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Wednesday, 28 July 2004

Horse Power

The Afghan War has all the trappings of 21st-century combat, including the prospect of one horror, bio-terrorism, that has largely eluded otherwise bloody 20th-century warfare. Yet, one of the ironies of our current high-tech engagement is that much of its success is based on the same low-tech mobility that soliders have been relying on for centuries, the horse.
 
When the pivotal city of Mazur-e-Sharif fell to the warlords of the Northern Alliance, in the first territorial strike against the Taliban, some Western commentators were quick to note -- even some to sneer -- that General Abdul Rashid Dostrum's forces had advanced on the city on horseback. In fact, it was reported that the use of horses was the principal means of rebel transport, with some 3,000 horses alone employed in the Mazar-e-Sharif campaign. Not surprisingly, first American airdrops to the liberated city included horse feed and hay.
 
When American critics of the Alliance got wind of the rebels' seemingly quaint equestrian reliance they rolled out the big guns, triggering further condemnation that the rebels were nothing more than rag-tag weekend warriors, poorly trained and poorly motivated. The proof? Well, the use of horses, of course. What modern army, according to this negative chorus, would rely on horses? I've even heard some critics refer to the Alliance's mounted troops as a pathetic evocation of the Polish cavalrymen slaughtered by Nazi Panzer gunners during the 1939 Bliztreig of Poland.
 
Arrogant Ignorance
The Polish comparsion, as well attacks on the Alliance for its overall equestrian dependence, are wildly off the mark. These criticisms also show an arrogrant ignorance by some defence analysts of how the horse can well serve as a key component in 21-st century warfare.
 
For now, conventional wisdom that mounted troops represents a military anachronism is all but moot, as the Alliance continues to gain even further ground in its push against the Tailban. More important, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned the errant notion on its head -- good news for cavalry die-hards -- when he made it official: the horse as part of the Amercian arsenal. Whipping out a photograph, Mr Rumsfeld showed reporters several U.S. Army special forces soldiers galloping across the plains of southern Afghanistan.
 
Some reporters seem skeptical, as well might be. Mounted American troops haven't seen action, at least, officially, since World War II.
 
First, some mistaken beliefs. Alliance mounted troops are not cavalry. They do not attack on horseback. Rather they advance mounted on horses, accompanied by additional pack horses. Any suggestion, therefore, that these rebel forces would recklessly charge tanks, as did the fearless Poles, is mischievous humbug.
 
Bogged Down
Alliance troops ride because the almost impentrable mountain terrain of northern Afghanistan makes the use of horses the most efficient and most reliable mode of transport. This, especially as winter sets in. Television pictures have reminded us repeatedly how conventional armoured motor vehicles can easily get bogged down while traversing mountain ranges.
 
Afghans know they can trust their horses to be effective partners. Centuries ago, when Genghis Khan roamed their patch, vast armies of thousands of horsemen would navigate the harsh, hardscrabble landscape of southwest Asia. Not surprisingly, polo -- one of the fiercest mounted sports -- also got its start in this area's inhospitable terrain. First, severed heads were battered 'round. Balls only came later.
 
Not all nations have been as quick as the high-tech U.S. to dismiss -- that is, until Mr Rumsfeld's declaration -- the horse as a tactical war ''machine.'' The King's Royal Hussars, a British regiment, relied on horse power during the Bosian war to negotiate mountain ranges nearly as impassable as those in northern Afghanistan. ''I'm not a bit surprised,'' Stephen Badsey, a military historian at Sandhurst, told reporters. ''History shows there is a point at which the horse is very mobile, cheap, and better over certain terrain compared with vehicles.'' 
 
Changing of the Guard
British Army officials are even quick to defend the dashing Household Cavalry -- for many Americans, best known as a tourist attraction as part of the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace -- for its military preparedness. ''It's not just looking pretty,'' one of the Cavalry's officers told me not long ago. ''We're in fact the first security division for Her Majesty, The Queen. If there's an accident, we're the first in the thick of it.''
 
Indeed, being in the ''thick of it'' is never far from the Cavalry's collective memory. An IRA car-bombing some years ago targeted the regiment, leaving four troopers dead, 12 wounded, and seven horses killed.
 
The United States has also had a glorious military association with the horse. But all that came to a crashing end when the U.S. Army Cavalry was officially and unceremoniously disbanded -- economic and political squabbling over the effectiveness of the new-fanagled tank were to blame -- just before World War II. The last Cavalry engagement came in early 1942 when the 26th Cavalry regiment resisted --valiantly, but unsuccessfully -- the Japanese beachhead at Bataan, in the Philippines.
 
Foxhunter, Polo Player
Through World War II, one of America's keenest champions of the tank, Gen. George Patton, remained an equally staunch advocate of the cavalry. Patton, a foxhunter and polo player, particularly regretted that the American cavalry was not deployed in several campaigns in northern Africa.
 
I suspect Patton -- unlike some military pundits today -- would not have been very much surprised by the value of the horse in the Afghan war.
 
(Richard Carreño, editor of  Junto, wrote the above article shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001).


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