January 19, 2018
Not since “The Green Berets,” John Wayne’s 1968 cinematic valentine to America’s war in Vietnam, have the Army’s Special Forces seized Hollywood’s spotlight.
But that may change today with the release of “12 Strong” on 3,002 screens nationwide. Filmed in New Mexico last year, it’s battling for weekend box office supremacy with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and the crime caper flick “Den of Thieves.”
Based on the the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer,“12 Strong” reprises the tale of Task Force Dagger, a mix of CIA paramilitary agents and Army Green Berets from Operational Detachment Alpha 595 who shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks united with Northern Alliance leader Abdul Rashid Dostum to battle Taliban and Al Qaeda forces for control of Afghanistan.
Never numbering more than 300 men and featuring commandos often fighting on horseback alongside Uzbek irregulars, Dagger helped to bring down the Taliban regime in less than a few months and then watched as the battle for Afghanistan descended into a counter-insurgency slog that’s dragged on for 16 years (events the film doesn’t touch).
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, the film stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Rob Riggle and William Fichtner, who plays the role of Special Forces Col. John F. Mulholland Jr., the commander of 5th Special Forces Group and Task Force Dagger.
“It’s very close to reality,” Mulholland told The San Diego Union-Tribune by telephone from his home in Maryland. “There’s some Hollywood stuff, I mean you’re going to see SF guys on horseback with their Uzbek counterparts charging tanks, and that’s not something I’d recommend that we do. It’s a dramatic effect but the thread of everything that happens in that movie is everything that happened to that team.”
To Mulholland, the most realistic scene in the film was a long, panning shot of a village that had been recently liberated by Northern Alliance forces.
“Kites were flying,” he said. “The Taliban had banned kites and toys and things of that kind. When I saw that, and later on in the movie where kids were playing, that’s all in the background but it spoke to me. That really brought me back.”
Mulholland is a central figure both in the film and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that came to define the early 21st century American military. He rose to lead Coalition-Joint Task Force-Arabian Peninsula in Iraq as well as Special Operations Command Central and U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
He stepped down as a three-star general in 2015 to become the CIA’s Associate Director for Military Affairs before retiring from service in late 2016. That highlights another facet of the murky wars overseas — the merging of intelligence operatives with armed forces commandos in secret missions often far behind ill-defined enemy lines.
While the Pentagon seized the lead in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, it ceded the primary mission to CIA.
“The challenge becomes when it’s murky,” Mulholland said. “I’ve been retired a year now and I remain close to folks from that side of the house but that recognition that we must work together is shared by both sides, the uniformed and those in CIA or the the intelligence community. Both sides realize that we must win this together and we both bring strengths to the table.”
Between the 9/11 attacks and Mulholland’s departure to CIA, the Pentagon’s special operations budget nearly quintupled, from $2.3 billion in 2001 to about $10 billion 14 years later, and grew from nearly 43,000 special operators drawn from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to more than 70,000 today — a force nearly the size of the entire British army.
Nicknamed the “Quiet Professionals” and with their roots in the WWII Office of Strategic Services, the Army’s Special Forces have five primary missions: boosting a host nation’s military through foreign internal defense; special reconnaissance; direct action missions; counter-terrorism operations; and unconventional warfare, the covert assistance to local militias to subvert or sabotage an enemy force or gather intelligence about it.
That’s what Mulholland’s teams did in Afghanistan.
“The challenge for us is that we normally spend a great deal of time studying the culture, doing what we call ‘area studies,’ and incorporating that into our training,” Mulholland said. “But because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it was a pick-up game, it was go. We didn’t have the luxury of doing that preparation and that’s what made this particular operation so high risk. We were going into the unknown.”
He fretted about Northern Alliance guerrillas possibly turning on his troops but in the end trusted Special Forces doctrine, which put the burden of solving the battlefield and political problems on the indigenous militiamen and his commandos supporting them, largely by calling in air strikes against Taliban positions.
And that sort of unconventional daring and competence is better than ever today, he said.
“We never expected the United States to be at war for 16-plus years at this point, but all five of active duty Special Forces groups and our two National Guard groups have been so immersed and involved in this fight, not just in Afghanistan but Iraq and Syria, in Asia with our Philippine counterparts, and Central Europe and our Baltic friends — countering the ‘little green men’ and Russia’s unconventional efforts,” Mulholland said.
“Whether it’s doing counter-insurgency or unconventional warfare, it’s really two sides of the same coin. It’s learning how to work with the indigenous folks, empowering them and building capacity in their forces that’s resilient and meritocratic, not nepotistic.”
Mulholland said that an important debate inside the military has never been resolved — whether the battle for Afghanistan should have remained a mission for special operators instead of what it became, a large American-led counter-insurgency war involving tens of thousands of conventional forces.
After the staged withdrawals of those troops since 2011, the Taliban reasserted control over vast swaths of Afghanistan.
Government forces continue to report problems with desertion and Kabul increasingly relies on its own special forces for the bulk of combat missions against the Taliban — teams primarily built by the special forces of the United States and NATO allies.
“The problem is getting the balance right,” Mulholland said. “At what point does the burden shift too far to us as opposed to keeping (Afghans) in the lead?”