March 27, 2005
Denying Victory: a gray anatomy of combatBy John B. Dwyer
Not A Good Day To Die:� The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda
Completed three years ago on March 19, Operation Anaconda was the major battle of Operation Enduring Freedom, America's first campaign in the war on terror. Begun on March 2, Operation Anaconda was the principal engagement in the�liberation of�Afghanistan from repressive Taliban rule,� severely damaging Al Qaeda.�
Here is how the head of U.S. Central Command, General Tommy Franks, described the situation in his book American Soldier:�
'The mission of Anaconda was to encircle and squeeze into extinction an Al Qaeda and Taliban force whose strength was estimated to be as many as two thousand well—armed Arabs, Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens and Pakistanis.� The enemy were survivors who'd escaped the Coalition force offensive that had liberated most of Afghanistan in November and December (2001).� Many of these terrorists had been pushed south out of Tora Bora into the steep Shah—I—Kot Valley; surrounded by towering snowy ridges, the area bristled with trenches, bunkers and mortar pits, as well as caves and tunnels that had been used by fighters like them for years.'�
Working with General Franks and his CENTCOM staff, Lt. General Paul T. Mikolashek (Land Forces commander) and 10th Mountain Division's Major General Franklin 'Buster' Hagenbeck, their staffs and special forces officers devised a plan to clear the enemy from Shah—I—Kot.��Air Force Lieutenant General 'Buzz' Moseley contributed a comprehensive air plan that included fighter—bombers, AC—130 gunships and A—10 close air—support aircraft.�
Doing the clearing would be light infantry from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions, US special forces, British, Australian, German, Danish, Canadian and French special operations forces, as well as Pashtun and Panjshiri Afghan troops.�By March 2, 2002 it was believed that the plan had been fine—tuned as much as possible.��
But, as General Franks wrote in his book:
'As so often happens in war, the carefully balanced details of the plan didn't survive first contact with the enemy.� As I've always said, in any war plan, the enemy gets a vote.'�
That vote was registered with enemy heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket—propelled grenades (RPGs). The plan was altered, the operation continued without pause, and Anaconda succeeded.��As the� Center For Military History's The United States Army In Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom puts it:
'The enemy had been located, forced into a losing battle, and killed or forced to flee without his large equipment or stockpiles of supplies. In a guerrilla war, that counts for much. The Al Qaeda lost many of its most experienced and aggressive fighters.'
Also, Task Force Commando (not mentioned in Naylor's book) conducted exploitation operations that found and destroyed huge caches of weapons and ammunition while seizing a great deal of valuable intelligence from cave hideouts.�
'described 'breakdowns' and blunders that were supposedly responsible for coalition casualties. We had eight troopers killed in action and eighty—two wounded out of 2027 troops engaged during the operation... I cried after the battle... I thought of the wives, kids, moms and dads who were mourning the loss of their loved ones, and I mourned with them. But I also celebrated the lives of these young heroes.'
Tommy Franks would place Army Times reporter Sean Naylor in the 'others' category, that carping critical cadre who emphasize and exacerbate the negatives.� In his� 'adversarial history' Naylor endeavors to relate everything that he believes was wrong with the planning and execution of Anaconda in excruciating detail; to place the blame for US casualties on General Franks and others in command positions.� That being the case, Not A Good Day To Die cannot be read as an objective book. He told this reviewer that Tommy Franks declined to be interviewed.�That does not exactly surprise me.
In several instances involving special operations Naylor cites anonymous sources to criticize specific individuals. And of course, because the relevant information remains classified, those individuals cannot respond.� In some other cases he does use named individuals as critical sources but the same classified strictures apply regarding opposing or balancing views.��������
Let's look at some of Naylor's unforgiveable planning flaw issues:� artillery support, air support, estimates of enemy strength.
When Colonel Frank Wiercinski's 101st Airborne Division 3rd Brigade combat team — Task Force Rakassan� — deployed for combat in Operation Anaconda, it did so without its artillery batteries.� There were several reasons for this. By the time Anaconda became necessary, the tactical template for Enduring Freedom had already been established successfully: light, mobile, flexible, unconventional forces working with Afghan troops supported by airpower.
What had begun as a special operations—centered war had evolved into one requiring conventional forces. And those conventional forces would have to be, perforce,� light infantry. For political and other reasons, indigenous troops would be employed as much as possible.� There was not going to be a heavy U.S. presence.� Big tube artillery did not meet the template. But mortars did.
Here is what Col. Wiercinski had to say about this issue in a June 27, 2002 interview with Austin Bay published at strategypage.com:
'We had to watch what were carrying.� Had to be careful about altitude, getting there with the right balance of infantry� and fire support on the ground.� We went in initially with Apaches (attack helicopters) and close—air support (CAS).� I felt comfortable.� When we saw weather coming in and knew we were going to lose Apaches and CAS, I knew we needed more indirect fire support on the ground, so we brought in 81 m.m. and 120 m.m. mortars.'
But what about an artillery battery, colonel?��
'I've thought about that (but) don't know where I would have put it, how I would have lifted it in, and I don't know how I would have secured it.� I would have to have used infantry to do that.'�
And he had no men to spare for that duty.� As it was, he could put mortars right in with the infantry and move them around as needed.
'We ended up putting our mortar battery in ... a (captured) walled compound (that) was centrally located. We could hit targets in a 360 degree radius....It's a trade—off,' said Col. Wiercinski, 'getting in the right balance of infantry and fire support.'�
Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck said pretty much the same thing in his Sept.—Oct. 2002 interview with Field Artillery Journal.�
'In retrospect, we didn't consider bringing in 105 m.m. howitzers because I knew we could accomplish the mission without them.� With the limited number of assets we brought into Afghanistan, it was clear we could capitalize on our mortars, as well as on the Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy aviation assets... the trade—off I would have had to make that first day would have precluded me from using the 105s.� In that terrain, my choice would have been to either airlift soldiers with their mortars, or the 105s.'
