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'12 Strong': When The Afghan War Looked Like A Quick, Stirring Victory

Jan 18, 2018
Originally published on January 19, 2018 7:06 am

When Army Capt. Mark Nutsch and 11 fellow Green Berets jumped off their helicopter into the swirling dust of northern Afghanistan in October 2001, their Afghan partner informed them they would be battling the Taliban — on horseback.

"In that situation, they're certainly not going to give you their very best horses," Nutsch said dryly.

Fortunately for Nutsch, this wasn't his first rodeo. Literally. He's from Kansas. He grew up on horses — and yes, competing in rodeos.

Not everyone had his experience. Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington, weighing in at 225 pounds, plus 50 pounds of gear, was given a small, cranky horse that was accustomed to much smaller Afghan riders.

"Oh my God. I crushed him. I mean, I absolutely crushed him," Pennington said of his steed. "He was so aggravated with me, he reached back several times to try to bite my leg. He did once. He basically tried to pull me off."

Many Americans may be weary of the war in Afghanistan. But the producer of 12 Strong, Jerry Bruckheimer, has been making military-themed blockbusters for decades (Top Gun, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor) and is betting big on this true story from the first days of the battle back in 2001.

The movie, which opens Friday, is based on the exploits of Nutsch, Pennington and other Green Berets dropped into Afghanistan barely a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Nutsch and Pennington are helping to promote the Warner Bros. film, based on the 2009 book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton.

The mission was unconventional warfare in the extreme.

A few tiny units, just a couple of hundred American troops and CIA operatives, linked up with Afghan rebels and coordinated with U.S. air power to take on the Taliban. At the time, the Taliban controlled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan and hosted Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

"You had basically 19th century warfare, horseback, mixed with 20th century weaponry, AK-47s, rocket launchers, with our 21st century technology, global positioning devices and satellite radio," Nutsch said of his operation. "So we just had to figure out how to blend all that together."

Their partner was a legendary — and notorious — Afghan warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum. He's been a key player in Afghanistan since the early 1990s, often accused of brutal tactics on the battlefield.

He has been a vice president since 2014, though he fled to Turkey last year amid yet another controversy.

But in 2001, he commanded one of the few forces that could confront the Taliban.

"We called them Afghan minutemen, walking or riding their horses from hundreds of miles away," Nutsch said. "We raised an army of over 2,500 horsemen and 500 infantry — 3,000 militia that our small team worked with."

Within weeks, they drove the Taliban out of Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest and most important city in the north. Soon, the Taliban fell like dominoes and lost every major city, including the capital Kabul.

It all appeared deceptively easy at the time.

But driving the Taliban out of Afghan cities was one thing; defeating them decisively and ending the war has proved maddeningly elusive.

The U.S. troop presence peaked at more than 100,000 in the early years of former President Barack Obama's administration, and a U.S. force of about 14,000 remains there today in a conflict widely regarded as a stalemate.

Still, the story of the horse soldiers remains a powerful tale. First came the book in 2009. And next to where the World Trade Center towers once stood in New York City, a statue of a soldier on a horse pays tribute to these fighters.

Nutsch can revel in his big-screen portrayal by the chiseled Chris Hemsworth, star of the Thor movies, even if his family isn't impressed.

"My kids think it's quite humorous that Chris Hemsworth is portraying me in this film," he said.

All this makes for a stirring, patriotic movie — as long as you conveniently end it around December 2001 and don't dwell on the grinding 16 years of warfare that have followed.

The film focuses entirely on this initial success. Nutsch and Pennington say the filmmakers got the spirit of those early days right.

But it is Hollywood. In the movie, Pennington is wounded for dramatic effect. In real life, he wasn't injured, though he still suffers back pain from all the horse riding.

Nutsch went back to Afghanistan several times: once to provide the military with a case study of his 2001 mission, and later as a civilian to assist schools and medical clinics in the northern part of the country.

