“12 Strong”: The Inside Story of the Making of a (Refreshingly Accurate) Hollywood War Epic

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“12 Strong”: The Inside Story of the Making of a (Refreshingly Accurate) Hollywood War Epic

Post by Guest on Sun Jan 21, 2018 1:04 am

Brian Glyn Williams (with Julie Romei). Professor Williams is author of Counter Jihad. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (2016) described by former CIA Director General David Petraeus as “a superb chronicle of the campaigns to counter Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their affiliates—by a student of, and participant in, those campaigns." Williams has worked in Afghanistan for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and the US Army’s Information Operations in Kabul. Click here for his website.

When I received a phone call from a representative for famed producer Jerry Bruckheimer to visit the remote mountains of New Mexico to see the filming set for the forthcoming Afghan war movie, 12 Strong: The True Declassified Story of the Horse Soldiers, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. The movie, which retells the remarkable story of a brotherhood forged between Afghan Uzbek horse warriors and an elite Special Forces A-Team in the mountains of Afghanistan, is a story I have professionally immersed myself in exploring and bringing to life for a decade and a half. My journey to uncover the hidden story of this special operations campaign—that united Green Berets with fierce Uzbek Mongols as a proxy fighting force to overthrow the entrenched Taliban regime—had consumed me and, on a couple of occasions, almost led to my death. I still shudder at the memory of being told not to jump down from the clay wall of a small mountain firing post used by the anti-Taliban rebels when one of my Uzbek friends warned me there were landmines planted directly where I was about to land.

To put it mildly, after all I had been through to shed light on this covert campaign from the Uzbek perspective in articles, books, talks to the NSA, Army’s Information Operations and CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center etc, I was skeptical that Hollywood could capture the essence of this story of men from different worlds uniting to capture an ancient shrine. How could a movie studio based in California capture the immense, majestic beauty of Afghanistan’s soaring Hindu Kush Mountains, the almost primordial beauty of her warring ancient Aryan, Persian, Mongol, and even Greco-Macedonian tribes, the glory of the ancient blue domed shrine of Mazar i Sharif (the crucible of Afghanistan) and the authentic facts behind the covert 2001 helicopter “infil” of 12 Green Berets and 8 CIA operatives into the Afghan “Graveyard of Empires?”

As an author of seven books on warfare and ethnicity in an around Afghanistan and professor of Islamic History, I should also state that my greatest fear was that the director and producer would relegate the country’s fascinating ethnic groups, who had so welcomed me on my five journeys across the region, to mere local backdrop in their efforts to lionize the American special forces. The incredibly brave Green Berets were of course worthy of all the attention focused on them (as much as their commander, a self effacing Kansan named Mark Nutsch who I am proud to call friend, disliked the focus on him and his team of “shadow warriors”). But I had grown tired of the ultra-patriotic “black” and “white” War on Terror genre of films that simplistically divided the world between good Americans and bad Muslims. With the notable exception of Lone Survivor, Hollywood movies dealing with warfare in the Islamic world completely dismissed the rich ethnic fabric or “human terrain” of societies that America has been fighting in since 2001. For movie producers, as for most Americans, the world was, and is simplistic and, binary. It is us versus them … the Muslim “Others.” The nuanced fact that across the globe brave Muslim Kurdish Peshmerga warriors whom I have embedded with, Iraqi Special Forces, Pakistani/Afghan troops etc. whom I have had the pleasure of seeing in action are our greatest allies in the war on the jihadi terrorists was lost in such movies as Act of Valor, American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty.I am happy to report that 12 Strong avoids the trap of simplistically dividing the Afghan theater of operations into a one dimensional, bipolar reality, with native Afghans constructed as mere “bullet sponges” for brave Americans to kill. This feat was accomplished under the skilled direction of both its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (who gave us Black Hawk Down) and a complete unknown, Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig. In the process of avoiding the pitfalls of Hollywoodisitic Manichaeism, the movie faithfully captures the complexity of the campaign in the mountain battlefields I know so well. 12 Strongcompletely avoids the black and white clichés of the war on terror genre and takes viewers on a multifaceted journey into an unusually complex realm that is nuanced in every sense. It is worthy of today’s sophisticated, discerning audiences that have made movies like I am Malala popular due to their exploration of Muslim lives in the region.

