, equally fitted for observation and defense with firing ports. A narrow, packed foot trail, about three feet wide, ran around the entire rim along the protective, outer wall. In places, a thick mud wall, waist-high, partially shielded the walker from the interior of the courtyard, making it possible to move along the top of the wall and pop up and shoot either down into the fort, or up over the outer wall at attackers coming from the outside.
In the middle of the southern courtyard, which was identical to the northern one (except for the balcony and offices overlooking it), sat the square-shaped Pink House. It was small, measuring about 75 feet on each side, too small a space for the six hundred prisoners who were ordered by Northern Alliance soldiers down the stairs and into its dark basement, where they were packed tight like matchsticks, one against another.
There, down in a dank corner, on a dirt floor that smelled of worms and sweat, brooded a young American. His friends knew him by the name of Abdul Hamid. He had walked for several days to get to this moment of surrender, which he hoped would finally lead him home to California. He was tired, hungry, his chest pounding, skipping a beat, like a washing machine out of balance. He worried that he was going to have a heart attack, a scary thought at age twenty-one.
Around him, he could hear men praying as they unfolded hidden weapons from the long, damp wings of their clothing.
Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, is the author of the New York Times bestseller In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. A former contributing editor at Esquire, Sports Afield, and Outside, Stanton is now a contributing editor at Men’s Journal and has written on travel, entertainment, and adventure, during which time he nearly drowned in Cape Horn waters, played basketball with George Clooney, and took an acting lesson from a gracious Harrison Ford.
Stanton lives in his hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, where he is a member of the advisory board of the Interlochen Center for the Arts’ Motion Picture Arts Program and a trustee of the Pathfinder School.
He has taught writing at the college level and worked as a commercial sports fisherman and caretaker of Robert Frost’s house in Vermont. Stanton graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and also received an MFA the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He and his wife, the investigative reporter Anne Stanton, have three children.