Pennington went on to serve five tours in Iraq, part of a 30-year military career that included 14 deployments. None compares with the adrenaline rush of that first charge into Afghanistan, he said.

"We looked at this mission and thought, 'This is the Super Bowl, this is the World Series, the National Championship. Man, we can't wait to get in there," he recalled. "We looked it as, 'Hey, we could be here three to five months, three to five years, who knows.'"

Did he ever think the U.S. would still be fighting in Afghanistan today?

"No, no. Not at all. Not this long. We never thought we would be bogged down for this long a period," he said.

Both men have retired from the military, but are still partners. They're preparing to launch the American Freedom Distillery this spring in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Featured products include Horse Soldier Bourbon and T-shirts that read "Make Whiskey, Not War."

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It can be hard to remember back to the first days of the Afghan war now that it's entering its 17th year. A new movie about the early moments of the war, when victory seemed possible, is out today. It is called "12 Strong." It's the story of the dozen Green Berets dropped into Afghanistan barely a month after 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 STRONG")

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Captain Mitch Nelson) Chances are we aren't all going to make it out of this one.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre spoke with the actual soldiers who made it out.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When Army Capt. Mark Nutsch and his men jumped off their helicopter into the swirling dust of northern Afghanistan, their Afghan partner informed them they would be battling the Taliban on horseback.

MARK NUTSCH: In that situation, they're certainly not going to give you their very best horses.

MYRE: Fortunately for Nutsch, this wasn't his first rodeo, literally. He's from Kansas, grew up on horses and, yes, competing in rodeos. Then there's Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington, an inexperienced rider weighing in at 225, plus 50 pounds of gear, all atop a small cranky horse.

BOB PENNINGTON: Oh, my god. I crushed him. I mean, I absolutely crushed him. He was so aggravated with me. He reached back several times to try to bite my leg - he did once - and, basically, trying to pull me off.

MYRE: This early fighting, just a month after 9/11, was unconventional warfare in the extreme. A few tiny units - altogether just a couple hundred American troops and CIA operatives - linked up with Afghan rebels and coordinated with U.S. airpower to take on the Taliban. Nutsch explains.

NUTSCH: You had, basically, 19th century warfare horseback mixed with 20th century weaponry - AK-47 and rocket launchers - with our 21st century technology - global positioning devices and satellite radios. And so we just had to figure out how to blend all that together.

MYRE: "Horse Soldiers," a 2009 book by author Doug Stanton, is the basis for the movie. Next to where the World Trade Center towers once stood in New York there's now a statue of a soldier on horseback, a tribute to these fighters. And Nutsch can revel in his big screen portrayal by a chiseled Chris Hemsworth, star of the Thor movies.

NUTSCH: My kids think it's quite humorous that Chris Hemsworth is portraying me in this film.

MYRE: All this makes for a stirring patriotic movie as long as you conveniently end it in 2001 and don't dwell on the grinding years of warfare that have followed. Nutsch and Pennington are helping promote the Warner Brothers film which focuses entirely on the early success against the Taliban. They say the filmmakers got the spirit right, but it is Hollywood. In the movie, Pennington is wounded for dramatic effect. In real life, he wasn't injured. Though, he still suffers back pain from all the horse riding. He vividly remembers the adrenaline rush of that first charge into Afghanistan.

PENNINGTON: We looked at this mission and thought this is the Super Bowl. This is the World Series, the national championship. Man, we can't wait to get in there. And we looked at it as, hey, we could be here for three to five months, three to five years, who knows?

MYRE: That was more than 16 years ago. Did he ever think the U.S. would still be fighting in Afghanistan today?

PENNINGTON: No, no, not at all - not this long. We never thought that we would be bogged down for this long a period, to be honest with you.

MYRE: Pennington and Nutsch are both retired from the military. But they're still working together preparing to launch a distillery this spring in St. Petersburg, Fla. The featured products will include Horse Soldier bourbon and T-shirts that read, make whiskey, not war. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT GOES ON")

ZAC BROWN: (Singing) It goes on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.