Operation operation to fall apart at the outset

      Operation AnacondaWO1 Jeremy SnellWOBC Class 18-1CW3 Steven Quast13 December 2017

 Summary            Within one month after the events of
September 11, 2001, the United States quickly reacted by carrying out combat
operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  U.S. military officials relied heavily on
Special Operations Forces (SOF), friendly Afghan forces, and air strikes at the
beginning of the war.  An overwhelming
ground force was never the intent.  The
memories of Russia’s war in Afghanistan during the 1980s were still easily
recalled.  The politician’s in Washington
did not want to give the impression of an all-out invasion, followed by a
multi-year war that ended in an outcome similar to Vietnam. Success of the
upcoming battle hinged on the ability to wage joint warfare with limited
forces, using great efficiency and precision, against an inferior opponent.             Operation Anaconda was designed to
finish off the Taliban and al Qaeda that had retrograded into the Shahikot
Valley. It seemed like it was going to be a fairly simple and lopsided battle.
The United States military, armed with modern technology and with the help of
local nationals, had overpowered their enemies up to this point, seizing
control of six major cities in a little over a month. By December, talks were
already underway regarding the establishment of a U.S.-backed government. What
the military did not expect, is the operation to fall apart at the outset and
end up lasting 17 days.  Ultimately,
victory was achieved due to the military’s ability to adapt and the operation
would provide invaluable lessons learned for future battles.

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             Operation Anaconda, which was part
of Operation Enduring Freedom, was a combat operation that took place in the
Shahikot Valley of Eastern Afghanistan during March 2002.  Months earlier, a large number of Taliban and
al Qaeda forces fled into the valley after the U.S. failed to achieve its
objectives at Tora Bora.  An operation
similar in scope and intent, success at Tora Bora would have negated the need
to conduct Operation Anaconda and potentially could have had profound impacts
on the enduring conflict in Afghanistan.              Early on in the war, coalition
forces saw victories quickly and often.  Most
combat operations were carried out by U.S. SOF, air strikes, and an organized
Afghanistan militia called the Northern Alliance. Within three months, six
major urban strongholds for the Taliban and al Qaeda, to include the capital
city of Kabul, were under coalition control.  By December 2001, little more than four months
after the attacks on 9/11, White House officials had already laid the
groundwork for Hamid Karzai, a new U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan, to
take control of the government.             Tora Bora’s failure can largely be
attributed to the inadequate number of coalition ground forces needed to
establish blocking positions, thus preventing the enemy forces from escaping to
Pakistan.  It is believed that Osama bin
Laden was among those that fled.  This
glaringly missed opportunity was used as a way to justify getting more ground
forces into Afghanistan.  General Franks
at CENTCOM directed U.S. operations, the Coalition Forces Land Component
Command (CFLCC) coordinated ground forces, and the Coalition Forces Air
Component Command (CFACC) controlled air assets, but none of these commands
were actually in Afghanistan.  In January
2002, intelligence reports starting to suggest that enemy forces were
reentering Afghanistan and beginning to congregate in the Shahikot Valley.  Not wanting to repeat the events at Tora
Bora, CENTCOM decided that a more sizable force and a tactical ground commander
were needed to carry out an assault on the valley.  MG Franklin Hagenbeck of the 10th
Mountain Division was to be that commander.  He was given command and control authority of
all of the U.S. ground forces and Army assets (Coalition and Joint Task Force
Mountain) that would be taking part in the operation, except for Task Force 11.
