True Story of 12 Strong: The Horse Soldiers
Almost immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, a team of CIA paramilitary officers and US Army Green Berets Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) were sent to Afghanistan to aid unconventional warfare against Taliban forces. The event marked the beginning of seventeen years and counting of involvement in the country.
Codenamed Task Force Dagger, the mission was simple enough: Join with Northern Alliance fighters and oust the Taliban from power. But there was one major problem: Afghanistan’s rugged terrain meant the team would have to ride on horseback. The story has been made into a film starring Chris Hemsworth. But how true to events is the film? We take a look at the True Story of 12 Strong: The Horse Soldiers.
ODA 595 & Task Force Dagger
Following the attacks of 9/11, Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) was one of three teams of Special Forces soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan. Initially, their mission was one of personnel recovery, with ODA 595 tasked with rescuing any pilots that were shot down during the inevitable combat in Afghanistan.
However, the goal quickly changed, and ODA 595 were instructed to work with rebel Afghan forces to destroy the Taliban regime in a mission codenamed ‘Task Force Daggers’.
The mission was led by Green Beret Captain Mark Nutsch (in the film referred to as Mitch Nelson and played by Chris Hemsworth), and would result in Special Forces involved in ground combat operations in northern Afghanistan, hundreds of miles behind Taliban lines.
General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance
Mark Nutsch and his ODA 595 team were flown across the Hindu Kush mountains on the 20th of October and inserted in the Dari-a-Souf Valley. There they linked up with the CIA and a man known as General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum was the commander of the largest and most powerful Northern Alliance faction, a rebel group who wanted to overthrow the Taliban and Al-Queda occupation of the country.
At the time, General Dostum did have a reputation for violence and turning on allies during battle. But the US Armed Forces were thin on the ground, and were potentially facing around 50,000 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Dostum had around 200 paid Afghan soldiers under his command, as well as a vast amount of part-time militia. The US Forces therefore had no real option but to trust him.
’The Horse Soldiers’
Dostum proved to be a key ally in the early days of the Afghanistan war and beyond. But the ground assault was more challenging than ODA 595 had first thought. Not only were they greatly outnumbered and out-gunned, they also had difficulty navigating the mountainous terrain with transportation a real issue. Early Special Forces operators therefore made the decision to move on horseback in order to keep up with the Northern Alliance, gaining the nickname of ‘The Horse Soldiers’.
Very few of the US personnel were actually accomplished horses riders, so Nutsch, who had worked on a cattle ranch when he was younger, taught many of his other team members how to ride. Virtually all of the men found the traditional Afghan wooden saddles extremely uncomfortable. An urgent request was therefore made and leather saddles were quickly air dropped to the ODA 595 team.
Battle of Mazar-e-Sharif
ODA 595 was quickly split into two units, Alpha and Bravo, with the former accompanying General Dostrum and the Northern Alliance towards the Taliban-occupied city of Mazar-e-Sharif, while the latter focused on Taliban positions across the nearby Dari-a-Souf Valley.
A further Special Forces team, ODA 534, soon linked up with ODA 595 and Gen Dostrum outside Mazar-e-Sharif, where a coordinated US airstrike coincided with a ground attack consisting of Northern Alliance foot soldiers, cavalry and armoured units. The Horse Soldiers and the Northern Alliance liberated Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, in just three weeks.
Interestingly, one Taliban member captured during the Battle of Mazar-e-Sharif was American-born John Walker Lindh.
Following the Battle of Mazar-e-Sharif, American and Afghan forces further liberated Afghanistan, winning back the cities of Kabul in the east, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, and Jalalabad. This resulted in the Taliban and Al Qaeda fleeing to Pakistan and the mountains of Tora Bora. The US-led coalition followed in pursuit.
No member of the 12-strong Operational Detachment Alpha 595 Special Forces died during the 2001 Afghanistan mission. The Horse Soldiers’ legacy was commemorated in New York City in 2012 in the form of a statue, which is on display across from Ground Zero.
Abdul Rashid Dostum is currently the Vice President of Afghanistan.
12 Strong Film (2017)
The story of ‘The Horse Soldiers’ is set to be told in a new film starring Chris Hemsworth as Mitch Nelson, a character based on Mark Nutsch. Based on the 2009 Doug Stanton novel, ‘Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan’, 12 Strong will also star Michael Shannon and Michael Peña as member of the ODA 595 team, as well as Elsa Pataky, who will play the wife of Mitch Nelson opposite her real-life husband, Chris Hemsworth.
Only two characters in 12 Strong will have the same names as their real-life Green Beret counterparts; commanding officers, John Mulholland and Max Bowers. There are various suggested explanations for this, with the most likely being to protect the identity of team members.
12 Strong is set for release in the UK on 26th January 2018.
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