Like TF Rakassan, Task Force Mountain used their 60, 80 and 120 millimeter mortars with deadly effect.��
Without question, Lt. Gen. Moseley's air plan was not properly coordinated, nor was it fully integrated into the war plan in a timely manner, a flaw that has been the subject of many articles in professional journals.� Naylor merely echoes them here with extra negative emphasis.� As has been the case in the past when confronted with challenging situations resulting from imperfect planning or other snafus, the American military adjusts, improvises and proceeds as best they can.� And they log another lesson learned.
In a May—June 2003 article in Field Artillery Journal, Deputy Commander, 332d Air Expeditionary Wing and A—10 pilot, Colonel Matthew D. Neuenswander explains how the Air Force adjusted and improvised.� Before doing so, however, let's return briefly to Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck's interview in which he states
'the most effective close air support asset we had was the Apache AH—46 attack helicopter, hands down...� enemy detainees later said the Apaches were the most feared weapon on the battlefield.'
Col. Neuenswander notes that it took senior air commanders only a couple of days to set up necessary air traffic control and other measures to deal with high—intensity close—air support, and then to establish a 'kill box' plan that 'managed the skies over the Shah—I—Kot Valley.'
A—10 'Warthogs' at one point flew 21 straight hours over the target area with only four aircraft.� On March 5, A—10s completely destroyed a large enemy counter—attack attempt.� F—15Es and F—16s were flying 'danger close' support just 100 meters from friendly troops for hours on end.� Navy and Marine Super Cobras and carrier—based AV—8s flew close—air support missions on March 6 with no losses,' which the colonel describes as 'one for the record books.'
Giving full credit where it is due, Col. Neuenswander wrote: 'When our Army and Air Force brethren were being assaulted on the ground, airmen did everything they could to help them.� For these efforts during Anaconda, Air Force members — in the air and on the ground — were awarded two posthumous Air Force Crosses (second only to the Medal of Honor), 12 Silver Stars and 52 Distinguished Flying Crosses.'�
Enemy strength in the Shah—I—Kot�
Putting this in context, Naylor states on p. 120,
'The bottom line was that, at Bagram, as at Gen. Mikolashek's Land Forces Command, CENTCOM, and apparently, the Pentagon, the thinking was that victory was assured before the battle had even begun.'�
Further, the thinking was that there were only a few hundred enemy who wouldn't stand up and fight.�You won't find any statements by CENTCOM or Gen. Franks or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld or other Pentagon officials echoing Naylor's allegation.� As for enemy strength, a former Anaconda planner this reviewer knows who worked for Gen. Mikolashek tells me they believed the number to have been about 800 holed up in the Shah—I—Kot.� And as I quote in this review's first paragraph, Gen. Franks believed the combined enemy strength to be 'as many as two thousand.'��Planners and commanders involved with Anaconda believed the tough professionals they'd be facing would indeed stand and fight.�
Special forces operations played a key role in Anaconda, and Naylor does do a good job of describing and narrating that role. Navy SEAL Rear Admiral Albert Calland commanded all of CENTCOM's acknowledged special operations forces.
He divided them into Task Force Dagger — mostly Col. John Mullholland's 5th Special Forces Group — and Task Force K—Bar, comprised mostly of Navy SEALs, along with allied special forces, commanded by Commodore Robert Harward.�Conducting covert, high—risk deep reconnaissance missions was Delta Force officer, Lt. Col. Pete Blaber's Advanced Force Operations.
Oddly enough, Naylor singles out Task Force K—Bar for criticism. For instance, on p. 129,� he cites a Task Force Mountain officer saying, 'TF K—Bar were a real pain in the butt to deal with...it was like working out a divorce contract...'� And on p 159: 'U.S. special operators observed that K—Bar seemed to exist as much for public relations reasons...as it did because of any military necessity.'�
I say 'oddly enough' because on December 7, 2004, the same day Hamid Karzai was sworn in a Afghanistan's president, Task Force K—Bar was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.� In difficult and dangerous conditions, its men conducted missions such as special reconnaissance, sensitive site exploitation, identification and destruction of Al Qaeda training camps, and boardings of non—compliant vessels from October 2001 to March 2002.� It was the first Presidential Unit Citation awarded a naval special warfare unit since the Vietnam war.� Task Force K—Bar's mission accomplishment record was 100%.�������
Naylor takes the reader through it all, in grim detail.� At one point he makes a typically gratuitous critical remark:
'Perhaps because they spent so much time in the water, SEALs were not obsessive about radio communications as Army special operators.'�
As signified by other, similar remarks in the book, and the above—cited criticism of Task Force K—Bars, obviously the author seems to me to have made a conscious decision to bad—mouth SEALs in his book.� One of them told this reviewer that Naylor misrepresents their actions, which I think any neutral observer would find utterly heroic.
Neil Roberts died fighting terrorists on the mountaintop. (He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star.)� His rescuers persevered.� Among them, a Ranger platoon, seven of whose members earned Silver Stars, along with Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance.� The Air Force para—rescueman with the Rangers, Jason Cunningham, was awarded a posthumous Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for braving enemy fire on seven occasions to treat and save fellow warriors on that mountaintop.� Naylor does not mention any awards or decorations in his book.�
This gray anatomy of Operation Anaconda overemphasizes the Clausewitzian fog of war that bedevils all military campaigns.� With Sean Naylor's vision so distorted, he cannot see the obvious, and he denies the warriors he writes about their ultimate achievement: victory.�
John B. Dwyer is a military historian