 MG Hagenbeck was also not given command
of the air components from the other U.S. military services.  The approval authority for air strikes
continued to reside with the CFACC and its subordinate Combined Air Operations
Center (CAOC).  This was initially not
seen as an issue because a large close air support (CAS) role was not in the
original plan.  Lastly, MG Hagenbeck did
not have tactical control over friendly Afghan forces.  The lack of unity of command would have a
significant impact on the operation as it played out.             Despite everything that had happened
up to this point, both on U.S. soil and in Afghanistan, U.S. officials
maintained the desire to deploy minimal forces to deal with the threat.  They did not want to openly commit to an
all-out invasion.  General Franks would
later go on record to state that CENTCOM’s goal was to keep the number of
troops on the ground below 10,000.  At
the start of the operation, CJTF Mountain would have approximately 1,200 troops
on ground conducting Operation Anaconda.  This was seen as an acceptable force to combat
an ill-equipped force of an estimated 200-300 combatants; however, we would
once again handicap ourselves.  CENTCOM
envisioned that the heavy weaponry brought to bear by the Air Force would be
more than enough to get the job done, so all of the Army’s infantry battalions
did not deploy with their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or artillery.  Additionally, the normal allocation of rotary
wing and logistical support assets was unavailable.   Staff members and commanders were planning
for the best case, most likely scenario, not the most dangerous.  This left ground forces with a sufficient
number of troops, but almost no heavy weapons or equipment.  The only heavy firepower that the Army could
bring to the fight was six AH-64 Apache helicopters and three AC-130 gunships
that were controlled by SOF, but only flew at night.  Due to the limited number of lift helicopters,
units were even restricted to a few 60mm and 81mm mortars and one 120mm mortar.
Friendly Afghan forces suffered similar deficiencies.  Not only were they underpowered, but they did
not have enough vehicles to move their own forces during the operation.  They were also not the battle-hardened
fighters, known as the Northern Alliance, which saw success early in the
war.  These men were from a group of
militias known as the Eastern Alliance. 
It fell on U.S. SOF units to organize and train these Soldiers.  A task that would normally take three months
was expected to be complete within one. 
To make the situation even worse, the friendly Afghan forces were
supposed to act as the main assaulting force into the valley due to the
estimated number of civilians living in the villages.             CENTCOM approved the plan on
February 17 and General Hagenbeck issued an operations order on February 20.  Operation Anaconda was comprised of three
smaller, interrelated operations.  U.S.
and coalition SOF, along with Afghan Soldiers, were to take up blocking
positions surrounding the Shahikot Valley. 
In theory they would prevent an impenetrable coil, like a constricting
snake, around the enemy forces to prevent exfiltration.  The Eastern Alliance, led by a local warlord
named Zia Lodin, and some U.S. SOF would be the driving force, or “hammer”,
during the operation.  TF Hammer would
then enter the valley at its southwestern opening.  They had orders to engage and destroy or
capture any opposition within the valley and drive the enemy towards the opening
on the other side.  TF Rakkasans,
comprised of 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne
Division Soldiers, would be there waiting and acting as the “anvil”.  In order for this operation to succeed the
hammer and anvil had to be executed exactly as planned.  Any deviation could result in the enemy
escaping or increased risk of friendly fire.  Air support was never seen as having a major
role during any part of the operation. 
The Air Force was responsible for conducting strikes on 13 preplanned
targets before TF Hammer entered the valley. 
