In riveting detail The Last Warlord spotlights the crucial Afghan contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom: how the CIA contacted the mysterious warrior Dostum to help US Special Forces wage a covert war in the mountains of Afghanistan, how respect and even friendship quickly grew between the Afghan and American fighting men, and how Dostum led his nomadic people charging into war the same way his ancestors had—on horseback. The result was one of the most decisive campaigns in the entire war on terror. The Last Warlord shows that, far from serving as an exotic backdrop for American heroics, it was these horse-mounted descendents of the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan that allowed the American military to overthrow the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks.
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The Last Warlord
The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime
By Brian Glyn Williams
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Brian Glyn Williams
All rights reserved.
THE WARLORD OF MAZAR
* * *
"When we heard about the terrorists' attacks on your country's towers, there was this strange silence. At that moment we all sensed everything was about to change. ... We sensed that the Americans would be coming to Afghanistan."
— General Abdul Rashid Dostum, anti-taliban commander of the Northern Alliance Opposition
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, THE PLAINS OF NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN. SUMMER 2003.
As our Russian-made jeep pushed its way through the crowds that thronged the streets of this dusty Afghan city, I sneaked a peek at the Uzbek gunmen sitting on either side of me. The soldier on my right seemed to be staring out the window at the usual backdrop of dirty children, bicycling townsmen, burqa-clad women, and camels, so he became the target of my furtive glances. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I tried hard not to focus on the AK-47 assault rifle sitting on his lap with its barrel pointing in my direction.
Then I noticed the most intriguing feature of the gun. There, underneath the gunman's dirty hand, I spied a sticker that he had affixed to the wooden stock of his rifle. It was a decal of a scantily clad Indian dancer or perhaps a Bollywood actress. Staring at the sticker, I asked myself, Is that a talisman of protection? Representation of forbidden fruit? Or simply a way to blunt the lethality of an instrument designed to kill?
The incongruity of the sticker and the weapon brought to my mind the Taliban soldiers, whose favorite means of conveyance had been Toyota Hilux Surf pickup trucks. Never before had there been a less apt brand name for a "technical" military vehicle. The average Toyota Hilux Surf came decorated with standard-issue pastel colors more suited for Miami's South Beach than the deserts of Afghanistan. The images of turbaned Taliban troopers, wearing amulets to ward off the evil eye and riding in the back of these brightly colored Japanese pickup trucks, would have been laughable had the Talibs not brought so much misery to the Afghan people.
But as I had come to discover during my brief time in this land, such bizarre blending of things Western-modern and Afghan -traditional did not seem to bother the Afghans; on the contrary, it defined them.
I realized at that moment that, if I was to truly understand the Afghans, I would have to accept such seeming contradictions with the same shrug of the shoulders that they did. This was how things were done in this country, which seemed to be trapped somewhere between the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century.
I sensed that for all my initial frustration with the Afghan way of doing things, I was gradually coming to enjoy their easy accommodation of things both Western and Afghan. If you judged the Afghans solely by their strange admixtures or their outward appearance, you missed the chance to probe beneath the surface and enter their world.
I realized that this rule of thumb certainly applied to the jang salars, the warlords of whom so much has been written in the press. While the warlords had been described in frightening abstract terms, I felt the urge to probe deeper to see who they were as three-dimensional human beings. I suspected that the warlords, who were as fundamental a part of life in Afghanistan as the video stores and beauty salons that had sprung up since the overthrow of the Taliban, had stories of their own to tell.
My quest to understand one warlord in particular had driven me from my safe home in Boston to a shrine town located in Afghanistan's frontier on the vast plains of Inner Asia. As a scholar of Central Asia, I was drawn to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance Uzbek commander whose exploits eerily mimicked those of his Turkic and Mongol ancestors. As I read over the ancient texts telling of the nomadic battles for control of the shrine of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, I was stunned by their similarity to Dostum's 2001 defeat of the Taliban. While the locals told me this was no coincidence but the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, I was skeptical. And this scholarly skepticism had driven me across the planet to uncover the real reasons for the locals' belief that the Talibans' overthrow had been foretold in the sixteenth century.
