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    Operation Anaconda: Into the Afghan Mountains

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    Operation Anaconda is a significant battle waged during the Global War on Terror in the high mountain ranges of Eastern Afghanistan.

    “No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.” That quote stems from a 19th century essay written by Helmuth von Moltke, a Prussian military commander. [source] The brevity and brilliance within that idea acts as a preserve, with its wisdom being recycled by some of the greatest military commanders and minds to live since its inception.

    General Tommy Franks (Ret.) ranks amongst those minds. During his tenure as the Commanding General of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Franks led the invasion of Afghanistan, and according to scholar Richard Kugler echoed Moltke’s adage when summarizing the result of Operation Anaconda. In Kugler’s words, Gen. Franks [source]:

    “portrayed Operation Anaconda, as an ‘absolute and unqualified success,’ but one in which the original U.S. military battle plan ‘didn’t survive the first contact with the enemy.’”

    That paradoxical language is sufficient when describing Operation Anaconda. Although it had a start as rocky as the battlefield terrain, the constrictor squeezed every remaining breath from its prey.

    Prelude to Operation Anaconda

    The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was far from large in scale. On the 7th of October 2001, a U.S. led task force entered the graveyard of empires in search of Osama bin Laden, and the annihilation of the Taliban regime that sheltered his terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda.

    Special operations units and personnel spearheaded OEF in its early days, along with the CIA’s paramilitary wing. Alongside them were their NATO counterparts, and Afghanistan’s homegrown Northern Alliance forces. The Battle of Tora Bora is the first major event in the war involving the primitive OEF task force taking place in the Nangarhar Province between the 6th and 17th of December 2001. Bin Laden allegedly hid in the Tora Bora cave system of the White Mountains, yet reportedly escaped before capture.

    Crags of War

    By this time, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are weak in strength thanks to the OEF campaign. Many of them fled the country, but in January 2002, intelligence reporting was hinting at a potential comeback. Kugler states [source],

    “U.S. officials began receiving intelligence reports suggesting that enemy forces, including al-Qaeda, were assembling in the Shahikot Valley. This valley was a natural place for the enemy to regroup its forces after its earlier defeats.”

    Afghanistan’s Paktia province is the land containing the Shahikot Valley. The terrain is as treacherous as the fighting it has experienced, both before and during Operation Anaconda. It sits nestled between the steep mountains and is only five miles long and two and a half miles wide. That topographical nomenclature makes Shahikot a piece of key terrain that is easy to defend, and a potential death trap for an invading force.

    Intelligence reporting that led to Operation Anaconda came from an analyst within the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force – Counter Terrorism (JIATF-CT). This team is Task Force Bowie. The analyst noticed patterns that hinted at a potential regrouping of surviving al-Qaeda personnel within the Shahikot Valley. Other analysts from the task force corroborated the initial judgement, which led to operational planning. [source]

    Operation Anaconda
    Strategic map of the terrain in Operation Anaconda [source]

    The Boa Slithered over the Mountain

    Live anacondas are a species of snake from the boa family. Instead of having strong venom, boas wrap around their prey, squeezing and constricting it until its heart ceases to beat.

    The brass planned Operation Anaconda around that idea. The snake being the combined armed organism of ground and air units, and the al-Qaeda insurgents in the Shahikot Valley as the prey.

    In this scenario, however, the NATO forces were not high on the local food chain. Not that they lacked the ability or prestige within the involved units to defeat the insurgents. Instead, it was the terrain and conditions that awarded the enemy a strong home-field advantage.

    Task Force Bowie’s intelligence reporting estimated an enemy composition of roughly 100-250 fighters on the valley floor, which sat at just around the 8000 feet of altitude mark. The method to the madness designed by the operational planners was a historic “hammer and anvil” assault, using a “hammer” element to push through and clear the valley, and an “anvil” comprising blocking positions along the exit points, that will keep the fleeing insurgents from movement.

    Combined Forces

    Coalition forces were roughly 2000 personnel: 900 Americans, 200 US special operators, and 200 special operators from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, and New Zealand. Friendly Afghan troops topped off the roster, although none from the Northern Alliance that had prior combat experience. [source]

    American units include some of the most trained for that type of mission. DEVGRU, Delta Force, Combat Tactical Air Controllers, the 75th Ranger Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, JSOC, CIA Special Activities Division, and the 160th SOAR, just to name a few.

    Foreign aid came primarily from other special operations units from coalition partners. That includes the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, German Kommando Spezialkräfte, the New Zealand SAS, Danish Jaeger Corps, and others.

    On the 1st of March 2002, the snake hunted its prey.

    Operation Anaconda
    Operation Anaconda on a map [source]

    Operation Anaconda Uncurls

    Planners claimed Operation Anaconda would be a three-day battle. Instead, it lasted seven.

    Projected enemy troop numbers were also quite far off. Instead of around 200 fighters in the valley, there were about 700 to 1000 in the hills surrounding the valley. There was an array of established positions, including anti-aircraft weaponry and mortars, that were zeroed in on the valley floor. Ancient tunnel systems littered the mountains, providing al-Qaeda with ample cover and freedom of movement.

    On the coalition side, many things went wrong. As Kugler writes [source],

    “Their mission initially was to patrol the valley and check each landing zone for crew-served weapons and enemy troops. After the helicopters had deposited the ground troops, the Apaches were to provide fire support to Task Force Rakkasans. From the moment they swept over the valley, they began taking intense enemy fire from rifles, machine guns, and RPGs.”

