Afghan War Eyewitness on Warlords, Future, More

Robert Young Pelton
for National Geographic News
and National Geographic Adventure Magazine
February 15, 2002

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Robert Young Pelton has traveled around the world visiting war zones and meeting rebel leaders.

He returned from Afghanistan in December after spending a month traveling with the U.S. Special Forces, and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former commander in the Northern Alliance and deputy defense minister in the interim government.

Pelton discussed his experiences and impressions of what's happening on the ground in that war-torn country with National Geographic News.

U.S. Forces who have been trained in modern warfare and the use of sophisticated targeting equipment are fighting a different kind of war in Afghanistan. Have the soldiers talked to you about adjusting to mounted warfare?

When the [U.S. Special Forces] landed they had no idea they were about to be moved around on horseback. When we think of horses, we think of large animals with nice comfortable saddles. Basically, the troops rode horses the size of dogs with saddles made out of two pieces of wood with a piece of carpet on the top. They had had to go up and down hills and valleys and they suffered the medical consequences of doing that. So, it wasn't their favorite way of getting around, since they're used to helicopters and hiking.

But they could see why they were using horses, because the initial battles with the Taliban were against a mechanized force that controlled the roads. The U.S. forces moved to the other side of a large chasm in the Dar-i-suf valley on horseback, and the Taliban could not chase them using vehicles, but our troops were free to attack the Taliban anytime they wanted to. So horses are actually an ideal way to get around there. No manual has ever been written on how to coordinate horse attacks with B-52s, so the Green Berets had to do OJT [on-the-job training]. Early on, there was a cavalry charge with about 300 horses where they had cut it so fine that as soon as the bombs hit the ridge the horses were riding through the gray smoke; it was quite an impressive sight.

You spent quite a bit of time with the U.S. Special Forces; would you say they are a special breed?

Not really. The thing that strikes you about them is that they're very normal people who come from small towns and from poor backgrounds. Many of them are career soldiers between the ages of 25 to 35, and the type of warfare they are trained to conduct is not what we normally think of as warfare.

In Afghanistan they're actually working under the indigenous commanders, in this case, Dostum, who is the leader of the Jimbush party, a political party consisting primarily of ethnic Uzbek Afghans, and also Ismail Khan [former governor of the western provinces in Afghanistan and opponent of the Taliban] in the South, and other warlords. So the Special Forces weren't brought in to run the show, they were actually brought in to support each individual commander in their particular brand of warfare. That means they have to think fast, they have to work without any supplies, and they have to mold themselves to the manner of warfare that each particular Afghan commander uses.

But the idea of the Special Forces group, or the A-team—the "A" as in operational detachment alpha—is to be dropped in behind enemy lines to work with indigenous fighters to help them win the war, not win the war for them.

You traveled quite a bit with Dostum, and I imagine you had a chance to get to know him somewhat. He is now the deputy defense minister in the interim government lead by Hamid Karzi. Do you have any insight as to how he might feel being a deputy minister, which is not a full cabinet position?

Well you have to understand that Dostum, of all the warlords in Afghanistan—and warlord is a term that's only used by the media—was the only person who came from the North and was a career soldier in the Afghan army. He rose to the position of General, and he was the single most powerful military commander under President Mohammed Najibullah. He then shifted sides and joined the Mujahadin in the fight against the Russian-backed government. There's been a lot of negative press about Dostum, where they call him a butcher, and a brutal warlord, and so forth. That's because he doesn't talk to the media, and in light of recent events there is absolutely no interest among any of these commanders to have journalists hanging around all the time. Massoud [Ahmad Shah Massoud, legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, assassinated on September 9, 2001] was killed by two people posing as journalists.

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