In recent weeks the name Hamid Karzai, current President of Afghanistan, has been much in the news. He has been seen by many as the principal beneficiary of an allegedly stolen election spawned by four years of a politically corrupt regime. Whatever the truth of that charge, Karzai's opponent has withdrawn from the runoff election and the President will serve a second term.
It's unfortunate that Karzai's presidency has been dogged by constant charges of corruption and ineptitude because more than anyone else he has become the face of Twenty-First Century Afghanistan—thanks largely to the courage and sacrifices of a United States Army Green Beret detachment. Eric Blehm tells the story in his riveting new book, The Only Thing Worth Dying For.
Prior to the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, few Americans knew much about Afghanistan, aptly called "the graveyard of empires." No nation had ever conquered the tribally dominated, geographically harsh, largely medieval country. Not the British, with superior arms in the Nineteenth Century; not the Soviet Union with its murderous firepower in the Twentieth.
Following the Soviets' ignominious departure from Afghanistan (the last soldier left in February 1989), a civil war erupted between factions of the Mujahideen, who had been fighting a common enemy. Hundreds of thousands more died.
Out of this chaos the Taliban movement emerged, bringing some stability to Afghanistan's southern provinces. But eventually, along with that stability came intolerant, religiously driven, murderous Islamism.
Blehm writes: "At first Karzai believed the Taliban leadership to be honest and honorable, but by 1996 he began to notice that their priority was shifting from Afghanistan's welfare to maintaining political power. He suspected that Taliban policy was being heavily influenced by Pakistan and by Arab terrorist groups—including Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network—that were permitted to operate freely [and train fighters] in Afghanistan. Karzai also became increasingly wary of the Taliban's fanatical interpretation of Islam."
So Karzai expatriated himself, moving to Pakistan. He traveled the world to expose what was happening in, and to, Afghanistan. Few listened to his warnings. No one acted on them.
Then came September 11, 2001, when the world was awakened by the explosion of terrorist hatred for the West.
Almost immediately, two events occurred which would soon coalesce and contribute to profoundly changing Afghanistan, the United States, and the world. Karzai, apparently with the blessing of, but not much help from, the CIA, left Pakistan to foment an insurrection in southern Afghanistan with his Pashtun tribe serving as the core. And Special Operations Command in Florida began planning for unconventional warfare in Afghanistan.
Less than a month after September 11, Central Command's General Tommy Franks authorized an American military alliance with the Afghan "Northern Command," which was already fighting the Taliban.
As to southern Afghanistan, the United States had no assets there. As Blehm writes: "While the CIA had nurtured a few friendly relationships within the Northern Alliance over the years, the Agency had failed to recruit any effective operatives within the enemy ranks of the Taliban in the south. [CIA Director] George Tenet was [emphasis in original] familiar with two Afghans, Hamid Karzai and Abdul Haq, Pashtuns who had been exiled by the Taliban and who felt there were sufficient gaps in the Taliban armor—and enough popular resentment in the south—to initiate an insurrection."
But that wasn't enough for the timid Director Tenet. According to Blehm, sparking an insurrection in the south was "considered so dangerous by Tenet and the CIA that he was not willing to put Americans on the ground with [Karzai and Haq].
The Army, however, was.
A Special Forces A-Team "would link up with Karzai, help organize and train his guerillas, provide them with weapons and other supplies, and take them to war." They would liberate southern provinces, and its largest city, Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban.
Easier said than done.
Blehm writes: "Unable to establish effective contacts inside the Pashtun tribal belt ... the CIA had focused almost exclusively on the Northern Alliance. Now, out of desperation, the Agency had essentially procured a warm Pashtun body and was passing him off to the Green Berets to create a revolution from scratch. For the first time, [detachment commander Captain Jason Amerine] fully understood the magnitude of his mission: There was no master plan for Afghanistan. The entire military campaign for the southern half of the country had to be shaped by the first Americans to infiltrate the region—he and his fellow Green Berets from 5th Special Forces Group."
And shape it they did.
Blehm's story, told mostly chronologically, recounts how an A-Team detachment of United States Army Special Forces was instrumental in helping safeguard Hamid Karzi, while leading the future President and his Afghan guerillas to the gates of Kandahar—the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban's spiritual home.
To tell his story, the author employs a large cast.
In Afghanistan, there was the A-Team, CIA and Delta Force covert operators, Marines, Karzai and his entourage, tribal leaders, warlords, Afghan guerillas, Taliban fighters, and innocent and not-so-innocent civilians.
In the air, there were various assets: fighters, helicopters, refuelers, cargo aircraft—and in space, satellites.
In Pakistan, there were support echelons, and standby combat troops.
In the United States there were Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Director Tenet, General Franks, and assorted personnel from the various uniformed services and "Spookville."
And the detachment's loved ones.
Yet Blehm seamlessly directs everyone's movements and interactions, creating a vivid picture of that brief moment in an isolated corner of what has become a nearly decade-old war.
In doing so, he dramatizes Captain Amerine's life-or-death judgment calls, his West Point-imbued leadership skills and sagacity in dealing with his detachment, Afghan guerillas and also with Hamid Karzai. He describes with compassion life and death in combat for Americans and Afghans alike.
There is much more of value in The Only Thing Worth Dying For: the well-crafted portraits of ranking Army bureaucrats, who served best by getting out of Captain Amerine's way; the exposure of the Marine general who refused to evacuate wounded Americans and their Afghan allies until the other services took the initiative; the desperate dependency on air power; the bizarre and frustrating Afghan politics; the tribal structure and other cultural differences, which often impeded the mission. And much more.
In its story of American Green Berets and their heroic unconventional warfare in the early days of the Afghanistan War, The Only Thing Worth Dying For reads like a great war novel. But because the story is true, in the end Blehm's book is a testament to the vision of Hamid Karzai and the dedication to mission of courageous Americans, some of whom did not make it home.
In the end, Eric Blehm makes a strong case that the Green Berets in that forsaken corner of Afghanistan did, each for himself, find something worth dying for.