Lost in the jumbled recollections of my long journey from Boston to the capital, Kabul, and over the Hindu Kush mountains to Mazar-e-Sharif, I was startled when my driver announced in Uzbek, "Prepare yourself, khoja [teacher], we've arrived. The general is waiting to see you."
With those words I understood that perhaps the most dangerous stage of my journey to understand Afghanistan and its mysteries was about to begin. It was now time to meet a man who had been described as "one of the best equipped and armed warlords, ever."
Breathing deeply, I dispelled from my mind the images of war correspondents who had been killed for probing too deeply into Afghanistan's secrets, and stepped out of the truck and into the blazing sun. A cloud of fine sand instantly enveloped me as I followed my gun-toting companions across a dusty street to the general's headquarters. As usual, my Uzbek guards seemed to be completely unfazed by the heat, wind, and sand. But I was an American scholar, not a hardened Afghan fighter, and these annoyances were beginning to get to me. Blinking as I cleared a mixture of sweat and sand from my eyes, I hid my envy of my travel companions as I took in the sight of General Dostum's nondescript compound.
At first glance it appeared to be like any other faceless edifice in the sprawling maze of Mazar-e-Sharif, but for one menacing detail. Unlike the neighboring bullet-pocked mansions, this one had dozens of soldiers planted before its entrance. As we drew near the compound, several of them stared at me curiously while I tried to make out what they were saying about me in their Turkic-Mongol Uzbek tongue.
To them I was obviously a kelgindi, a foreigner, one of that strange breed of scruffy-bearded Westerners who had descended on their land to help them fight their Taliban oppressors after 9/11. Or perhaps I was an aid worker or a war correspondent from some exotic country they could never imagine.
For me the Uzbek soldiers were yet another example of the strange contradictions that had come to define Afghanistan. They were all armed with Russian weaponry — AK-47s, a couple of heavy PK machine guns, and enough rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to start a small war — but clad in what appeared to be standard-issue US Army uniforms.
The soldiers' Russian weaponry was not what struck me as odd. As a professor specializing in terrorism and ethnic violence in Central Eurasia, I had encountered similarly armed gunmen from Kosovo to Kazakhstan. The ubiquitous Automatic Kalashnikov 47 in particular seemed to be de rigueur for the insurgents, thugs, paramilitaries, and child soldiers I had run into in other war zones in the region. But Turko-Mongol militiamen dressed like camouflaged GI Joes? That was something one didn't see every day.
The US military had airlifted thousands of uniforms to the Northern Alliance Uzbek fighters in the opening days of 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom. Central Command's aim had been to provide these poorly clothed anti-Taliban tribal warriors with uniforms that would instill in them a sense of esprit de corps. The Pentagon hoped that the green-and-black fatigues would help the Uzbeks feel and act like a bona fide army.
And not just any army — the Americans wanted the Northern Alliance Uzbeks to know that they were part of the US-led coalition to eradicate the terrorists who had just attacked the US mainland on 9/11. The uniforms proclaimed that the Uzbeks, who had a score of their own to settle with the Taliban, had the full backing of the US government in prosecuting their proxy war.
While some skeptics had ridiculed what they considered the Pentagon's unrealistic hopes for a group of ragtag Northern Alliance opposition fighters against the Taliban, others felt they had real potential. After years of neglect and isolation by the West, Dostum's Uzbek rebels were chomping at the bit to go after their hereditary enemies, the Pashtun Taliban. Now they had the full support of a vengeful global superpower that had just awoken to the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan.
According to the US Special Forces Green Berets who subsequently fought alongside them, the Uzbeks' camouflage uniforms seemed to have done the trick. Proudly wearing their green camos (which, incidentally, were of zero value in blending into Afghanistan's uniformly brown terrain), they had ridden off to war much as their nomadic ancestors had, vowing to avenge themselves on their Taliban enemies.
