Non-permissive even to motorcycles

Monday, August 7th, 2017

American special operations forces famously found themselves riding to war on horseback in Afghanistan in 2001:

When the 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595 touched down and linked up with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum — a Soviet-trained ethnic Uzbek military officer who had sided with the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban and who ultimately became a highly controversial figure accused of multiple human rights abuses and war crimes — they found his forces already conducting cavalry raids on horseback due to the lack of roads and even established trails in the area.

“Looking back, it was the best means for travel because some of those places we went would have been non-permissive to even motorcycles,” retired U.S. Air Force combat controller Bart Decker, who had served attached to ODA 595, said in 2016.

“It was the wild, wild west,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Sciortino, another former combat controller, who was then serving with the 31st Surgical Operations Squadron, added at the time. “When we first got in, they said we were probably going to ride horses … I had never ridden a horse before. I was like, are these guys serious?”

ODA 595 and Northern Alliance on Horseback in 2001

The whole situation might have been a disaster had it not be for an amazing twist of fate. ODA 595’s commanding officer, U.S. Army Major Mark Nutsch, had grown up on a cattle ranch in Kansas and competed in rodeo events while he studied at Kansas State University. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” he said in a later interview. “Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider. … The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”


  1. Adar says:

    Not a bad idea no matter what the terrain. Why march with all gear to war when you can ride a horse. Doesn’t need the logistical support of gasoline, diesel fuel, etc.

  2. Isegoria says:

    That reminds me:

    The German army, contrary to the blitzkrieg legend, was not fully motorised and had only 120,000 vehicles, compared to the 300,000 of the French Army. The British also had an “enviable” contingent of motorised forces. Thus, “the image of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ army is a figment of propaganda imagination”. During the First World War the German army used 1.4 million horses for transport and in the Second World War used 2.7 million horses; only ten percent of the army was motorised in 1940.

  3. Thales says:

    “Why march with all gear to war when you can ride a horse.”

    It’s not quite that simple — even in ancient times infantry could easily out-march cavalry if the destination was a week or more away.

  4. Redan says:

    “Doesn’t need the logistical support of gasoline, diesel fuel, etc.”

    Does need the logistical support of water, fodder, etc.

    …and a farrier/blacksmith/veterinarian, and daily PMCS, for the animal and the tack.

  5. Wang Weilin says:

    Why horses when a drone/jet/helo will do? I guess if you need boots on the ground for intel, ok, but if you want blow things up putting soldiers at risk makes no sense.

  6. Redan, I think the point is using the transportation method most fitted to the locality, not any sort of universal statement about horses vs. motorized vehicles. Rural Afghanistan has plenty of horses and all the human and other resources needed for their support. It lacks many of the things needed to support more mechanized modes of transport.

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