Outside of that, they had planned to have enough aircraft to facilitate
on-call CAS, but only for the planned three day mission.  The CFACC and the CAOC were never involved in
the initial planning process.  The Air
Liaison Officers (ALO) on the ground with the Army units did recommend a plan
that incorporated two days of intense bombing prior to the operation; however,
the idea was dismissed by Army officers due to it eliminating the element of
surprise.  TF Mountain did plan for
unforeseen developments by implementing “branches and sequels” of the original
operational plan.  This included the
on-call CAS and some non-committed tactical reserve, but most of the thought
processing was going towards the main battle effort.  No one envisioned the resources and
adaptation that proved to be required in order for the operation to be
successful.             Operation Anaconda was set to begin
on 020630LMAR02.  One hour prior to
H-Hour, a B-1 bomber, a B-2 bomber, and two F-15E fighters were to engage the
preplanned targets.  With approximately
only half of their targets hit, the bombers received a message from the ground
calling for an immediate cease fire due to proximity to SOF units.  During the air strikes, TF Hammer was waiting
at the nearby village of Carwazi, but the initial phase of the operation did
not go as planned for them either.   With
their SOF guides, TF Hammer’s convoy of 35 vehicles left Gardez at about 1:30
a.m.  The unimproved roads and
inexperienced Afghan drivers proved to be a formidable foe in itself.  The convoy was eventually spread out over
several miles.  At one point, U.S. SOF departed
from the column to set up a blocking position at a terrain feature known as the
“Guppy”.   Before they could get in
position, they were engaged by a friendly AC-130 gunship.  The first casualties of the operation were
one U.S. SOF Soldier and two Afghani troops killed and another SOF Soldier and
12 Afghans wounded.  This incident along
with the shortened bombardment by the Air Force severely demoralized the
Afghani troops.  Shortly after resuming
movement from Carwazi, the convoy received incoming mortar rounds from firing
positions on the terrain feature known as the “Whale”.  U.S. SOF insisted that Zia’s forces dismount
and reach their objective on foot.  The
Afghani troops refused and instead sheltered in place.  SOF attempted to call in CAS, but most of the
assets were supporting TF Rakkasans to the east.  Lacking organization and confidence in the
mission, the Eastern Alliance began retreating back to Carwazi where they
stayed for about half the day before finally receiving orders from Zia to
return to Gardez.  Operation Anaconda’s
main battle effort, TF Hammer, was officially out of the fight.  This left TF Rakkasans, the anvil, to receive
the full fury of the enemy.             TF Rakkasans’ infiltration was
preceded by a flight of five AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.  Their mission was to do patrols through the
valley, secure landing zones, and provide CAS for the troops landing in
Chinooks.  Due to intense fire from small
arms and RPGs, two of the Apaches were forced to return to base after only 1.5
hours.  Two Apaches from the
non-committed reserve eventually the other three that were operational.  By the end of the day, the group of Apaches
fired more than 300 cannon rounds and rockets and a single Hellfire missile.  Each one of them sustained damage from small
arms fire, but were able to continue mission without significant repairs.             At approximately 0630L, 200 troops
from TF Rakkasans assaulted the eastern side of the Shahikot Valley via CH-47
Chinook helicopters in order to establish blocking positions and act as the
anvil.  An additional 200 troops were to
be inserted about 3.5 hours later.  The
Soldiers that landed toward the south end of the valley immediately came under
fire.  The attack was so fierce that the
U.S. troops were forced to establish a defensive position and stay the entire
day in a terrain feature known as Hell’s Halfpipe.  The insertion of the second wave of Soldiers
was postponed due to weather and hostiles in the area.  After nightfall, the Soldiers in Hell’s
Halfpipe were airlifted back to safety.             On the second day of Operation
Anaconda, the additional 200 troops were deployed in the northern part of the
valley.  They’re objective was to march
south in order to continue establish the remaining battle positions.  This task was made easier when the reserves
from TF Rakkasans were deployed later that day. 
By the end of day two, there were 500 U.S. Army and SOF Soldiers in the
Shahikot Valley.  Over the course of
several days, the American Soldiers eventually completed their part of the
plan, but it took much longer than originally anticipated.              The most well-known battle of the operation
came in the early morning of March 4th at approximately 0230 hours.  TF-11 sought to drop a Navy SEAL reconnaissance
team onto Takur Ghar’s peak, the highest point in the Shahikot Valley.  As soon as the SEALs were set to dismount,
the Chinook was hit by two RPGs, but was not catastrophically damaged.  While conducting evasive maneuvers, the ramp
still down, SEAL team member Chief Petty Officer Neil Roberts fell out of the
helicopter.  The Chinook flew to safety
where its’ SEALs boarded another aircraft to go back to the peak and recover
their fallen comrade.  This time they
made it to the peak, but again came under intense enemy fire and were force to
retreat into a defensive posture.  TF-11
sent another Chinook as Quick Reaction Force carrying nine Army Rangers.  They also received heavy fire from the enemy
and this time the Chinook was shot down. 
