Security Studies Program Seminar

Operation Anaconda

Sean Naylor

March 22, 2006

Operation Anaconda, fought in Afghanistan's Shah-i-kot Valley, was the first American battle of the twenty-first century. Fought in March 2002, it was the largest American battle since Operation Desert Storm and the highest altitude battle the United States ever fought.

It was the last opportunity to kill off Al Qaeda in a large group. The opportunity was in part squandered – less by the officers on the ground in Afghanistan than by the leaders in the Pentagon and Central Command (Centcom). Their decisions resulted in a bifurcated and hopelessly confused command structure, and a force deprived of much of the combat power its commanders asked for. The mystery is why we fought such an important battle this way.

In the winter of 2002-2003, the United States and its allies had overthrown the Taliban government. There was a feeling that victory had been achieved. But senior Al Qaeda leaders and thousands of terrorists remained in the field. Yet senior U.S. leaders at Centcom were acting as if the war was all but over.

This was odd because Al Qaeda was the real enemy – the enemy that attacked us. The Taliban were only an enemy because they failed to turn over the Al Qaeda leadership. It was as if the commanders thought that seizing the capital ended the war.

One mistake was the failure to distinguish the two fights. The two enemies, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, were allied but very different. The Taliban were a Pashtun movement, steeped in the Afghan codes of warfare, which includes changing sides, surrendering in mass, and leaving the field once defeat seems inevitable. When United States special operators and CIA operatives entered Afghanistan to assist the Northern Alliance, the Taliban had already been badly weakened by the loss of Pakistani military intelligence advisors who had provided much of their operational expertise. Without them, the Taliban was something of a paper tiger and easily driven out of power.

Al Qaeda included thousands of fighters drawn from the Gulf States. Their jihadi ethos, they were highly motivated and unafraid to die. When Kabul fell, they withdrew to the mountains in eastern Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland. The residents felt obliged to shelter them.

Some in the U.S. military realized that we needed a different approach to attack Al Qaeda. But we stuck with the concept of using local forces, U.S. Special Forces, and airpower. By this time, the Northern Alliance was busy taking over Kabul. Also, as Tajiks and Uzbeks, they were also not eager to deploy to a Pashtun area where they would be seen as invaders. Sticking with the model of using indigenous ground forces thus required bringing together a hodgepodge of local militias, the so-called Eastern Alliance.

The 101st Airborne Division seemed a natural fit for the mission. We expensively maintain capability in the 101st to airlift large numbers of troops to places like Eastern Afghanistan. But it was left on shelf except for elements of one brigade. Why?

There are three reasons. First, U.S. commanders had fallen in love with the model of using local forces, Special Forces and airpower. Second, there was an obsession in Centcom and the Pentagon with not sending too many regular forces to Afghanistan. The idea was that a heavy footprint of ground troops would repeat Soviet mistakes. But the Soviets had 140,000 troops backing up an unpopular regime with scorched earth tactics. This is hardly analogous to what would have been 10,000-15,000 troops used to destroy a foreign organization that was not popular. Later on, we did insert this many troops. Third, U.S. commanders had already switched their focus to Iraq. The 101st was needed for Iraq. In its place a downsized headquarters from the already stretched 10th Mountain Division was sent. The part of 10th that deployed from Uzbekistan was told that they could only use forces already in theater. They were not allowed artillery and given only one company of eight Apache helicopters. They were left to plan without all the forces the commanders wanted.

The battle also suffered from miscalculation based on bad intelligence reports. The belief was that there were 250 fighters in the valley when there were in fact about 1000. The commanders believed that there were 800 villagers living on the valley floor. In fact, there were none. They also thought the fighters were sheltered in the valley, but they had dug in on the high ground. They were not armed only with machines guns, as the reporting said, but with mortars, artillery, and recoilless rifles. There was also a belief that the Al Qaeda forces would behave like the Taliban and cut and run. Instead they stood and fought.

A gaggle of task forces drew up the battle plan. It was not one vision but instead the product of competition and compromise. The American forces included two battalions from the 101st and one battalion from the 10th Mountain Division. The main ground effort was to be provided by 300 Afghan militia men – the “ Eastern Alliance ” – who had been given three weeks training. They were to drive in from the west, enter the valley, and sort the enemy out from the civilians presumed to be villages. The idea was that the terrorists would then surrender or try to escape to Pakistan from the South and East. The U.S. infantry would move into blocking positions via helicopter.

The Afghan column never made it. Fire halted it in route. But U.S. infantry deployed into their blocking positions anyway. Upon landing they began taking fire from a well-equipped enemy on the high-ground. But they had a secret weapon.

Delta Force and Seal Team 6, a total of 13 men in three teams, had crept behind enemy lines. One team used all terrain vehicles. All three teams came in using a difficult route they guessed that the enemy would not monitor.

One of the SEAL teams discovered a five-man heavy machine gun post right where they wanted to put an observation post. The machine gun was in position to shoot down any helicopters flying into the valley. Chinooks with 30 or 40 infantry abroad would have been sitting ducks. Every national overhead asset had flown over and missed that machine gun, which had a blue tarp over it. Had the SEAL team not found this post, the whole operation probably would have ended before troops landed. The SEALs called in an AC-130 gunship, which destroyed the position.

