Respond to this Article July/August 2005

War by Video Conference

How al Qaeda fought us to a draw in the biggest battle in Afghanistan.

By Phillip Carter

The crew of the Chinook helicopter hovering above noticed the footprints in the snow as they prepared to land on Takur Ghar, a forbidding, 10,469-foot high peak overlooking the Shahikot Valley of eastern Afghanistan. It was just before 3:00 a.m. on March 4, 2002, and U.S. forces were launching Operation Anaconda to wipe out a contingent of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. An A.C.-130 gunship flying just ahead of them had seemed to confirm earlier intelligence that there was no significant enemy presence in the valley. But as the crew waited for the landing ramp to drop, an al Qaeda fighter fired his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) into the Chinook, blowing out the electrical system and rendering the bird's navigational displays and radios useless. Shrapnel from a second RPG sliced through the aircraft, spraying hydraulic fluid all over the chopper floor. The Chinook had been on the ground for all of 45 seconds. Enemy soldiers were now visible to the naked eye, as was a donkey lashed to a tree and a goat or lamb carcass hanging from the branches.

Not a Good Day to Die
by Sean Naylor
Berkley Hardcover, $25.95

Clearly, the intelligence had been wrong. As the helicopter began to lift, a 32-year-old Navy SEAL named Neil Roberts, perhaps unable to hear that the chopper was trying to take off, "made as if to jump." It isn't clear what happened next. A comrade made a frantic grab for Roberts in vain as he slid out of the aircraft onto the ground below.

After falling into the snow, Roberts was hit in the thigh, yet he continued to fight ferociously with his light machine gun. He was losing blood so rapidly that he couldn't resist as the enemy soldiers dragged him to their bunker. A little over an hour and a half after he had fallen from his chopper, Roberts was dead with a single gunshot to the head. The other SEALs on Roberts's chopper mounted a rescue attempt, only to find themselves trapped too by tenacious enemy fighters.

An Army Ranger quick-reaction force eventually reached the stranded SEALs, but they, too, were hit by ground fire on the way in. The temperature was in the 20s, and at nearly 10,500 feet, these fittest of men were exhausted. In spite of the conditions, the Americans prevailed, securing the hilltop long enough to bring in more helicopters to evacuate them. But victory came at a tremendous cost. Seven of America's most elite warriors--Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Para Jumpers--died on the mountain that day, more losses than the American military has taken at any time in Afghanistan before or since.

Although Operation Anaconda would become the largest infantry battle fought in Afghanistan, it has never received the kind of attention paid to the war in Iraq. Enter Sean Naylor's Not a Good Day to Die, a book based partly on his reporting as one of the first journalists "embedded" with U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Naylor, an award-winning Army Times reporter, has pieced together an account of Operation Anaconda, including much that has previously been classified or known only to those who work in America's shadowy world of special operations. The book is dense with detail and an alphabet soup of military acronyms (non-military folks will find the upfront glossary helpful). But as a combat chronicle, the book holds its own. Men of valor and ineptitude come alive in its pages. There are moments both hilarious and heartbreaking, adding up to a good read. More than that, Not a Good Day to Die is a primer, if a 400-plus page book can be so described, for national security policy-makers interested in how not to fight a war.

Bad-plan-istan

Operation Anaconda began as an attempt to destroy what the U.S. military thought was a scattered group of about 250 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in and around the Shahikot Valley, 81 miles south of Kabul. A number of those fighters were thought to be high-value targets--many suspected Osama bin Laden might be among them. Having just failed to block the escape of al Qaeda forces (and possibly bin Laden) from Tora Bora, the military was determined not to make the same mistake again. And yet it did. Instead of a couple hundred jihadists, the Shahikot Valley region turned out to hold a few thousand. And though the military would declare Operation Anaconda a "victory," Army War College professor Stephen Biddle has written that it may have actually been a victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban, in that it showed they could stand up to a conventional U.S. force on the battlefield, much as they did to the Soviets two decades before.

Naylor is a reporter and storyteller who refrains from drawing hard conclusions about why Anaconda played out the way it did. But he provides ample evidence from which to understand the sources of the failure. And they are depressingly familiar. Bureaucratic turf wars, poor intelligence-gathering, an over-reliance on technology, a deeply flawed command structure, a shallow understanding of the history and character of the Afghans, and a strategic doctrine that limited the available number of troops all contributed to the debacle.

Not wishing to be seen as an imperial power like the Soviet Union, the Department of Defense was anxious to leave a "small footprint" in Afghanistan. Early reports indicated there would be no large fight in the Shahikot Valley. Indeed, U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Tommy Franks, felt the war was largely over by February 2002, and that all that was left were a few "mopping-up" operations. Consequently, Central Command sharply limited the number and kind of troops that were to come to Afghanistan and also turned down ground commanders' requests for more helicopters, supporting artillery, and infantrymen. Fewer boots on the ground was also part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's strategy of reforming the military--a strategy that didn't carry the day in Afghanistan, and that has failed spectacularly in Iraq.

Furthermore, the administration had its eye on Iraq--senior military officials were starting to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the war there as early as February 2002, clearly hoping that in Afghanistan a combination of technological superiority and Afghan proxies fighting for the United States would deliver success on the cheap.

In the weeks leading up to Anaconda, intelligence officers thought they had learned everything they could about the Shahikot Valley from satellite and other aerial surveillance. But disturbing rumors persisted that there might be more. One source picked up by the military said that the enemy was not in the valley but actually, Naylor writes, "living up on the ridgelines and coming into the villages to get supplies." Satellite photography caught one RPG, which, warned one officer, probably meant there were more, but no one knew just how many. A thousand enemy fighters were estimated to be in the valley. As it turned out, there may have been 10 times as many, and they weren't just in the valley but on the tactically crucial high ground above.