But as the Uzbek cavalry charged into battle, many predicted catastrophe. Fighters on horseback had no place on the modern battlefield, some argued. The brave Uzbek riders would be massacred by the Talibans' modern firepower just as the Polish lancers had been in World War II when they had foolishly charged the Nazis' tanks. Despite all the romanticism associated with horse-mounted warfare, the era of equestrian warriors had come to an inglorious end with the advent of machine guns and mechanized armor.
But in what has to be one of the greatest upsets in modern military history, the Uzbek descendants of Genghis Khan proved the doubters wrong. In one of the most decisive campaigns of the entire war on terror, the hardy Uzbeks cut their way through one Taliban defensive line after another. Galloping through the smoke of supporting American satellite-guided bombs delivered by B-52s, they charged the Taliban's tanks, firing armor-piercing RPGs and Kalashnikovs from the hip. It was said to have been pure Hollywood: Uzbek riders swerving to avoid incoming tank rounds, blowing up tanks with RPGs, and clambering onto Taliban armor to place explosive charges.
Once they had gathered their momentum, they were unstoppable — and Dostum's Uzbeks had not relented until they had liberated the holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif and brought the Taliban house of cards crashing down in a matter of weeks. The US "invasion" of Afghanistan was over before Christmas and long before most US troops could be mobilized. That minor miracle begged one question: how had no more than two thousand lightly armed horsemen and a few dozen US troops defeated a Taliban force of as many as ten thousand men armed and equipped with better weapons and bolstered by fanatical al-Qaeda fighters?
The Uzbeks offered a simple answer that was classic Afghan in its self-obviousness and mixture of ancient and new. In addition to US close air support, they claimed that they had received the divine protection of malaks (angels) sent from the shrine of Mazar-e-Sharif to fight alongside them. Their seemingly suicidal charge had been prophesized centuries earlier by Sufi mystics. Their actions were part of a grand design that had been set in place long ago at a legendary battle between good and evil known as Kul-i-Malik (The Lake of the King).
More grounded (or perhaps more cynical) voices pointed out that the Uzbeks also had the support of a twelve-man US Special Forces A-Team code-named Tiger 02. This American Green Beret team and several US Air Force close air support combat controllers had called the fury of joint-direct-attack-ammunition bombs down from bombers and onto the Taliban as the Uzbeks charged them. If there were any heavenly beings operating in the Afghan theater of operation, they came in the form of lumbering B-52 bombers, not sword-bearing angels.
Regardless of who protected them, angels or US bombers, one thing was clear. The Uzbeks' assault was the most historic cavalry action since the fateful charge of Queen Victoria's nineteenth-century Light Brigade. But far from being gunned down like their doomed British counterparts, Dostum's Uzbek horsemen had emerged victorious and changed the course of history. In so doing, they had turned military doctrine on its head.
It should also be noted that the Uzbeks and their Special Forces comrades-in-arms delivered a much-needed victory to millions of grieving Americans. In light of the dejected mood in post-9/11 America, the Battle of Mazar became an instant sensation back home in the United States. When the classified photographs of a horse-mounted American Special Forces combat controller named Bart Decker and allied Uzbeks were beamed back to Washington, one stateside analyst forwarded them to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld promptly declassified them and displayed them to the US press corps.
Not to be outdone by his boss, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz publicly read a declassified after-action report from a Green Beret Tiger 02 Special Forces commander named Mark Nutsch, who rode with the Uzbeks. This colorful report was to become the most memorable eyewitness account of the entire proxy war in Afghanistan. It read as follows:
I am advising a man on how to best employ light infantry and horse cavalry in the attack against Taliban T-55s (tanks) and mortars, artillery, personnel carriers and machine guns — a tactic which I think became outdated with the introduction of the Gatling (machine) gun. (The Mujahadeen) have done this every day we have been on the ground. They have attacked with 10-round AKs per man, with PK gunners having less than 100 rounds, little water and less food. I have observed a PK gunner who walked 10-plus miles to get to the fight, who was proud to show me his artificial right leg from the knee down.
