Transforming the Military

RIDING INTO THE FUTURE

Just before Christmas last year, I traveled to Afghanistan and the neighboring countries, where I had the opportunity to spend time with American troops in the field. Among the many I met was an extraordinary group of men: the special forces who had been involved in the attack on Mazar-i-Sharif.

From the moment they landed in Afghanistan, these troops began adapting to the circumstances on the ground. They sported beards and traditional scarves and rode horses trained to run into machine gun fire. They used pack mules to transport equipment across some of the roughest terrain in the world, riding at night, in darkness, near minefields and along narrow mountain trails with drops so sheer that, as one soldier put it, "it took me a week to ease the death-grip on my horse." Many had never been on horseback before.

As they linked up and trained with anti-Taliban forces, they learned from their new allies about the realities of war on Afghan soil and assisted them with weapons, food, supplies, tactics, and training. And they planned the assault on Mazar-i-Sharif.

On the appointed day, one of the special forces teams slipped in and hid well behind enemy lines, ready to call in the air strikes. The bomb blasts would be the signal for the others to charge. When the moment came, they signaled their targets to coalition aircraft and looked at their watches. "Two minutes." "Thirty seconds." "Fifteen seconds." Then, out of nowhere, a hail of precision-guided bombs began to land on Taliban and al Qaeda positions. The explosions were deafening, and the timing so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen emerged, literally, out of the smoke, riding down on the enemy through clouds of dust and flying shrapnel. A few of these Afghans carried rocket-propelled grenades; some had fewer than ten rounds of ammunition in their guns, but they rode boldly -- Afghans and Americans together -- into tank, mortar, artillery, and sniper fire.

It was the first U.S. cavalry attack of the twenty-first century.

After the battle, one U.S. soldier described how an Afghan fighter motioned for him come over and began to pull up the leg of his pants. "I thought he was going to show me a wound," he said. Instead, the fighter showed him a prosthetic limb -- he had ridden into battle with only one good leg.

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