    Striking Hammer, Enduring Anvil

    Task Force Rakkasans received orders to assume the “anvil” role in the operation. Most of its men are from the 10th Mountain Division. Higher command tasked the unit with establishing the seven blocking positions that prevent insurgents from fleeing. The first wave took fire upon insertion and got pinned down, stopping initial positions from being established until days later.  

    Task Force Hammer’s role is exactly as it sounds. It comprises Afghan forces augmented by special operators. Prior to their entrance into the valley, military officials planned an array of air strikes on various targets. Only half of those strikes concluded before being called off because of the potential of friendly fire. And that is just the beginning.

    The series of misfortunes that plagued the first part of Operation Anaconda seemed to come one after the next. Failed air strikes and pre-op intelligence failures are just the tip. Since they did not expect fighting to be fierce, the ground troops were not heavily armed. Air assets were in a similar situation. They were part of the plan, but the operational command underestimated their need.

    And then, there is Takur Ghar…

    The Battle of Takur Ghar

    The 3rd of March. Operation Anaconda had been ongoing for three days. Fighting remained fierce.

    After deliberations between General Franklin Hagenbeck, the commanding officer of the 10th Mountain Division, and the Joint Special Operations Task Force, a mission found life. The goal: establish an observation post on one of the taller mountain peaks that surrounded the valley, Takur Ghar. [source]

    Sitting at 10,000-feet, Takur Ghar is a prime position for setting up an observation post. They tasked two teams of SEALs from DEVGRU: Master Chief Special Warfare Operator, Britt K. Slabinski led MAKO 30, and Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder led MAKO 21. 

    Originally, teams planned to be inserted around the 4000-foot elevation mark at night. They approached the summit on foot under the cover of darkness. Air strikes, which stopped operators from landing, foiled the plan. The teams made the call to be inserted onto the peak of Takur Ghar before dawn. Daybreak could sabotage the covert approach to summit the peak.  

    Landing in Fire

    Two MH-47 Chinooks are the dedicated transport for the two SEAL teams, callsigns Razor 03 and Razor 04. Prior to the insertion, an AC130 Spectre, callsign Nail 22, received the task of conducting a reconnaissance flight over the area. The recon concluded quickly, with no reports of an enemy presence. Chief Slabinski held reservations about the results but accepted it because of the crew’s prior track record.

    RAZOR 03 (carrying MAKO 30) reached the peak of Takur Ghar around 0300. The aircraft picked up signs suggesting a fresh human presence, contrary to the AC-130 recon sweep. After action reporting shows that the insurgents on the peak used natural camouflaging techniques over established fighting positions that are undetectable to the aircraft’s surveillance equipment.

    Just as the bird neared touchdown, the insurgents ambushed the men, who got peppered with RPGs and small arms fire. The enemy fire damaged the helicopter, including cutting through hydraulic fuel lines which leaked all throughout the back. Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts was near the exit ramp and slipped, falling about ten feet off the back to the ground. Friendly forces could not rescue PO1 Roberts after the fall, and RAZOR 03 ended up making a crash landing.[source]

    Following the Fallen of Operation Anaconda

    The remaining members of MAKO 30 traveled to PO1 Roberts’ location on another helicopter, and attempted a rescue, not knowing he fell. Once again, insurgents empowered the men with firepower, essentially pinning them down on the mountain.

    Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman, the team’s radio operator, supposedly received a fatal wound during the fierce combat. Chief Slabinski made the call to break contact and get his remaining men off Takur Ghar, leaving behind the assumed deceased bodies of Roberts and Chapman.

    Higher command dispatched a quick reaction force of Army Rangers and an airman from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron from Bagram airfield. They would end up meeting the same fate as the prior two flights. The insurgents directed a barrage of rockets and small arms at the helicopter, instantly killing five men. By the end of the battle, which lasted 17 hours, seven troops were killed, and twelve wounded.

    Technical Sergeant Chapman and Master Chief Slabinski each winning the medal of honor for their actions during the battle, the former posthumous and the latter in 2018. 

    CAS to the Rescue

    Operation Anaconda not have had an ideal start, but after a few days and some recalibration, the tide turned for the better.

    Close air support was an element that was not properly planned for in the beginning, but was what ended up being the lifeboat for the ground elements locked in combat with the overwhelming al-Qaeda forces. The shift came somewhere around day three of the operation, when the various agencies handling different parts of the air component worked out a deconfliction plan. [source]

    Kugler writes,

    “The arrival of additional A-10s, AC-130s, and Apache attack helicopters provided a larger number of aircraft that were originally designed for CAS missions, thus lessening reliance upon high-flying fighters and bombers for hitting difficult targets with JDAMs.”

    After a week of continuous bombing, the ground forces were finally in each blocking position, and the worst part was over. The remaining days of Operation Anaconda were relatively uneventful, as they swept the land for remaining fighters and conducted post-battle assessments.

    Some may call it a success, albeit one that endured grand failure before reaching the end, including the loss of 8 coalition lives, 7 afghan allies, and over 80 wounded.

    The snake finally coiled. Not only that, but the lessons learned from the aftermath highlighted the potential strength of a solid combined arms plan, one that would be a test subject the following year with the US invasion of Iraq, and continuing on until the formal end of the GWOT in 2022.

    Michael Ellmer
    Michael Ellmer
    Michael is a Senior Intelligence Analyst at Grey Dynamics. He spent eight years as an infantryman in the Marine Corps, with tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Theater. Upon leaving the service, he completed his undergraduate degree at Seattle Pacific University with a focus on communications studies. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis at Brunel University London.

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