Captured by the One-Eyed Cyclops (I): Vest Report

March 22, 2002

Comment #442

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 427, 429, 431, 434, 438 Attached References:

[1] David H. Hackworth, "Will They Ever Get It Right?" DefenseWatch (, March 20, 2002

[2] Ilene R. Prusher, "Al Qaeda's Ploy: Parry And Run," The Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2002, Pg. 1.

This is the first of an occasional series of blasters discussing different points of view regarding the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. My hope is to encourage constructive discussion, and perhaps contribute in some small way to a successful outcome of a war that may be veering off in a troubling direction. [See References 1 & 2 below]

At its most fundamental level, the conduct of any war is a clash of independent (read unpredictable) wills, where the creative spirit may be impeded by friction, but is always free to roam. Put more abstractly, war can be viewed as an unpredictable interaction among adversarial decision cycles – i.e., competing Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops. The OODA Loop, therefore, is a good frame of reference for understanding the conduct of a training exercise, an ongoing war, or a rendering of military history [see Comments #348 and #252, for example].

In the attached essay Jason Vest presents a stunning portrayal of the cognitive dissonance flowing out of the conflicting OODA loops on our side of the fight, including those of the American commanders versus their erstwhile Afghan allies and, more importantly, those of the American leaders versus the lower ranking officials in the military and CIA. At the core of the disconnect are the differing views of Operation Anaconda, the battle recently fought at Shah-i-Kot, which is also the largest battle to date in the current Afghan war, which many news commentators and lessons-learned gurus had thought was successfully competed in December.

The view of senior American officials reflects our long-standing cultural predilection (read Orientation) to view events through a lens of technology and theories of industrial management embedded seamlessly in the old (failed) French theory of methodical battle, which was first translated into US Army manuals shortly after World War I. This orientation is reinforced by the VISIONs used in Pentagon briefing documents (like Joint Vision 2020) that postulate military capabilities taking the form of all knowing, all seeing "system of systems" linking sensors, shooters, and commanders to produce a common (read synchronized) picture of the battlefield at all levels of the organization. This arrangement will lift the fog of war and permits leaders far from the scene of action to "manage" a battle war with scientific precision. The most extreme version of this outlook leads to a great dependence on robots and is known as the Revolution in Military Affairs or RMA.

While senior leaders claimed Operation Anaconda was an unequivocal success (in part because their faith in their god's eye view of the battlefield enabled them to infer it was a success - more on this below), our Afghan allies and many of the worker bees interviewed by Vest say it failed, precisely because the theory of the God's eye view failed once again, this time starting with an intelligence failure that delayed operations and ultimately led to a poor attack plan that allowed the senior Al Qaida and Taliban leadership slipped away again. If they are correct, this failure has dire implications, because there is now a real danger that the enemy will regroup for a serious guerrilla war when the warm weather comes [See Reference 2], and our leadership may not be oriented toward coping with it. In short, Vest's report is about an argument that is tantamount to an assertion that the American leadership is becoming disconnected from its environment. Nevertheless, the all-seeing, all-knowing technology of the called the Revolution in Military Affairs remains central to the rigid American strategy, not to mention the defense budget, that must now cope with the fluidity of tribal war and the irregular mind of the traditional mountain warrior.


By Jason Vest
March 22, 2002

[A shorter version of this piece appears in the April 8 issue of The American Prospect. Vest is an independent writer whose articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly [see , for example], The American Prospect, and the Village Voice ]


Last fall I interviewed a number of current and former CIA officers who worked the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during the days of the mujahideen's fight against the Soviets. I also spoke with current and retired military officers, some with combat experience ranging from Vietnam, to the Gulf War, or the Balkans. The war in Afghanistan was in its earliest stages then, and most of the people I interviewed asked me to keep their comments off the record for the time being, "hoping against hope," as one put it, "that this will all work out."

Yet the general sense among them was one of reservation – not because they thought the Taliban would hold on to power but out of concerns about the state of U.S. military strategy and intelligence. Would the United States field the right troops at the right times in the right places? Would the best people be sought out and listened to in devising strategy and tactics? Were American forces really prepared to fight in the rugged, high-altitude conditions of Afghanistan? Would civilian leadership devise a sensible overall strategy, and would sound military tactics follow?

In recent weeks, I spoke again with some of the same military personnel. Naturally, all are in favor of terminating al Qaeda with extreme prejudice, and all are confident that the United States and its allies will eventually prevail. But they're also concerned about how easily that end will be achieved.

All expressed reservations about segments of the military chain of command – particularly the Army's - who are engaging in wishful thinking about resources, capabilities, and political realities. They warned of an operational myopia creating a situation that's quite the opposite of the theory of dominant battlespace knowledge that is at the heart of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" or "transformation" being espoused by the bureaucracy, celebrated by the pundits, and longed for by the industrialists.

With the war entering a new phase of protracted guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operation in the mountains, my aim in this essay is to examine some of the ramifications of this wishful thinking and myopia.