But U.S. commanders refused to change their plan. It was, according to the 10th Mountain Division's chief of operations Lt. Col. David Gray, "unreasonable to expect wholesale changes based on a single source." But, writes Naylor, "[chief planner Maj. Paul Wilie] acknowledged that writing the plan had been such a painful process of compromise and negotiation that nobody could face the prospect of tearing it up… simply because the enemy might not be where they were supposed to be."

Perhaps the biggest problem was the Rube Goldberg command structure created by Gen. Franks. The war was run from Tampa, Fla., 7,000 miles and 10 time zones away by video teleconferencing. Decisions were made by committee and on Eastern Standard Time, often with an eye towards how the decisions would be briefed to the press at the Pentagon. Naylor quotes a deputy commanding general's priceless description of the SecDef's daily press briefing:

"When SecDef started having a [press] briefing every day, it meant that for hours of that day you could not talk to the CENTCOM staff… . For hours of the day you were unable to get to a senior person to make a decision at CENTCOM because they were tied up prepping themselves for the SecDef's briefing. The SecDef called CENTCOM every morning. They had a morning telephone call and I believe they had an afternoon telephone call. And, for a couple of hours before that telephone call, you could not get [Gen. Franks's directors of operations or intelligence] and therefore you couldn't get a decision. … Numbers became so important that if the SecDef went to a briefing and we had reported that we had captured 14 Al Qaeda and it really turned out to be 12 or 16, then it would be easier to let two go or go back and capture two more rather than to try to change the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] number."

At least some of the failures might have been averted had Franks and his team tapped the right field commander. Naylor clearly thinks that choice should have been someone like Delta Force Lt. Col. Pete Blaber, whose elite teams reconnoitering the area provided the first hints that enemy forces might be larger than estimated. Instead, the Pentagon chose Air Force Brig. Gen. Gregory Trebon, who had never before commanded a ground operation, with Navy Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder as his deputy. Though the military has worked hard at what it calls "jointness," trying to get services working in tandem with one another, there was not much evidence of it under Trebon and Hyder. Hyder went so far as to communicate with his subordinates using a radio frequency he knew Blaber would not be monitoring. Trebon and Hyder were convinced that satellite feeds from Predator drones delivered to Navy and Air Force bases hundreds of miles away would be sufficient to run things. "The battle would," in Naylor's withering words, "be 'controlled' by officers watching video screens on a desert island and 'commanded' by a man who had made his name flying transport aircraft."

Two years after Anaconda, military analysts are still debating why those choppers on Takur Ghar never got close air support, and whether the Air Force provided enough firepower for the conventional infantry that followed the commandos. The Air Force, according to Army Special Forces troops, had promised to "soften" enemy targets with a 55-minute aerial bombardment while Air Force officers at Bagram Air Force base say they were aware of no such plans. Having left their artillery at home, the Army's conventional infantry depended on aircraft for heavy firepower. As often happens in combat, the best-laid plans went awry, leaving hundreds of infantrymen to fight with only the weapons they had carried in on their backs.

Al Qaeda, of course, fought with no such bureaucratic limits on their organization; intelligence moved among the enemy as fast as a cell phone call. Having seized the high ground, al Qaeda fighters were able to rain mortar rounds and rifle fire down on the Army's conventional infantry virtually at will, subject to occasional harassment from the limited number of aircraft that made it into the fight.

Naylor is almost despairing of the American military's wholesale dependence on high-tech warfare and its de-emphasis on troop numbers and the human factor. High-tech solutions are appropriate in certain cases; unmanned aerial vehicles provide excellent general reconnaissance capability, especially for places too dangerous or too remote to be reached by ground troops. But there are limits to these solutions, as evidenced by their failure to properly assess the al Qaeda presence in the Shahikot Valley. Nor were they able to find bin Laden and Mullah Omar in the caves of Tora Bora. Right now, the Army and Marines have only a few active infantry units in Afghanistan, and, by all indications, more are needed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

American special-operations forces have been critical to any U.S. successes in Afghanistan. Three teams with fewer than 20 commandos contributed more to Operation Anaconda than did three entire battalions of conventional infantry--nearly 1,500 soldiers--reports Naylor. He points out those commandos are ideal soldiers for the new, smaller wars we are likely to fight in the future, particularly against irregulars and guerrilla forces.

Unfortunately, these elite forces have been stretched to their breaking point by back-to-back wars in Central and Southwest Asia. As with any precious resource, they should be husbanded with care.

U.S. commanders claimed victory after Operation Anaconda ended. However, this book makes it clear that such a victory--if it can be called that--owes not to the planning or leadership of the generals, but to the extraordinary ability of U.S. soldiers to adapt under fire. Naylor writes admiringly of the mettle shown by American soldiers: "It was a sergeant's fight, all right, and the sergeants were giving it everything they had. Their soldiers didn't let them down. Pinned down and surrounded by an enemy that outnumbered and outgunned them, and who were fighting with a ferocity that no one had predicted, the young infantrymen responded to the chaos and confusion with a courage that surprised even their NCOs." Thanks in part to Naylor's on-the-spot reporting, these soldiers' exploits will not be forgotten. But it is not enough to simply praise the troops for their courage under fire. We owe it to them, and to the generations that will succeed them, to take the lessons from the Afghan battlefield to the next fight.

Phillip Carter is an attorney and Army reserve officer recently mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom who writes on national security issues for The Washington Monthly.


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