By the time additional friendly forces arrived and the enemy destroyed,
the fight that would become known as the Battle for Roberts’ Ridge claimed the
lives of seven U.S. Soldiers and wounded six more.               During Operation Anaconda, the enemy
had several factors working in their favor. 
The Shahikot Valley could be defended without a superior force due to
its natural caves, ridges, crevasses, and limited access routes.  The natural fortification provided by the
mountainous terrain greatly limited the effectiveness of the airstrikes.  Due to the elevation of 7,500-10,500 feet,
the weather was often cold, foggy, and windy. 
The Soviets assaulted the valley twice during the 1980s with far greater
ground forces than the U.S. brought to bear and both times they were repelled.            A second limiting factor was the
lack of good intelligence for the U.S. forces. 
Original estimates put 200-300 lightly armed combatants and 800-1000
civilians living in the Shahikot Valley.  The civilians and combatants were thought to
be mostly living in the valley’s four villages. 
This brought a significant concern for civilian casualties.  In order to best mitigate this, the plan for
friendly Afghan forces to lead the assault was born.  It was agreed that they were better able to
decide friend from foe.  Later events
showed that the number of enemies was between 700-1000 and that the villages
were almost deserted.  The fighters had
taken to the mountains and established pre-sighted, concealed firing positions
aimed at likely infiltration routes.  The
enemy was significantly better equipped than intelligence suggested, possessing
heavy machine guns, mortars, some artillery, and RPGs.  These were battle hardened combat veterans
that called for a jihad against the invading Americans.  They had no intention of retreating, but
instead gathered reinforcements.  The
U.S. military greatly underestimated its enemy and it cost them.             Operation Anaconda was an overall
success.  The operation wasn’t officially
complete until 17 days after it had begun; one that was only planned for three
days.  It taught the U.S. military a lot
about the way they would be fighting over the course of the next 10-15 years.            The 3rd Principle of War
is Mass.  The officials in the Whitehouse
and the Pentagon did not allow the U.S. military in Afghanistan to concentrate
its forces on the objective. Instead they were too worried about outward
appearance.  Had the Army been allowed to
use its strengths, such as armor and artillery, the operation would have likely
been conducted more efficiently.  The 6th
Principle of War is Unity of Command. 
The lack of it was visible in Operation Anaconda from even before
H-Hour.  The multi-headed command
structure that oversaw units from two different Army divisions, SOF units, and
aircraft from all services did not work. 
When the original plan began to unravel, it became difficult to create a
new one.  A joint forces commander,
controlling the battle from within the area of operations, could have made much
more timely and informed decisions. The military also learned the importance of
modern communications networks. 
Airstrikes conducted by the Air Force were arguably the deciding factor
in the success of the operation.  Without
them, the troops on the ground would have been at a significant
disadvantage.  These airstrikes were made
possible by satellite radios on the ground. 
Their effectiveness also stressed the importance of planning jointly.            Ultimately, victory was achieved due
to the military’s ability to adapt and the operation would provide invaluable
lessons learned for future battles.  The
initial plan may not have lasted past first contact, but the U.S. military
regained its composure and conformed to the new situation at hand.  The experiences and lessons learned from
Operation Anaconda, particularly the air-to-ground coordination, paved the way
for Operation Iraqi Freedom and the years of war to come.              
 ReferencesHeadquarters United States Air Force. (2005, February 7).
Anaconda Unclassified PDF.Isherwood, M. W. (2007). Five Years after Operation
Anaconda. Joint Forces Quarterly, (47), 4th qtr, 141-145. Retrieved December
04, 2017.Kugler,
R. (2007, February). Case-5-Operation Anaconda PDF.

Kugler, R. L., Baranick, M., & Binnendijk, H. (2009,
March). A496469 PDF. National Defense University.

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