One of the biggest problems now afflicting the U.S. military flows out of the two things separating it from virtually any other force in the world – its large size (in manpower and materiel) and its high-complexity technology (particularly the "networked" array of robotic sensors, computers, and precision-guided weapons and their accompanying theories of friction-free warfare). When applied in combat, the combination of size and technology leaves one with the impression that the defeat of an enemy of any size, anywhere, is inevitable.

So, however and whenever success is realized, most Americans are content to assume that everything worked as it should have – or if they didn't, it really doesn't matter – since the ostensible objectives were achieved. Politicians of every stripe and careerist soldier-bureaucrats – often abetted by less-than-knowledgeable or cheerleading journalists and self-interested industrialists – thrive on such views, because the perceived end can be easily spun to obscure flaws in the means.


The war in Kosovo should have been a warning about the psychological dangers of this kind of incestuous amplification: Recall how liberal interventionists praised it as model of 21st Century war, worthy of emulation in other theaters, because precision aerial bombardment achieved a political purpose, as one enthusiast put it, by "stopping the ethnic cleansing and allowing the Kosovars to go home".

Echoing such views on the martial front were those of the influential military historian John Keegan (and others) who decreed that Operation Allied Force had shown ground forces to be bordering on obsolescence.

Unfortunately, these assessments neglected realities that concerned many of the professional soldiers I have interviewed over the last several years. Let's look first at Kosovo and then segue to Afghanistan.

Some officers, for example, pointed out that thousands of Kosovar lives might have been saved, a refugee crisis likely averted, the economic destruction of Serbia avoided, and the crisis window more quickly closed if, rather than relying on high-tech airborne ordnance, Operation Allied Force had been designed around a rapid deployment to Kosovo of highly mobile ground forces backed up by close air-support.

To be sure, we would have incurred casualties, but these officers believe a more decisive strategic outcome might have set the grand-strategic stage for a more durable stability in the Balkans. They note that after more than two months of sustained bombing by an alliance of 13 of the world's most advanced nations, the political "end" was ultimately achieved due to Russian intervention, coupled with a reduction of Allied demands, promulgated at the G8 meeting in May 1999, to a level Serbia had effectively agreed to at Rambouillet prior to the war.

Bear in mind, a key facet of the military objective was not achieved: the prime target of our military efforts, the Yugoslav Army, rolled out of Kosovo largely intact – we destroyed only 14 tanks, 12 self-propelled guns, 14 armored personnel carriers, and 6 towed artillery pieces, not the hundreds claimed by Nato's headquarters. But as had been the case in Vietnam and the Gulf War, once again the military brass used a linguistic sleight-of-hand to grossly exaggerate the amount of damage done, telling the American people that hundreds of these vehicle had been destroyed. The real effect of the bombing would have remained an unknown reality were it not for a few courageous military officers who took the initiative to get the truth out. While many in America reveled in the outcome as an technological tour de force, quite a few current and former officers saw it as another example of how the US partially chose, and partially was unable, to go engage an enemy operating with a more unconventional set of tactics, underscoring some real shortcomings in US military cumbersome logistics and its continued adherence to the obsolete attrition doctrine of methodical battle.

[New readers interested in learning more about the limitations of the Kosovo operation are referred to the archive , particularly Comments #s 252 and 318.]


Its worth recalling the cognitive dissonance of Kosovo, because today, we're moving into a similar albeit far more dangerous set of circumstances.

With pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda "bubbling up all over Afghanistan," to borrow the memorable phrase of a British defense official quoted in a recent issue of the Telegraph, cognitive dissonance will be more difficult to ignore in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the emerging theory of "virtual attrition" suggests that the military is again falling prey to its techno-seductions.

This can be seen in statements made after the completion of Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. The Army commander on the scene told reporters we killed between 500 and 800 enemy fighters but allied Afghan commanders said they found on 50 to 60 bodies and our Canadian allies say there only a few direct engagements [see Boston Globe, March 20, pg. 29]. Nevertheless the American commander has stuck to his claim. The logic supporting his claim can be found in a page 1 report of the March 19 issue of the New York Times, which said "Senior Pentagon officials also declined today to estimate the number of enemy fighters killed. But they said surveillance images indicate that few enemy fighters have fled the region, suggesting that many, if not most, had died in the fierce fighting."

In other words, our surveillance technology (especially the TV cameras in the Predator drone) enables American commanders to see the battlefield with so much clarity and precision that the absence of information about enemy troop movements is evidence they could not move and were therefore dead. Bear in mind, this astounding claim is made in reference to the outcome of an operation that began with a spectacular intelligence failure about the location of enemy troops in the helicopter landing zones (American troops landed on top of enemy position in what was called a hot LZ in Vietnam).


Prior to Anaconda, the storyline in Afghanistan boiled down to an assertion that we had discovered a magic formula for waging successful war in the 21st Century. We could achieve our objectives and minimize casualties by using the following combination of capabilities: smart bombs targeted by precision intelligence flowing out of satellites as well as the Global Hawk and Predator UAVs. + small numbers of special forces on the ground to fine tune the targeting + larger numbers of local troops to serve as our proxies in the ground battle against an enemy now weakened by the bombardment. To be sure, we would still need Special Forces deployed to help further the process of mopping up the disorganized remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and we would need to retain additional US troops stood in local bases as a ready reserve to conduct search and destroy operations, guided by the same precision intelligence capabilities, to truncate any reorganization or regrouping of enemy fighters, should it begin to occur. This formula would then permit the US could begin to bring a modicum of order to a chaotic, hostile area and make up for past sins and aid the in rebuilding of Afghanistan.

