Vikings Versus Taliban
A new Afghan War memoir gives a Danish perspective on combat and nation building
In 2006, while much of the world press was preoccupied by the unraveling sectarian violence in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was heating up — particularly in the predominantly Pashtun south of the country. One of the fiercest battles during this time was for the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, as Danish, British and Afghan forces fought off attacks from Taliban militants who had encircled the town.
Few Americans outside of serious war watchers paid much attention, as Americans were in many ways uninterested in what appeared to be a minor battle being fought by Europeans and Afghans in a war that many believed to have already been won. But a new account, The Tigers and The Taliban, authored by the commander of a Danish reconnaissance squadron during the battle, aims to set the record straight.
“What made me write it, it was probably to make up for the many untruthful stories in the media,” the Danish commander, Lars Ulslev Johannesen told War is Boring. “I would like to tell the right story, so the recce readiness unit from Bornholm in Denmark could get the deserved recognition.”
The book is so named because the Taliban came to call the Danes “the Tigers” for their ferocity in battle. Johannesen had to work in a multi-national command climate, in which in addition to fighting Taliban units in a two-month siege of Musa Qala, they had to also tread carefully.
This was something that wasn’t always easy to do, as the Danish were quickly tested in combat and almost immediately thrust into the complicated realities of Afghanistan. Before Johannesen ever got a chance to introduce himself to Musa Qala’s elders, a NATO bomb missed its target and leveled a mosque.
This was bad enough, but Johannesen’s interpreter warned him that this was particularly bad coming from an operation involving Danish soldiers. The infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammed, and the ensuing riots across the Islamic world which caused more than 200 deaths earlier in the year, was a fresh memory.
His meeting with the elders, detailed in the book, was tense, not the least of which because he couldn’t stop thinking of a recent attack on a Canadian officer who was struck in the head with an axe while meeting with elders.
“For the Afghan people in the southern part, predictability is important,” he says. “They know the Taliban rules, and prefer them even though they do not like them, because they know what they need to do in order to survive. Exogenous alternatives have always been temporary, and therefore not to bet on — it can cost them their lives.”
The Afghans demanded answers for the destruction of their place of worship. Johannesen had to play diplomat, striking a tenuous balance between assertiveness and humility. Ultimately, he was able to calm the elders and regain some level of respect — though support would prove much harder to win.
Working with Afghan authorities was often problematic for the Danes. Johannesen praises the skill and determination of the Afghan soldiers who fought alongside the Danish and British forces — though cultural and linguistic differences often made cooperation difficult. However, the Afghan police were too rife with corruption to be useful.
“I could not include them in the plans,” Johannesen says.
That is not to say he had no sympathy for them. Afghan police live in their battlefield, trying to fight the Taliban while keeping their families safe from reprisals. Johannesen also praised Musa Qala’s chief of police, a man known to coalition forces by the nickname Coco, for being courageous and dependable.
“It is a very complex country with a tribal culture that does not believe that others can help them,” Johannesen says. “They have history as evidence. It’s hard to win tribal trust, also from a central Afghan government. You will need to offer them an alternative to their current way of life, where many of them live off opium somehow. And you need to find a long-term solution.”
Johannesen stresses that this long term solution is not purely military.
As NATO prepares to wind down its mission, and the Afghan government prepares to take the reigns, Johannesen sees no simple solutions. Provinces in the south like Helmand and Kandahar will be particularly complicated.
“In the southern part of the country, I think that people have a greater sense of self in the direction of being Pashtuns rather than being Afghan,” he adds. “It can develop into regular civil war if the government tries to control the southern part of the country to hard. It is not certain that this country lends itself to democracy; in the form we know it from the West.”
Johannesen is proud of his soldiers and their achievements, as well as their British and Afghan comrades. However, if there’s one thing he wants people to know about their experience, he said: “War must always be a last resort because it is very stressful for the locals, the soldiers and the families that have to do without soldiers, either temporarily or forever.”