Archive Article #2 - 05/10/02
Against tanks, a force on horseback
By Calvin Woodward
The warhorse is finding a place in battles of the new century. In Afghanistan, mounted rebels thunder off into the dust, rocket-propelled grenades at the ready, taking an ancient method of war to a better-armed Taliban. If ever there was a mismatched blend of the modern and the medieval in warfare, it is in Afghanistan, where billion-dollar B-2s bomb old Taliban tanks, and mounted fighters of the Northern Alliance go at the gallop. More than half a century after the U.S. Army gave up on four-legged warfare, Americans are supplying horse feed to Afghan rebels and watching them ride their steeds toward battle.
As vaguely described by Pentagon officials, rebels have been seen "riding horseback into combat against tanks and armored personnel carriers. These folks are aggressive," said Pentagon spokesman Peter Pace, a Marine general who is commonly seen showing video of computer-guided bombs and never before seen describing a modern cavalry charge.
A traditional way. Sharif Ghalib, a counselor at the Afghan mission to the United Nations, where his country is represented by the anti-Taliban opposition, says an estimated 600 fighters, under the control of just one of the alliance commanders, Rashid Dostum, are on horseback. "It shows a traditional way of doing things," he said from New York. But more than that, he said, those particular fighters are on horses because they do not have anything else; other elements are better equipped.
Philip Smith, a Washington representative of Dostum who spoke by satellite phone with him Thursday, said the commander uses the horses in surprise flanking attacks on Taliban tanks, his men firing rocket-propelled grenades as they charge. They ride horses simply because their tanks were captured by the Taliban in 1997, he said.
An expert on Afghan fighting tactics, however, says anyone who believes rebels are charging straight into tank columns on horses has not been to Afghanistan. "They don't fight on horseback but the horse is vital for supplies and mobility," said David Isby, who wrote a book on weapons and strategy in the Soviet-Afghan war. "The horse is better than a four-wheel drive. "I'm sure they would rather have lots of helicopters."
Fighting with mismatched weapons is itself an Afghan tradition. In a parade marking the country's independence day Aug. 19, before the U.S. attacks started, a marcher carried a spear to symbolize the primitive weapons used to great effect against British guns in the 1800s. Afghans also fought at a disadvantage in materiel against modern Soviet weapons early in that war. On at least one occasion, they used horses to raid Russian border troops themselves mounted, Isby said. He said horses are the second best way to get men and supplies to the front in mountainous terrain, next to helicopters. But neither he nor Ramsey thought a frontal cavalry assault on Taliban tanks or artillery was in the cards.
Are the rebels mad?
Not according to Edwin Price Ramsey, generally considered the last man to lead a cavalry charge in U.S. history. "The best vehicle they have is a horse," said Ramsey, who led a mounted platoon against the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942. "You wouldn't charge a tank, that would be stupid," Ramsey, 84, said by phone from Los Angeles. But on certain ground, a mounted fighter can make trouble for a machine. "We had a few people who crawled up the back of tanks in the middle of a fight and put grenades into them."
Ramsey described a hurriedly organized charge by members of his 26th Cavalry platoon on Jan. 16, 1942, 27 men firing pistols from their saddles in a headlong raid against an advance guard of Japanese infantry and artillery in the Bataan Peninsula village of Morong. "We took the town after a fight and held it until the main body of our troops arrived," he said. In hospital with a mortar wound, he learned the horses had been slaughtered for hungry soldiers. Soon, the Philippines fell to Japan, U.S. soldiers surrendered there en masse and died by the thousands in the Bataan Death March; Ramsey escaped.
Patricia Bright, executive director of the U.S. Cavalry Association at Fort Riley, Kan., said the attack by Ramsey's 26th Cavalry platoon, or Philippine Scouts, brought an end to warfare on horseback by the American military. Even that was a rarity by the 1940s. President Truman dissolved the last mounted units in 1950.
From Afghanistan, TV footage has shown alliance troops thundering into the distance on horseback, to destinations unknown. "I see a bunch of Afghans running around on horses," Ramsey said. "If they were going against the Taliban, I would urge them on. "There are those of us who believe we should have kept a little cavalry for ourselves."