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Award-winning author Toby Harnden has crafted an incredible story of the first Americans to enter Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. His book, “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA to Avenge 9/11,” was initially slated to be released on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. involvement. Still, during his detailed 17-month research into putting this book together, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban returned to power once again. 

Harnden was granted some incredible access to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) employees, some of whom are still in government service. All of their stories and remembrances make for compelling reading. But as Harnden said, sometimes the best stories are the true ones. And this one is fantastic. 

 

The Plan

The story begins on 9/11 when the members of al-Qaeda hijacked the planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the one aircraft that was crashed into rural Pennsylvania. America is shocked and on its heels, reeling after ignoring some intelligence reports that the terrorists intended to bring death to America. Signals and intelligence were missed or not shared. 

President Bush convened his National Security Council on September 13, and the Pentagon revealed that they had no war plan for Afghanistan. CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks told the president it would take months to build up enough conventional troops for an invasion. CIA Director George Tenet turned the meeting over Cofer Black, an experienced Agency hand who had spent many years in Africa. The CIA’s plan was to infiltrate small numbers of Agency linguists and paramilitary officers along with some Green Beret A-Teams (ODAs) into Afghanistan to link up with the Afghan resistance, warlords from the Northern Alliance. Black sensed that President Bush wanted his pound of flesh. 

“When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,” he said. 

The President pondered for several seconds before asking, “Cofer, can we really do this?” Black stared back at the President for several seconds for theatric effect and said there wasn’t a doubt in his mind at all. Bush responded with, “That’s what I’m talking about. Go get ’em.” 

And in the early days of the war, the successful ones, the CIA, would run the war effort. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seethed over this. He later dragged his feet over any assistance until the military took over the war, pushed thousands of troops into the country in a mission completely opposite of what had worked, and ultimately turned the effort into a “goat rope.” 

For an avid reader of all things OSS/SOE from World War II, the mission was a throwback and a fantastic legacy of those who paved the way for the organizations that became the CIA and Special Forces. 

 

The Team

Team Alpha, David Tyson, and Mike Spann (top row far right). Photo courtesy of Toby Harnden

The book centers around “Team Alpha,” an eclectic group of Agency employees who entered Afghanistan on October 17, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Much of the book centers around CIA agents David Tyson and Mike Spann. They joined Northern Alliance warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who in a SOFREP podcast said the warlord was “straight out of central casting.” 

Dostum was known as a thug. A brutal, bloodthirsty type whose own men were terrified of him. But, he was also quite shrewd. He could adapt to situations at the drop of a hat, like anyone who had survived the bloody politics of Afghanistan for so long could. 

Tyson was an Uzbek linguist, which was invaluable as he had the ability to communicate easily with the Northern Alliance. The key to taking the country was taking the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. A precursor to the fall of Kandahar, Kabul, and the collapse of the Taliban government that occurred on Nov. 17, 2001.

The CIA/Green Beret team had built a great rapport with Dostum in a very condensed period of time. Much faster than is preached at “Robin Sage,” the SF UW exercise that every SF NCO and Officer must pass. The commander of the A-Team, Captain Mark Nutsch of the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG), and Tyson built a great relationship of trust with Dostum. 

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Dostum (white horse) with Northern Alliance fighters and U.S. troops. Photo courtesy of Toby Harnden

 

The Fortress

Rumsfeld was still trying to convince President Bush that all of the CIA’s efforts were stalled. But once Mazar-I-Sharif fell, he insisted that the war couldn’t be won with just Captains and Sergeants and started sending Colonels and Generals, who Harnden says were not needed nor appreciated. Dostum was told in short order that instead of Nutsch, he’d now deal with Nutsch’s battalion commander LTC Bowers. He, in turn, would be replaced with a two-star, Rear Admiral Bert Calland, the SOCCENT commander. 

The Green Berets were pulled out from Team Alpha, and the military was pushing in green troops with no clue as to what was still going on. Before the country was even taken from the Taliban, the Pentagon was focused on stability operations. 

Mike Spann and David Tyson find “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh in the throng of al-Qaeda prisoners at Qala-i-Jangi. Photo courtesy of Toby Harnden

During this time, Tyson and Mike Spann headed to the Qala-i-Jangi fortress outside Mazar-i-Sharif to interrogate hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters, who had supposedly surrendered, including U.S. citizen John Walker Lindh. But the al-Qaeda fighters had smuggled weapons, grenades, and suicide vests into the fortress. 

They then started a violent uprising while Spann was interviewing a prisoner with dozens around him. As they rushed him, Spann killed numerous al-Qaeda fighters before being hit from behind. The prisoners then overwhelmed Spann before killing him with a pistol. Tyson attempted to get to his friend, but the sheer numbers of prisoners rushing him prevented that, despite the fact that he killed perhaps dozens. 

Tyson made it a temporary safe spot in the compound with German journalists. Other American CIA, Green Berets, conventional troops, and a small contingent of British SBS (Special Boat Service, Britain’s equivalent to Navy SEALs) began an effort to rescue Tyson and Spann (who was considered missing) from the fort. The amount of detail and the personal accounts of the men who fought at Qala-i-Jangi is some riveting reading. 

 

The Break Down

Harnden’s book is a fantastic read as he interviewed nearly all of the major players in the early, heady days of the Afghanistan invasion before the Pentagon and State Department turned it into a nation-building sh** show and tried to build a country based on our own model that would never work in Afghanistan. 

Dostum, the pivotal warlord who was instrumental in the success, was pushed to the side and quickly ostracized by the government, especially the State Department. Harnden traveled to Afghanistan a year ago to interview the former warlord who was blocked from visiting the U.S.

“I was the one who fought against and defeated the Taliban in 2001,” Dostum said. “My soldiers were killed and wounded, but I was left behind and received nothing. If the Americans had listened to me, they would now have the upper hand on the battlefield and at the negotiation table.” 

“I have no issue with CIA,” he says. “They never let me down. But US diplomats have not allowed me to act against the Taliban.” 

 

The Page-Turner

If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the reader in the household or want to spend hours on end curled up in a chair with a great book, then pick up “First Casualty.” It is extremely well-written, meticulously researched, and an absolute page-turner. 

It was a story that needed to be told, which is why the CIA was so helpful with Harnden in arranging for nearly all of the involved people to be interviewed. It is a story about personal sacrifice and incredible bravery and resourcefulness. But most of all, it is a story about “what could have been,” but like what occurred in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, to quote Charlie Wilson, “we f***ed up the end game.” 

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