On the morning of November 4, 2001, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord of the Uzbek contingent of Northern Alliance fighters surging forth against the Taliban in Afghanistan, was eavesdropping on his CIA adviser as the American radioed in an air strike. Dostum was astounded to discover that the pilot of the overhead US Navy F/A-18 Hornet was a woman.
Disbelieving, the Afghan demanded that the pilot recite some poetry. When she responded courteously, “I don’t know any f***ing poetry,” he urged her to sing a song. The naval officer in the cockpit responded with a tuneless rendering of Anchors Aweigh. This caused the CIA agent, David Tyson, to mutter fervently that he hoped she was a better pilot than songstress.
The rendering nonetheless achieved its purpose. Dostum then addressed across the airwaves the local Taliban commander, who had been incited to listen in. “Commander Mahmoud,” he said. “You are stupid and don’t speak English, so I will translate. ‘I am going to f*** you up’, she is telling you. ‘I am going to drop my bombs on top of your men. They are so weak and have such tiny dicks that even a woman can kill them.’”
The rest is history. The motley host of Northern Alliance fighters, supported by US airstrikes, stormed across Afghanistan as the Taliban fled and surrendered before them, until they entered Kabul on November 12, inaugurating a new era of prosperity and peace.
Except, of course, that they did nothing of the sort. Western forces found themselves fighting for 20 years, until on April 14, 2021, President Biden announced that it was time to quit.
In these pages, however, war reporter Toby Harnden tells a story from the days when the world, or rather the struggle, was young and full of hope. He has secured a coup by persuading the CIA to give him access to its paramilitaries who were dropped into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, to depose the Taliban and destroy the Afghan al-Qaeda bases, under the orders of Langley chieftains with implausible names such as Cofer Black and Hank Crumpton.
The brief from their president was concise. When the State Department suggested diplomatic overtures to the Taliban, George W Bush responded eloquently: “F*** Diplomacy! We’re going to war!”
Thus small CIA and US special forces teams found themselves lifted into northern Afghanistan in a Black Hawk helicopter with a line from the movie The Untouchables stenciled on its side: “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
They were laden with weapons and a large green sack containing $3 million in $100 bills. David Tyson found that the serial number of his 9mm Browning pistol ended in 007, a running joke among his CIA comrades back in Uzbekistan.
They landed at 2am on October 17, and four days later met Dostum, who arrived at their rendezvous riding his famous white charger, Surkun, escorted by 50 horsemen. “The scene reminded David of Genghis Khan, the 1965 movie in which Omar Sharif plays the legendary Mongol emperor … Battle tactics had not changed much in the intervening 800 years.”
Toby Harnden has secured a coup by persuading the CIA to give him access to its paramilitaries who were dropped into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.
Harden tells a gripping, perversely old-fashioned cowboy story: for the first weeks, the hapless CIA men were obliged to ride horses everywhere, sometimes spending up to 12 hours a day in the saddle. The fate of the wounded is not for the squeamish: a CIA paramedic performed amputations under radioed directions from a military surgeon in Germany.
A further running theme is the feud between the spooks and the US army’s Green Berets, who received far more medals and publicity for their role than the CIA believes they deserved.
Although air power played a critical role in the Taliban’s 2001 defeat, strikes often went horribly wrong, with B-52s bombing from an altitude of 20,000ft and missing targets by up to two miles. Supply drops, also from absurd altitudes, often went adrift. A CIA man saw an irritable Northern Alliance fighter shoot an elderly peasant whom he caught ransacking a parachuted container.
The centerpiece of the book is a detailed account of the days-long battle around an old fort at Qala-i-Jangi in which more than 400 supposedly surrendered al-Qaeda fighters rose in revolt on November 25, seized back their weapons and fought to the death against the CIA’s men (one of whom they killed), the Northern Alliance, special forces, and a UK Special Boat Service (SBS) team that happened to be passing by.
A senior US officer expressed skepticism about SBS authority to join in, for which the British cited the Queen. The American answered: “She’s back in f***ing Buckingham Palace, and we’re here.” The battle became a murderous, messy business, with more botched air strikes and no mercy shown on either side, but the al-Qaeda fighters were finally wiped out.
The Americans were dismayed to find among the survivors a young white man, belatedly identified as 20-year-old American John Walker Lindh, a misfit who had enlisted as a jihadi. He was released from a federal penitentiary only in 2019.
A gripping, perversely old-fashioned cowboy story.
This is a terrific action narrative, compromised as history by its dependence on the CIA version of events, and a surfeit of adjectives and four-letter words. Harnden has forgone analysis of what went right and wrong in those days of 2001, and especially of the unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden, the original objective of the US intervention.
David Tyson, one of the principal CIA actors, characterizes Biden’s decision to quit Afghanistan as a “shameful” abandonment of the country’s people. Yet the message from modern Western interventions is that it is far easier to topple a regime than to build a polity to replace it. Killing bad guys — and the Taliban were certainly that — is the easy part.
The spooks who descended on Afghanistan in October 2001 obviously had the time of their lives. But President Bush’s recklessly ill-defined “war on terror” was a terrible idea, and this was a prominent part of it.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph