One of America’s most important battles occurred at the turn of the century, and beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom with Operation Anaconda in the Shahi-Kot Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Operation Anaconda, which occurred in March 2002, was a very difficult battle against Al-Qaeda enemies in a very rough mountainous area under terrible weather conditions. By then this battle was also America’s biggest battle fought since Operation Desert Storm, and one of America’s highest-altitude battle in which American soldiers fought (Naylor, 2005). Even though Operation Anaconda ended with a victory for the U.S. and its allied forces, there were at least eight American soldiers killed in action (KIA), and more than 50 wounded in action (WIA) (Kugler, Baranick, & Binnendijk, 2009). The difficulties experienced by U.S. forces at the beginning of the battle occurred after imperfect air-ground battle miscommunication caused ground forces to withdraw from the Shahi-Kot Valley. Those difficulties provide very important lessons on better planning process, organization, and training of U.S. forces in future joint military operations. This paper attempts to explain how the ineffective communication of Joint Forces Commanders’ and their failure to conduct multi-echelon and concurrent training, and develop proper operational adaptability resulted in initial U.S. casualties during Operation Anaconda.
Background: Operation Enduring Freedom
Operation Enduring Freedom started soon after the 9/11 attacks of New York City’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the plane crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When Intelligence information indicated that, an Islamic organization named Al Qaeda directed by Osama Bin Laden had been responsible for those attacks from Afghanistan, the U.S. government demanded that the Taliban government hand over Al Qaeda terrorists. Since the weak Taliban government refused, the U.S. along with allied coalition forces sent Special Forces detachments that were very successful in forming alliances with Afghan militias who were fighting the Taliban. Towards the end of 2011, the Taliban had lost control of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital Kabul, Kunduz in the north, and Kandahar in the south to Afghan militias, which were under the control Hamid Karzai who would be the president of Afghanistan until 2014. Thus, the Al Qaeda forces lost the support of the Taliban, and retreated to a very rugged mountainous area with fortified caves and in the Pashtun highlands of eastern Afghanistan.
The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) took control over the deployment of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Some of the joint task forces that participated were 10th Mountain Division’s Task Force Mountain, Special Operations Group Task Force Dagger, and 101st Airborne Division Task Force Rakkasan (Fleri & Howard, 2003). Likewise, there were some Afghan militias, whose training fell under the responsibility of Special Operation forces. During the planning process of Operation Anaconda, two issues quickly developed: the difficulty in acquiring good intelligent information, and a fragmented chain of command (Kugler, Baranick, & Binnendijk, 2009). Furthermore, CENTCOM had decided the main force for the initiation of this battle would be the approximately 300 poorly trained Afghan troops despite the fact that there were three U.S. light-infantry battalions (Naylor, 2005). CENTCOM had also decided not to use any artillery forces, apparently because it wanted to avoid the heavy artillery losses endured by the Soviets during the Soviet-Afghan War in the l980s (Naylor, 2005).
At the end of February 2002 CENTCOM and the rest of the U.S. Forces decided the day of the attack for Operation Anaconda. The plan included Special Operations Forces (SOF) reconnaissance missions; SOF, and Afghan Militias’ blocking entrances for the northern and southern end of the valley; U.S. light-infantry conducting a helicopter assault on the eastern part of the Shahi-Kot Valley; and destroying Al-Qaeda terrorists as they escape to the opposite side of the valley (Kugler, Baranick, & Binnendijk, 2009). On February 28, 2002, Operation Anaconda begins as Special Operations Forces placed themselves in the northern side of the valley, and close to the position where the Afghan militia would infiltrate later on. Meanwhile, when Task Force Hammer, which included the Afghan militia and two SOF teams, enter the valley in vehicles, one of their trucks overturns. Then, TF Hammer got mistaken as Al-Qaeda terrorists and got attacked by an AC-130 aircraft resulting in the death of an American soldier and three Afghan soldiers (Naylor, 2005). As the battle continues, U.S. and coalition forces encountered heavy resistance from the Al-Qaeda fighters. Towards the end of the battle on March 14, U.S. forces destroyed Al-Qaeda forces and hundreds of terrorists perished (Fleri & Howard, 2003).
Training Management Principles
Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 7-0 establishes the guidelines by which Commanders are responsible for training to accomplish the mission (Department of the Army, 2018). During Operation Anaconda, Joint Forces Commanders failed to conduct proper training on subordinate joint forces units. For example, poor communication led to the attack of TF Hammer by an AC-130 aircraft, which mistook TF Hammer for Al-Qaeda soldiers. Likewise, approximately 300 Afghan militiamen had two weeks of training in soldiering skills. Afghan troops were also kept uniformed during most of this operation and received new information with very little of no notice. Likewise, during this battle, air and ground forces had trouble in properly interpreting communication processes to use for close air-ground support. It is the commanders’ responsibility to ensure soldiers receive air-ground contact training down to the tactical level (Fleri & Howard, 2003).
Training to Develop Operational Adaptability
Operation Anaconda was the perfect scenario to train to develop operational adaptability. Many inevitable changes in mission required adequate training, such as getting to know the operational environment of Shaki-Kot Valley. Intelligence information about enemy threats is essential to conduct this type of training. Unfortunately, Intel information was very inaccurate.
Conducting Multi-Echelon and Concurring Training
Multi-echelon training permits the concurrent training on one or more echelon on different tasks (Department of the Army, 2018) Joint Forces during Anaconda showed very little unity of command, and therefore, there was little or no multi-echelon training. During Anaconda, commanders failed to train and implement battle plans to perform with available forces on the ground. In addition, conducting multi-echelon training with coalition and allied military forces will reassure that they will get the required tactical knowledge for working with American forces (Fleri & Howard, 2003).
In summary, the ineffective communication of Joint Forces Commanders’ and their failure to conduct multi-echelon and concurrent training, and develop proper operational adaptability resulted in initial U.S. casualties during Operation Anaconda. Operation Anaconda provides the U.S. military with valuable lessons to learn and apply in future joint and multinational operations.
- Department of the Army. (2018, August). ADP 7-0 Training. Washington, DC: Army Publishing Directorate. Retrieved May 12, 2019, from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN12051_ADP%207-0%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
- Fleri, E., & Howard, E. H. (2003, November 13). Operation Anaconda Case Study. Maxwell AFB , Alabama: College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education.
- Kugler, R., Baranick, M., & Binnendijk, H. (2009, March). Retrieved May 12, 2019, from Defense Technical Information Center: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a496469.pdf
- Naylor, S. (2005, April 18). Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Afghanistan’s Operation Anaconda. The Army Times. Retrieved May 08, 2019, from The Army Times: http://www.2ndbn5thmar.com/CoTTP/AnacondaNaylor.pdf