First Casualty by Toby Harnden review: this is Afghanistan's Black Hawk Down

U.S. Soldier in Kandahar Province, 2010 - AFP / Getty Images
When CIA linguist David Tyson took up a post in Central Asia in 1998, his station chief gave him a prophetic warning. "The head office gives no S ---", growled "Fred", his world-weary boss. "But I want you to know about Afghanistan because s --- will happen there one day."
Three years later, Tyson, a former academic, found himself part of a joint CIA-Green Beret mission deployed in northern Afghanistan to lead America's response to the 9/11 attacks. His job was to work with the anti-Taliban militia of the ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, for which he, as the only Uzbek language specialist of the CIA, was ideally suited. What he was less prepared for was fighting off the al-Qaida mob that cornered him two months later during a jihadist mass uprising in Qala-i-Jangi prison in Dostum. "F ---, I've never shot that before," he thought, reaching for his new Browning pistol. "Do I know what to do with it?"
Despite his limited combat experience, Tyson managed to shoot his way out and kill up to 40 jihadists. However, his CIA colleague Mike Spann was surrounded and killed. This made Spann the first US victim in the war on terror. The Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, as the six-day prison shooting was called, marked America's first bitter foretaste of a new era of gloved-free combat.
Twenty years later, the story of Qala-i-Jangi was fully recreated by ex-Telegraph journalist Toby Harnden, whose new book First Casualty is a vivid depiction of the CIA's early Afghanistan campaign, worked with the agent himself. As the author of one acclaimed earlier book on Afghanistan - the Orwell Award-winning Dead Men Risen, on the Welsh Guard in Helmand - Harnden was well placed to convince the CIA to break their usual secrecy. But even if the agency wanted to put things right, Harden's book reminds us that their agents work in the moral gray areas - and nowhere more so than in places like northern Afghanistan.
Their local ally Dostum, for example, was as ruthless as his Taliban enemies, who were known to tie opponents to armored chains and crush them. He told the CIA that his tough guy was just one way to rally the troops, but even his chief executor, a brutal ex-wrestler named Abdul Sattar, was scared of him. Sattar himself shot an elderly villager for stealing from a supply store and threatened a horrified CIA medic when he tried to treat the man. In the brutalized world of the agency's new buddies, heart and mind were not a military strategy, but body parts to aim for in hand-to-hand combat. The CIA wasn't afraid of a shred, however, considering its early battles with the Taliban, which read like a version of the Imperial Great Game of the 21st century. While the CIA demanded laser-guided air strikes, Dostum's men on horseback stormed, waving knives.
Hell broke out in late November 2001 when Tyson's team attempted to interrogate some 400 al-Qaeda prisoners in Qala-i-Jangi, a fortress and prison in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum's men hadn't properly searched the prisoners. It turned out that they were armed with grenades, Kalashnikovs and mortars. What followed was a kind of inverted Alamo, in which the CIA men had to flee the fortress first, leaving their Green Beret comrades behind to keep the al-Qaeda prisoners inside. A US air strike went catastrophically wrong, and had it not been for a British SBS team fighting with belt-fed machine guns, the prison might have overrun and Al-Qaeda had a propaganda coup. In the end, 86 jihadists survived.
Both well-informed and panoramic, Harnden's report flits from the Afghan theater to the CIA headquarters in Langley and the homes of concerned military families. It is comparable to Mark Bowden's classic Black Hawk Down, which tells a similar story of US forces attacked in Mogadishu. After last month's disastrous withdrawal from Kabul, historians may view America's Afghanistan campaign as a cautionary example, as does the disastrous Somalia mission.
One reason Soldiers work with writers like Harnden is to remind the public that no matter what political failure, the courage of the local people should not be forgotten. In 2002 a marble plaque was unveiled in Qala-i-Jangi to commemorate Spann and his sacrifice for "freedom for Afghanistan and the United States." The badge is now back in the hands of the Taliban.
First Casualty is released by Welbeck for £ 18.99. To order your copy for £ 16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop
In this article:
Toby Harnden
British writer
David Tyson
Canadian record producer
Abdul Rashid Dostum
Afghan politician
Johnny Michael Spann
CIA agent

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