Review – First Casualty3 min read
I began reading First Casualty a few days before the disaster unfolded that was our exodus from Afghanistan. From the forward on, I was stunned by the timeliness and salience of this story, telling of Team Alpha from CIA, the first team of CIA operators behind enemy lines in October 2001. This is a must-read book that honors a group of men who went in to Afghanistan before almost anybody else did. But it is more than their story; it is also about success and failure in Afghanistan and contains many lessons that need to be learned and burned in to our collective consciousness. Purchase here: BUY
Toby Harnden tells the story well. A story of valor in the face of fog of war. A story about confused and sometimes competing priorities. A story of egos and differing tribal loyalties (not just Afghan). And most of all a story about Mike Spann and his life and death, and David Tyson and the rest of Team Alpha.
Many readers will have read other books about the first CIA team in Afghanistan, Jawbreaker, and wonder why this book. On 9/26/2001, the Jawbreaker team became the first CIA team on the ground in Afghanistan. It is important to note though they went in to the Panjshir which had previous CIA teams in and out of there since 99. Team Alpha, who’s story is chronicled here, was the first team to enter denied/enemy territory, following Jawbreaker in to Afghanistan only 3 weeks later, on 10/17/2001.
There is a lot in this book. A lot about the history of Afghanistan, a lot about the US response to 9/11, and a lot about the internecine struggles in the US bureaucracy. I suspect this level of detail may be daunting to the casual reader, but stick with it, you will learn a lot and it is important to the story.
I greatly appreciated the honesty with which David Tyson shared his story, including his struggles with fear, self-doubt and post-Afghanistan PTSD and recovery. Seeing the struggles made human is important and I was encouraged that the Agency, however awkwardly, has improved on helping folks grapple with those issues. I think most case officers reading it will ask themselves several questions – “What would I have done? Could I have done as well? How would I have handled the aftermath?”
Likewise, Shannon Spann’s (Mike’s widow) story was moving and difficult to read. I am grateful for the few times over the years I have chatted with her; reading her story here and her challenge to the Director to stay the course, was powerful.
In the end, reading this book, this year, after President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan brings it all full circle. It forces the reader to ask questions about the why, the how and the what’s next for Afghanistan and her people. We should remember Mike’s story and his sacrifice, as well as David and the rest of Team Alpha, and not let our leaders too easily sacrifice others in the future.
Disclaimer, I was a pre-9/11 case officer, so never served in Afghanistan in the GWOT era. Almost all of my CT classmates and many other co-workers who stayed in did however. I have no doubt this book is an important document for that part of their shared history.
Main image from the Team House podcast: First Casualty: The CIA Secret Paramilitary Teams in Afghanistan | Toby Harnden | Ep. 121