Army Major Rusty Bradley was commanding a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan that served as Taliban bait during 2006’s Operation Medusa, the largest offensive in NATO’s history. In his new book, Lions of Kandahar (co-written with journalist Kevin Maurer), Bradley takes the reader into battle. His goal: a patch of high ground called Sperwan Ghar, where he and his men firefought a thousand Taliban to take the hill and call in the air strikes critical to turning the tide. Battleland recently had this email chat with Major Bradley:
How did the battle of Sperwan Ghar—depicted in Lions of Kandahar for the first time—change combat strategy in Afghanistan, and why “as Kandahar goes, so goes Afghanistan”?
Operation Medusa and the battle of Sperwan Ghar in 2006 proved to the enemy that no matter how they fought, they would be defeated. It is important to understand that any insurgency must have the will and support of the people. When the civilians left the valley, the enemy had to face us. They could not hide in schools or compounds with children and women. They had to fight a group of the best trained and equipped soldiers in the world. And they lost. After the battle, the Taliban stayed close to the villages and would stop civilians from leaving when they expected an attack. While this presented new challenges for us, the fact that the Taliban no longer felt emboldened to fight us in the open was a lesson lost on no one.
Kandahar has always been strategic to southern Afghanistan and always will be. It has been at the crossroads of all five major cities in Afghanistan since Alexander the Great, and is the center of gravity for the south. Within Kandahar province, Panjwayi and Zhari districts are the most critical. This is the geographic birthplace of the Taliban, where Mullah Mohammad Omar proclaimed himself the Supreme Leader of the movement. Panjwayi is also key territory because many of the Taliban’s leaders are landowners there—they are essentially fighting for their home base in every sense of the word. Lions of Kandahar recounts the first major battle for this pivotal province, which will be where the Taliban will make its final stand. If the Taliban lose control of Panjwai, they lose the powerbase of the fundamental movement.
While Osama bin Laden’s death is a great victory in this long war, there are many more struggles to be won. The Taliban are pushing into another offensive and after a very successful fall and winter by US forces, this summer could be a turning point. The key battles in southern Afghanistan this summer will be fought on the same battlefield we fought for in Lions of Kandahar, where in some way the outcome of the war will be decided in the South. U.S. forces have made significant gains and while much of this progress is fragile at best, we are positioned to expand and vigorously defend it in support of our Afghan allies. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, Afghanistan will be firmly on a path toward progress and peace.
Describe the mission of Special Forces units in Afghanistan, and how their work differs from that of other branches of the military stationed there.
Too often people get wrapped up in the “Rambo” version of Special Forces and forget that we were created not to destroy things, but to build them. We build militaries and turn civilians like the Northern Alliance, or foreign soldiers, into a competent and trained functioning army. We’re the guys that eat, sleep and train with the Afghan commandos, police, and Army. It is up to us to teach them to fight so that one day they can defend themselves. Now, we can do the “Rambo” stuff too. But one difference is that when we do it, we almost always have Afghans with us. That’s no small feat when you factor in new languages and unfamiliar customs. But it happens every day in Afghanistan, side by side.
Lions of Kandahar is not simply about a battle. While the operation is the centerpiece of the book, I think the emphasis must be on the relationship we share with the Afghans and the rapport we’re able to build with our coalition partners, like the Canadians. The battle really was a team effort and our ability to work by, with, and through the Afghans was a key to victory. That partnership was as key then as it is now and is the foundation of a stable Afghanistan. We’re trying to work ourselves out of a job and the only way we’ll do that is by making the Afghan Army and police the best units on the battlefield. The focus is often on the sexy quick strike that is amplified by the movies. The real work is the day to day struggle to win the will of the people and defeat the insurgency.
It is uncommon to see an active duty officer write a book. When did you decide to write this book and why? What will you remember most and what details of the battle of Sperwan Ghar remain most vivid to you?
The thought of writing a book briefly crossed my mind during the battle. I remember thinking, “No one will ever believe this.”
Later when I had returned to the U.S. and was in and out of the hospital, I realized the true magnitude of what had happened and the sacrifices of the men there. I decided at that point that the story had to be told. I do a lot of professional writing in the Army, but it was fun to step out of the constraints of military reports to try to tell this story. My goal was to get the readers to understand combat and the brotherhood of those who fight. And I wanted the American public to see the heroism of my teammates, who amaze me every day.
There are things you cannot understand unless you have walked that ground. When I close my eyes I can see Jude desperately trying to rescue Greg next to a vehicle burning out of control. I remember the desperation in Greg’s eyes as he thought he might die. I can see the A-10 pilot flying just above treetop level letting us know he was watching over us. These are images I will live with for the rest of my life.
I have been very fortunate to stay in touch with most of the heroes I served with. Our bonds were forged not only by battles like Sperwan Ghar, but by the very nature of the close-knit Special Forces teams. These men are as close to me as my own family. We fight for each other. It is that simple.
How does repeated deployment—Major Bradley has deployed to Afghanistan for five tours—impact soldiers and the families they leave behind?
I think families have made the most difficult sacrifices. The deployments limit the number of anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, vacations, and births of our children that we can be present for. But our families are the fundamental foundations that allow us to return to our lives between trips—lives that keep us motivated when we’re away.
But it is being away that makes it hard for both the soldier and the family.
When a soldier deploys, he knows where he is and what he is doing. The family does not. To me, that makes the burden tougher to bear. I salute those who are left behind to sacrifice in silence while their loved one is away.