In weaving a nuanced story that captures the spirit of both Khalid Hosseini’s poetic writings of Afghanistan in The Kite Runner and the intensity of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraqi pulse pounder Hurt Locker12 Strong brings to life a world dominated by one of the two main characters in the film, the legendary Uzbek Mongol warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. It is Dostum (magnificently played by Iranian actor Navid Negahban) who puts his unexpected imprint on the Afghan war epic and brings it to life in real world “gray.” Negahban plays Omar Sharif to Chris Hemsworth’s powerful rendition of a modern day Peter O’ Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia. Hemsworth (famous for his rendition of Thor in the Avengers movies) intimately portrays Captain “Mitch Nelson” (based on the real Captain Mark Nutsch) head of the 12 man A-Team tasked with leveraging Dostum’s Uzbek warriors against the common Taliban foe. Just as the Arab chieftain Omar Sharif and British agent Peter O’ Toole played men from different worlds who had to overcome distrust in order to defeat the common Ottoman Turkish enemy, Negahban and Hemsworth spar, test one another, clash, and ultimately bond to become brothers. 

General Dostum with Mark Nutsch and members of Tiger 02 ODA 595

There is more tension in the movie version of their relationship than the story conveyed to me by Dostum and Mark Nutsch, but Hollywood is allowed some script freedom to build a compelling plot. The movie also compresses the story I know and diverges from reality on occasion for narrative purposes. For example, Michael Shannon masterfully plays Hemsworth’s Bob Pennington (Assistant Detachment Commander) who is wounded by a Taliban fake surrender. In reality, it was an incredibly brave CIA operative named Micheal Spann who was actually killed in this event after the Taliban had been defeated. I visited the marker Dostum had erected on the forlorn spot where the first American died in combat in the War on Terror and had the privilege of meeting his father Johnny Spann. Having stood on that hallowed ground, I felt the movie honored his sacrifice. (For the one CIA death, the first very first American to die in combat in the war on terror, see my article here.)

The plot diverges from the reality I know from months spent traveling with Dostum and his commanders retracing the battlefields in other ways as well. In the movie, Dostum withdraws his troops from the campaign when he hears his ethnic Persian Tajik rival, Atta, has been given a Green Beret A Team of his own. This never happened. On the contrary, Dostum was so driven by the surprisingly successful campaign that he was personally leading that he agreed to Green Beret leader Colonel Mulholland’s decision to deploy an A Team to his Tajik rival.

At the end of the movie, Dostum also executes his Taliban nemesis with a shot to the head, a fact not lost on the Uzbeks. At the premiere of the movie in Manhattan on January 16, I had the honor of having my friend, Dostum’s son Batur and a group of American Uzbeks led by Ambassador Ayoob Erfani, by my side. When the fictional Dostum, who has lost his family to a notorious Taliban commander (in reality his wife was killed by accident) shot his nemesis, the audience filling the hall broke into their only applause during the movie. Batur Dostum was thrilled to say the least. In reality, Dostum captured Mullah Faisal, who was then transported to Guantanamo Bay by his American allies. Having been to Gitmo’s notorious prison to serve in the Military Tribunals, I suspect the fanatical Pashtun Mullah would have preferred death to life in the “Pearl of the Antilles.
12 Strong, the US Green Berets also heroically charge into battle leading the Uzbeks to break out of the strategic Tangi Gap, when in reality it was Dostum’s bold right hand commander, Lal (“Red”) Mohammad (played by the very talented Laith Nakli), who led the epic horse charges into Taliban lines. The US Green Berets and Air Force combat controllers like Bart Decker (who I interviewed extensively for their untold story) called in the airstrikes for the Uzbek charges from the safety of dugout positions and “overwatches.” When I discussed the heroic Green Beret-led scenes with Mark Nutsch, he wryly chuckled and said “the movie was overall a worthy depiction of the spirit of the Green Berets.”

Other than these understandable divergences, 12 Strong is a story that I know well and hews to much of the reality of the journey the two real warriors took to become friends and surprise the world by exceeding all expectations (and the Green Berets’ rather basic orders to go behind enemy lines in the mountains and essentially leverage local allies to wreak havoc). They did so in a series of Uzbek cavalry charges, bolstered by close air support that broke the spine of the Aryan Pashtun Taliban occupation army of the north by November 9th 2001.

General Dostum leads American Air Force Combat Controlles to the front lines to call in air strikes

General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Captain Mark Nutsch achieved this unexpected success in November 2001 by breaking out of a rebel pocket of the Hindu Kush Mountains and seizing Mazar i Sharif, the very shrine that gave the Pashtun Taliban fanatics the “mandate of Allah” to rule the land. It was an epic example of what Lieutenant General John Mulholland, former Associate Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for Military Affairs, described to me as a “mission of by, with and through native forces, to maximize their fighting potential and put a local face on the campaign.” The Green Beret Unconventional Warriors and Air Force combat controller-ground spotters (missing from the movie) worked with the local militias to channel the remarkably precision might of the US air forces onto their enemies in order to seize a thousand year old Sufi shrine that was the crucible of Afghanistan.


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