9 Good Questions for First Casualty Author Toby Harnden

Author Interview

Cipher Brief UnderCover senior editor, Bill Harlow talks with journalist and author Toby Harnden about his new book, First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11

First Casualty was reviewed in  The Cipher Brief by former Senior CIA Officer Philip Mudd.

Harnden is a former foreign correspondent and is also the author of Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armaugh, which has become one of the most acclaimed books about the Irish Troubles. His book, Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan, about a British battle group in Helmand in 2009, won the Orwell Prize for Books.

INTERVIEW:

Harlow: Congratulations on writing First Casualty. Several people I know with firsthand knowledge of the events described — have been very complimentary about the book’s fidelity to the truth and detail. How long did you work on it? Did you travel to Afghanistan as part of the process?

Harnden: Thank you so much. It means a lot to hear that. I feel a real weight of responsibility to get things right and the test of that is the views of people who were actually there.

The seeds of this book go right back to 9/11, when I was in Washington D.C. and reported on the aftermath, including the Afghanistan operation and the death of Mike Spann. A couple of years later, oddly enough in Iraq, I watched footage of David Tyson running for his life inside Qala-i Jangi and became fascinated with what he had been through. In 2013, I tracked down David, who wasn’t far away, and we met at a Panera Bread location in Vienna, Virginia. He couldn’t say much because he was still serving at CIA at that time. Thankfully, he retired in January 2020, and contacted me to say he was ready to talk. That was miraculous because I had signed a book contract the month before. The working title then was “The Fort” and my intention was to make the central focus the Battle of Qala-i Jangi. David’s participation and subsequent interviews with the other surviving members of Team Alpha Justin Sapp, J.R. Seeger, Alex Hernandez, Scott Spellmeyer, and Andy (still serving) meant that the focus shifted to being on the team’s entire mission. Glenn and Gregg of Team Bravo and Brian and Amy, who were on the same Farm course as Mike and Shannon Spann, were also very helpful; they are all still serving and spoke with permission from the Agency. I worked on the book full-time and very intensively for 17 months before the manuscript finally went to the printers.

I visited Afghanistan for six weeks from November to December 2020. I felt it essential that I go, to walk the ground where the Battle of Qala-i Jangi was fought, to see the spot where Mike Spann was killed, and to orient myself around Mazar-i Sharif. There is no substitute for going to a place. I was also able to interview Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord, certainly, but also America’s staunch and effective ally in 2001. I also found two doctors who witnessed the last moments of Mike Spann’s life. I talked to many other Afghans who fought alongside Team Alpha in 2001, ranging from the Hazara leaders Karim Khalili and Mohammed Mohaqeq to humble foot soldiers. The perspectives of the Afghans were invaluable. Visiting Mazar-i Sharif and Sheberghan also gave me the strong sense that it was just a matter of time before the Taliban returned to power.

Harlow: You’ve written two previous books, Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh and Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan. What drew you to the story in First Casualty?

Harnden: Bandit Country was about the IRA’s border heartland over three decades of the Irish Troubles and Dead Men Risen was about the British in the Pashtun south at the height of the Afghanistan war. The thread through all three books is the harsh reality of war and terrorism, depicting heroism, horror, chaos, triumph and sadness in as raw and true a way as possible. At the same time, I try to relate this to the strategic context, connecting the granular detail to the big picture.

I was fascinated by Qala-i Jangi because so many people and groups were present in this one place – CIA, Green Berets, 10th Mountain Division, a SEAL, the SBS, AC-130s, F-18s, Dostum, Mullah Fazl, Al-Qaeda, and John Walker Lindh. As my research proceeded, I found Team Alpha endlessly fascinating. These were the first Americans behind enemy lines after 9/11 and they had such a range of personalities and skillsets while at the same time, being united in a desire to achieve their mission no matter what it took. Given that the Afghanistan war was ending, I thought it important to look at how it started.

Harlow: As compelling as all the action scenes in the book are (the uprising in the Qala-I-Jangi fort where Mike Spann was killed is particularly dramatic) one of the most powerful parts of the book is the way you got participants such as Spann’s colleague, David Tyson, and his widow Shannon Spann, both former CIA officers themselves, to open up to you about their personal feelings. Is it difficult to get people, particularly those who live most of their lives in the shadows, to do so?

Harnden: I am glad you feel that. Yes, it is difficult. It involves building trust and credibility. It means listening intently, behaving decently and transparently with people, and empathizing. Interviews become conversations, sometimes lasting many hours. I grew to have immense regard for both David and Shannon. That was separate from the book in some ways, but it certainly helped me to be able to write at a more profound level. There were things I didn’t write, but that it was important for me to know and to understand.

David had been through almost unimaginable trauma and still works through the events of November 25, 2001, every day. Over the years, he has talked a lot about what happened, especially to internal audiences, so that people can learn but also, I think as part of his personal therapeutic process. The fact that he has thought so much about those events and been genuinely curious about his own actions and how he responded to events meant that he was prepared to examine the depths of his own psyche. That is very rare and was exceptionally rewarding for me.

Shannon’s life was turned upside down by Mike’s death and she had to suffer in the public glare, which she managed with immense grace. She is a private person but very thoughtful and prepared to examine herself and the dynamics in her life. She did not want to speak to me initially. But she had a very strong desire to honor not just Mike but Team Alpha and the CIA, so she made a decision to open up that was quite selfless and was a risk for her. Her willingness to be candid and vulnerable gave me great insights into Mike and a real sense of the sacrifices that CIA families make.