We have witnessed the horse cavalry bounding over watch from spur to spur to attack Taliban strong points — the last several kilometers under mortar, artillery and PK fire. There is little medical care if injured, only a donkey ride to the aid station, which is a dirt hut. I think (the Uzbek Mujahadeen) are doing very well with what they have. They have killed over 125 Taliban while losing only eight.
We couldn't do what we are (doing) without the close air support. Everywhere I go the civilians and Mujahadeen soldiers are always telling me they are glad the USA has come. They all speak of their hopes for a better Afghanistan once the Taliban are gone. Better go. (The local commander, Dostum) is finishing his phone call with (someone back in the States).
Wolfowitz obviously appreciated the irony of the fact that the first victory in "the first war of the twenty-first century" had been won by horse-mounted Special Forces riding alongside Central Asian "tribesmen" seemingly from the Middle Ages.
However, in the media frenzy that followed the subsequent "conquest" of the Texas-sized land of Afghanistan by no more than 350 US special operators (there was no Iraq-style mass US invasion of Afghanistan), the role of the indigenous Uzbeks was soon forgotten. Downplaying the Northern Alliance Uzbeks' contribution, CENTCOM (US Central Command) Commander General Tommy Franks, was to proclaim:
Tiger 02, the Special Forces team supporting General Abdul Rashid Dostum — led by a young captain, a seasoned master sergeant, and a lanky sergeant first class, whose noms de guerre were Mark, Paul, and Mike — fought one of the most tactically skillful and courageous small-unit actions in American military history. Facing determined enemy resistance, terrible weather, and mounting casualties among their indigenous troops, these Green Berets used maneuver and air power to destroy an army the Soviets had failed to dislodge with more than half a million men.
This sort of reporting tended to overlook the decisive military role of the indigenous Uzbek ground forces, whom Tommy Franks acknowledged took "mounting casualties."
Off record, however, one US Defense official admitted that without the help of Dostum's Northern Alliance Uzbeks, "I'm not sure where we'd be." As this sort of low-key report suggests, the Uzbeks were more than just the exotic backdrop for American heroism; they had provided the United States with the surrogate fighting force desperately needed to mop up the Taliban on the ground.
Recalling the Afghan campaign a year and a half after the event, it occurred to me that it had actually been more than just an inspiration for the subsequent "light" invasion of Iraq by fewer troops than many wanted. It had also been the ultimate Afghan-style juxtaposition: illiterate Uzbek horsemen mounted on sixty-dollar horses, coordinating their cavalry charges with state-of-the-art US bombers flying from distant aircraft carriers. The extraordinary turn of events defined this people's casual habitation of worlds both ancient and modern.
But the Afghans themselves did not blink an eye over the whole affair. No one in Afghanistan — not even the Uzbeks' legendary commander, General Dostum — found the confluence of Medieval-style cavalry tactics and satellite -guided ammunition to be at all odd. Dostum's riders had simply considered the American Special Forces to be vengeful malaks sent by Allah to rain his vengeance down on the Taliban.
What had struck General Dostum as strange was the fact that he and his men had not been properly thanked by their coalition partners when the campaign was over. Their crucial role in providing the ground force that helped deprive al-Qaeda of its sanctuary went largely unrecognized by their American allies.
Excerpted from The Last Warlord by Brian Glyn Williams. Copyright © 2013 Brian Glyn Williams. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of ContentsMaps
1 The Warlord of Mazar
2 How to Meet a Warlord
3 The Approaching Storm
5 The Last Line of Defense
6 The Evil Comes to America
7 The Search for a Plan
8 Khoja Doko Village, 1954
9 The First Battles
10 The Soldier
11 The Traitor
14 The Warlord
15 The Coup
17 The Americans
18 The Offensive Begins
19 Interview with a Warlord