University professor shares the real story behind '12 Strong'

Jan 31, 2018

In October 2001, something caught Brian Glyn Williams’ attention: a photograph of a classified military operation in Afghanistan, shown during a press conference.

Instead of tanks or endless formations of soldiers, the photograph showed a group of Army Special Forces soldiers on horseback deep into Taliban territory. It was America’s first glimpse into one of the earliest covert military actions against the Taliban.

The United States military and the CIA teamed up with an unlikely hero: Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord whose own campaign against the Taliban had been underway before the September 11 attacks.

It was also the beginning of the Williams’ quest to share that story. The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth history professor, who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, turned the alliance into a book, The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime. The alliance is also the subject of a new movie, 12 Strong, which Williams consulted on.

On January 30, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the university library, he spoke about the battles, his quest to write The Last Warlord, and the new film.

The Unlikely Alliance.

Dostum gained notoriety among the Uzbeks, native descendants of the great Mongols who once controlled most of Asia. In the 1980s, he fought with the Soviet Union in the Soviet–Afghan War. He later introduced social reform to his region and improved civil rights for women.

But in 1998, he was defeated by the Taliban, and forced into exile in Turkey. He returned in April 2001, joined by military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and 2,000 men. They created a rebel military outpost deep in Taliban-controlled mountains with one goal: drive them out.

Armed with AK-47s and riding on horseback against tanks, their mission to raid and disrupt Taliban operations was rough going from the beginning. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was killed by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers, leaving only Dostum in charge. But then, something happened thousands of miles away that changed their battle, and the world, forever.

“The enemy they had been fighting suddenly lashed out across the globe and killed 3,000 Americans in the very same World Trade Center he saw when he came to America in the 1990s,” Williams said.

As the United States prepared its response to the September 11 attacks, Dostum saw his chance to bolster his offensive.

“He offered his condolences and offered to be our friend,” Williams explained. “He had boots on the ground so he was a tremendous asset and the CIA leapt at the chance.”

The CIA sent twelve Army Green Berets to the rebel outpost. They identified a target: Mazar-i-Sharif, home of a shrine that, if captured, could crush the Taliban's deeply superstitious willpower to fight.

The soldiers and Uzbeks pushed forward for several months, first with only horses and AK-47s, but soon raided enemy munitions and tanks, and had air support from laser-guided bombers. By November, they had driven the Taliban out of the city. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban control of Mosul fell.

Telling the story.

Williams was instantly drawn to the alliance.

“That’s what drew me to the story,” Williams said. “A brotherhood between people of different worlds -- Muslims fighting alongside Americans against the common enemy, and the brotherhood is timeless.”

For four summers, he traveled to Afghanistan to trace the path of Dostum’s forces and embed himself with Dostum and his people.

“It’s rough over there,” Williams said. “Traveling can be hard, and life can be hard with bone-jarring hot heat and dust.”

He got into a little trouble along the way. He inevitably ended up 80 feet into a land mine field, and had to purchase an AK-47 to carry with him so he wouldn’t be an easy target for kidnappers. Although he never fired his AK-47 in combat, he admitted he did take a few shots at ruins of an Soviet tank in the desert.

He finally met with Dostum to hear his stories -- and to present him with a UMass Dartmouth Alumni magazine he was featured in. He also spent two weeks interviewing Taliban prisoners of war.

“I heard their stories -- amazing stories -- of death and loss and anger and fanaticism,” Williams said.

Through his travels and interviews with Dostum, his people, and the military and CIA officers who made the alliance happen, he released The Last Warlord in 2013.

Hollywood consultant.

The alliance became a major motion picture with the release of 12 Strong in mid-January. Owing to his expertise, Williams was tapped by Executive Producer Jerry Bruckheimer to serve as a consultant last February.

He met with actor Navid Negahban, who takes on the role of Dostum in the film, to help him get into his character.

“The actor wanted my book and my help so I helped him,” Williams said. “He’s a wonderful guy and he really channeled Dostum.”

He also visited the New Mexico filming sites, which were intended to serve as Afghan deserts.

“It felt like Afghanistan… the terrain, the dust flying in your eyes, the temperatures,” Williams said.

He also weighed in on one of his favorite things from the set -- the use of authentic tanks and equipment, borrowed from the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

“I love authenticity and this meant a lot to me to have those actual tanks and things like that,” Williams said.

Williams said the movie, for the most part, sticks to the story as is, although it does make some changes for dramatic reasons. For example, a Taliban leader is killed shortly after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, but in reality he was captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

“It’s not as dramatic as it is in the movie but in many ways it is,” Williams said.

The movie is currently in the theaters.

An international connection.

Joining Williams on stage were two special guests: Afghan Ambassador Ayoob Erfani and Batur Dostum, Abdul Rashid Dostum's son.

“Although it is a Hollywood film, for me it was a pleasure to see the battles my father fought in the mountains alongside the legendary Green Beret special forces against our common enemy, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, brought alive on the movie screen,” Batur Dostum said.

Batur Dostum reaffirmed his country’s commitment and loyalty to the United States, stressing that more is needed in the face of international terrorism by ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

“The United States should work closely with their loyal, committed, and honest partners on the ground,” Batur Dostum said. “You can always count on our friendship and partnership.”

For his work, Williams was presented with a hand-carved wooden sculpture of his book from the visiting officials. Two of Williams’ former students also presented the delegates with a hand-knitted quilt and a “challenge coin” from one student’s military unit.