Both David and Shannon were CIA case officers. That means they are part of a special breed of people who are able to assess motives, who realize how scenarios can unfold, and who accept the messiness of life while also being morally grounded. I think that these attributes have helped them understand themselves in a way that most people don’t even attempt. Strangely enough both of them (and many other CIA interviewees) were reticent at first but ultimately extremely talkative. Despite being in the shadows, CIA officers tend to have lots of thoughts and many things to say, given the right setting.

Harlow: As badly as some things turned out at Qala-I-Jangi, there were also examples of how things could go right going forward – cooperation between CIA, U.S. Special Forces, allies like the UK Special Boat Service and Afghan tribals. Was the difficulty of meshing all of those cultures the solution – or the trouble going forward?

Harnden: I think this whole period was an illustration of how well things could work with the right approach, while at the same time, the many pitfalls that are ever-present in Afghanistan. The fundamentals of Americans being there in small numbers – hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands – and acting as advisers to the indigenous resistance and letting them fight the foreign invaders (the Arabs of Al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts) worked superbly. Cooperation on the ground between the CIA and Green Berets was magnificent and epitomized by Team Alpha and ODA 595. The British stepped up and did the business when it mattered, despite a restrictive national caveat and limited equipment. At this point, it was an Afghan war, fought in an Afghan way. There is no doubt that the Afghans were imperfect and sometimes unreliable allies and that the ethnic and tribal patchwork of their country is something foreigners will always struggle to master. I think the problem was that the very success of the early CIA-led mission led to a sense among policymakers that America could shoot for the moon and try to establish a centralized democracy in Afghanistan using tens of thousands of conventional troops.

Harlow: I commend whoever came up with the idea of using the endpapers (the inside front and back covers of the book) for maps of Qala-I-Jangi, the location if CIA teams in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Darya Suf Valley Campaign of 2001.  They were very helpful in picturing what you describe in First Casualty.   In writing a book like yours – do you worry about the possibility of losing the reader in a myriad of strange names, unfamiliar locations, tribes and the like?

Harnden: I’ll take the credit for that! I pushed the publisher hard to make it happen. Endpaper maps are expensive, and there was some resistance but to Little, Brown’s credit they saw the value. Maps in books, as in the field, are very important and I put a lot of work into them. Creating the maps and the timeline helped me understand what happened, and I hope the reader too. Yes, names, locations, tribes etc. do make things complicated. It is hard to strike the balance between completeness and accessibility, satisfying both the expert and the general reader. I also did a “who’s who” cast of characters that I felt was needed. I also compiled a Chronology and a Glossary, which ended up going onto my website because the publisher felt putting them in the book would make it look too intimidating. I think they were right – these days, most people have shorter attention spans and want a quicker read.

Harlow: What do you think were some of the lessons from the first few months of the war in Afghanistan that are most significant in the two decades of conflict that followed?

Harnden: The CIA plan first presented to President George W. Bush by CIA director George Tenet and CTC chief Cofer Black on September 13, 2001, was the right one and it worked. If we had hewed to those principles rather than succumbing to mission creep and an ever-expanding American role, things might have been very different. I am not pretending there were easy solutions at any stage, but I think we became victims of our own ambition and desire to achieve perfection. But there were also factors like Pakistan’s support for the Taliban that made any chances of success immeasurably more difficult.

Harlow: You clearly had access to many of the key players in the events described in First Casualty.  Who would you have liked to interview that you could not?

Harnden: I would have dearly loved to have been able to interview one of the 86 Al-Qaeda survivors of the Battle of Qala-i Jangi. I tried, but many were dead and the rest beyond my reach for a myriad of reasons. I console myself with the thought that the chances that any who would have talked would have been honest and reliable were somewhere between very slim and zero. Various survivors have spoken, but most of their accounts have been self-serving or propagandist.

Harlow: One of the enigmas in the story is the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Did you ever feel you understood his motivation and do you think he regrets his actions today?

Harnden: I think Lindh was a committed jihadist who knew what he was doing. He was a member of Al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, and had trained at Al Farooq and met Osama bin Laden. The notion that he was a mixed-up kid on some kind of spiritual quest was an understandable stance for his defense lawyer to take, but the facts don’t sustain it. Before his release in 2019, Lindh outlined his unstinting support for Islamic State, writing in his own hand that they were “doing a spectacular job” and were “serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation of establishing a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method.” He broke with his defense lawyer over his refusal to renounce violence. There is no indication he regrets anything.

Harlow: Given all the pain and sacrifice that the war in Afghanistan brought with it – was it worth it in your mind?  And was another ending achievable?

Harnden: It was worth it because for 20 years, Al-Qaeda has been unable to mount another attack on the homeland. It was also worth it – though this was not a primary war aim – because we helped ensure that a generation of Afghans experienced a measure of modernity and freedom. I came across a recent statement from former CIA officer Bob Dougherty that I thought made an important point: “We demonstrated something that is unique to the American DNA that our adversaries never fully understand.  We will spend enormous amounts of our treasure and our precious blood to ensure the exceptional life and liberty that we have, continues for generations to come. That is the beauty and the tragedy of our experience in Afghanistan.” I agree with that. The way things ended was far from inevitable.  

Harlow: During the course of your First Casualty book tour, what was the dumbest question you received (excluding the previous nine here)?

Harnden: I’m a big believer in there being no such thing as a stupid question. But my patience has been tested when asked about the CIA creating Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. invading Afghanistan to gain access to oil and mineral resources.

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