Despite that, there were several close calls early in the battle. The brigade commander from the 101st came to the valley at the start of the battle to get a feel for it. The two helicopters carrying his party took fire, struggled to land, managed to, and then his party came under attack for much of the day. They had to fly out under cover of darkness. Afterwards, they found that one helicopter had taken a round centimeters from a critical part that could have downed the helicopter.

On the first day, March 2, the three teams on the ridges played a critical role. They were the only Americans to have taken the high ground. The battle planners had chosen to seize the low ground. The teams were critical in calling in air strikes.

Major General Frank Hagenback, commander of the 10th mountain division, was on the verge of pulling everyone out on the first day, but the Special Operations commander convinced him not to. The decision was instead to bring a second group of air assault forces in from the north, and have them maneuver and attack north to south, down the ridge line.

U.S. commanders slowly recovered by using lots of airpower, aided by the realization that there were no civilians in the valley. They flattened the village. The plan to drive south was canceled.

On March 4, a new crisis began. A decision had been made to bring in more Navy Seals. They wanted to get into the fight. The Army special operators were irked by this. The commanders did not understand how much attention to detail had gone into the initial placement of the teams.

A series of mistakes by the Seals left them trying to land on top of an enemy position. A helicopter took fire, and a Seal fell out on top of Takur Ghar mountain, the highest in the area. A cascade of events then led to another helicopter going down, and a pitched battle was fought on top of the peak. Task Force 11, a Special operations unit, was trying to micromanage its part of the battle from its headquarters on a desert island off Oman .

The fight lasted all day. Seven Americans died. It was the last major combat of the operation, but Anaconda dragged on for two weeks, in part from the commanders' desire to bring in an Afghan force to mop up.

A total of eight Americans died, versus 200-300 of the enemy. The Operation was not a success. The aim was to destroy the enemy forces. Hundreds of forces slipped away and wound up in Pakistan. Many are still there. The number of American dead could have been much worse if not for the troops' daring and skill.

What lessons can we learn or relearn from Operation Anaconda?

1. Know your enemy. This is a conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom that some commanders only pay lip service to. You have to know your enemy strategically, as in whether your true enemy is the Taliban or Al Qaeda. You have to know your enemy operationally and tactically, as in how many what weapons they have and what they are likely to do. The U.S. military got the answers to all these questions wrong in this case.

2. Know your friends. The cobbled-together column of Afghans on our side here was obviously going to perform worse than Northern Alliance troops, let alone U.S. troops. Yet they were given a mission to drive down a bad road at night and attack on a tight timeline – a mission that required them to function like a U.S. force.

3. Think twice before you plug and play. Plug and play is the idea driving brigade modularity, the idea that units from different organizations can be made interchangeable. There are big risks in the assumption than we can pull units out of organizations that have learned to trust each other and put them into another organization without any detriment in effectiveness. You have to understand the human side of the endeavor. Military units are not legos.

4. The eye in the sky is not all seeing. Predators and spy satellites all missed the machine gun described above. We over rely on overhead.

5. High tech is not all that. Again and again in Anaconda, high technology systems failed. One U.S. soldier was killed in a fratricide when an AC-130 gunship's navigation system failed. Satellite radios also malfunctioned during the fight.

6. Jointness has its limits. Jointness has become politically correct. Task Force 11 was commanded by Brigadier General Gregory Trebon, an Air Force one star, a former C-141 pilot. At a key moment in the Takur Ghar fight, he took control from guys on the ground and handed the rescue to his headquarters near Oman. He also gave a lot of action to the SEALs, who do not have background that Army special operators have to fight on land.

7. Remember Patton's three principles of warfare, audacity, audacity, and audacity. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Blaber, a key Special operations commander in the battle, helped win the battle with audacity.

8. Always trust the guy on the ground. Hagenback and the Blaber did. The Air Force's Trebon did not. He overruled guys on ground, with bad effects.

9. Combat-focused training saves lives. This too is conventional wisdom, but lots of commanders still do not make this their focus in garrison. Maybe this is changing with Iraq. Training made a big difference in this battle. A number of guys said their training just kicked in when the fight started.

10. The troops won't let you down. There was a lot of hand-wringing at the turn of the century about the World War II greatest generation. Implicit was an idea that U.S. troops today are different. This has proven to be wrong. Every day soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan show themselves to be anyone's equal.


Sean D. Naylor is a senior writer for the Army Times Publishing Company, where he has worked since June 1990. He is an investigative reporter covering special operations forces and joint operations. He covered military operations in Afghanistan for almost four months in 2002, and was one of only a handful of reporters “embedded” with U.S. troops during Operation Anaconda in March of that year. Mr. Naylor was an embedded reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized)'s cavalry squadron as it fought its way north from Kuwait to the gates of Baghdad in March and April 2003. In October 2005 he returned to Afghanistan for a month of embedded reporting with infantry and Special Forces units. His book Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda was published March 1, 2006 by Berkley Books, New York , N.Y. Mr. Naylor is also the co-author, with Tom Donnelly, of Clash of Chariots – The Great Tank Battles.

Summary written by Ben Friedman

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