By the time America entirely withdrew from Afghanistan on August 21, 2021, it was hard to feel like much had been accomplished. After a 20-year occupation and thousands of Western coalition and Afghan forces dead, the Taliban was able to retake the country at lightning speed. The Afghan president fled. Atrocities were rampant, both on the part of the United States and the Taliban. Would-be refugees hung on to planes for dear life.
It didn’t have to be like this. As war reporter Spencer Ackerman noted in The Daily Beast in 2020, “Not two months after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban’s Kandahar stronghold was about to fall to its Northern Alliance antagonists.” Although Ackerman notes the U.S political leadership “sneered at negotiations” with its enemies, a potential peace was possible.
It’s in this brief moment that Nicolai Fuglsig’s 2018 movie 12 Strong takes place. If ever there was a moment where the United States could have been seen as heroes riding in on horseback, it was in the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s attacks. Based on the true story Horse Soldiers, the movie follows a Special Forces operation in the months immediately following 9/11, a moment when polling for such a move ranged between 70 and 90 percent approval.
After a quick montage highlighting previous Al Qaeda attacks right up to September 9, 2001, the movie takes us to Kentucky, where Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is unpacking boxes with his wife and young daughter. They’re in a state of bliss, especially since Mitch has landed a safe desk job under Lt. Col. Bowers (Rob Riggle). This lasts precisely until they change the TV channel from cartoons. It’s September 11, and Mitch has to get back to the office.
While Bowers doesn’t want Nelson to go into this new war, Nelson’s team stands up for him. Assistant team leader Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) defends Nelson despite his lack of combat experience. Bowers relents, and soon their team, Green Berets Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, is packing up to fight on the other side of the world.
There are some quick shots of other team members, like Sam Diller (Michael Peña) saying goodbye to home. But this is the challenge of an ensemble military movie like Black Hawk Down and The Dirty Dozen: making sure each member of the ensemble, who would be crucial in a military operation, stands out. Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes of Moonlight) gets saddled with a kid following him around, for example.
But for the most part, audiences are watching Nelson establish first contact with General Dostum (Navid Negahban), a warlord who heads up a section of the very tenuous Northern Alliance, composed of groups who hate each other almost as much as they hate the Taliban. They have a very special mission: clear the Taliban out of its stronghold Mazar-i-Sharif, destabilizing Al Qaeda's main allies in the country. While ODA 595 doesn’t have numbers, they do have access to American airpower.
Early sections of 12 Strong show the challenges of making this alliance work, with Americans over their heads with allies who do not trust them. Dostum has the same critiques of Nelson that Bowers did; he doesn’t possess the “eyes of a killer.” But the two agree to work together, and Dostum offers six horses for the soldiers, splitting them into two. Spencer commands the soldiers at the barely-there base while Nelson goes off into the mountains.
12 Strong wasn’t filmed in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to tell. The movie was shot in New Mexico, and the mountains of White Sands National Monument make for a great stand-in. The visuals are desolate and gorgeous, feeling so large that only people who inhabited these spaces could understand how they function.
After some growing pains, Nelson and Dostum make quite a team. The Afghan fighters are fearless, and the American airpower delivers as promised. While skeptical of riding on horseback, the American soldiers soon take to the Afghan methods, making for exciting sequences of horse vs. tank and horse vs. rocket launcher. The terrain also becomes as much a weapon as any bomb, with rockslides sending soldiers scattering.
But the Army isn’t satisfied with their progress and starts making secondary plans to attack Mazar using a group within the Northern Alliance that Dostum considers a mortal enemy. This threatens to unravel all the progress they’ve made. While 12 Strong never outright says what chaos Afghanistan would become, it offers hints. Dostum explains that survival is paramount among Afghans, and one day you’re an ally, the next you’re an enemy.
12 Strong leaves a lot out. For example, Dostum, who later became Afghan Vice President, was accused of war crimes when he took control of Mazar. And, of course, the rest of the war did not go as smoothly. But if you’re willing to pick out one strand from a particularly long and bloody tapestry, 12 Strong makes the case that things could have gone a lot better.
12 Strong is streaming on HBO Max until June 9, 2022.