By early December, pundits and reporters were waxing eloquently about how this formula quickly defeated and routed the enemy with an awesomely effective aerial bombardment. Their raft of "lessons learned' articles claimed the Revolution in Military Affairs and the attendant theory of dominant battlespace knowledge had been vindicated. Uncritical enthusiasm reached even higher levels among senior Pentagon civilians and hawkish commentators (most of whom avoided Vietnam or had not seen military service) who began advocating the same formula (PGMs + SF + Proxies) could be applied to the completely different conditions of Iraq [see Washington Times, December 4]. CNN did its part to inflame the mindless euphoria by filing reports (accompanied by the graphic "Everybody Loves Rummy") about how in love the Pentagon press corps is with the man they're supposed to have an adversarial relationship with, and field correspondents waxed patriotic from C-130 cargo bays or under F-14 contrail-streaked Afghan skies.

Then came the battle of Tora Bora in mid December. Early reports said the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and leadership were "trapped," but it eventually became clear that they escaped. Nevertheless, by mid-December, a sense of triumphalism remained in the air, notwithstanding cautionary remarks from senior officials in Pentagon press conferences. Little noticed by the reporters and pundits was a reason for the Pentagon's caution.

Intelligence analysts began to suspect that a large albeit unknown number of Taliban and al Qaeda had simply dispersed in classical guerrilla fashion and disappeared with their weapons into the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A wide range of estimates is now available from online open-source intelligence organizations with close connections to military intelligence sources. At the lower end, estimated on December 23 that a hard-core of 5,000 to 10,000 of the best-armed and most highly motivated Taliban fighters retreated to well prepared positions in the mountains. At the upper end of the scale, DEBKAfile, an Israeli based open source intelligence organization with a reputation for making "worst-case" analyses based on information gleaned from inside sources, estimated on December 31 that as many as 21,000 to 24,000 Taliban and 3,000 to 3,500 al Qaeda fighters had escaped

It also became clear at Tora Bora that the goals of the warlords leading the Afghan proxy forces did not always coincide with US goals. If the proxy forces could not be trusted, then the magic formula was fatally flawed - and that fear set the stage for the conception of Operation Anaconda, which was designed around the commitment of a significant number of regular Army troops as well as Afghan proxies to the fight.

Claiming they had found a universal formula was a amateurish idea. There are no fixed recipes in war, because nothing is ever the same, and even if it looks the same, people will act on previous experience. Moreover, adherence to a formula makes one rigid and predictable, and that makes it easy for your adversary to counter your actions. The glorification of the magic formula in early December by the high level civilians in the Pentagon and its uncritical acceptance by the press is indicative of a deeper myopia, and in my opinion, that myopia is still causing a series of dubious decisions in Afghanistan.

Let us leave Mount Olympus and shift our orientation to lower levels of social organization.


Almost without exception, the active and retired CIA and military officers I interviewed last Fall feared that elements of civilian and military leadership were vulnerable to wishful or status-quo thinking about resources, capabilities and political realities. Almost with exception, they also believed the civilian leadership was overly enthusiastic about the effects of the so-called military-technical revolution on military's operational capabilities to defeat a wily foe in a harsh environment. This enthusiasm, they believed, fed a sense of exceptionalism and unilateral(ism) in the use of military power.

Operational Art and the Question of Maneuver

My sources weren't particularly concerned about or surprised by a speedy "collapse" of the Talibs' initial position. They were more worried about what would happen when the Taliban dispersed in the face of American firepower. In an interview echoing his comments in late September, Army Major Donald Vandergriff – author and editor of several books on strategy, tactics and personnel – noted that a push against the cadre of bin Laden and Mullah Omar would likely be a quick victory. "You had an enemy that had been fighting the Northern Alliance for years; the Northern Alliance wasn't doing enough in terms of attacking, and the Taliban was fighting from fortified trench positions that were equipped to deal with direct ground fire, but not air attack," he said. "You bring in air power with Special Forces guys designating targets and pushing the Northern Alliance to really attack, a collapse is a given."

Vandergriff wasn't the only one with this view before the fighting commenced. On October 3, several days before the bombing started, Alex Spillius reported in the Telegraph that the Taliban had no internal support among the Afghans. He said the local Pashtun tribes were ready to revolt. Afghan sources told him that the Taliban would quickly collapse, because many of the Taliban rank and file were about to mutiny. They also told him that Mullah Omar and most high-level officials had already fled to the hills (presumably to prepare for the inevitable guerrilla war).

The initial phase of the bombing campaign against the Taliban's non-existent infrastructure, with its attendant collateral damage, may in fact have created a counterproductive "rally round the flag" effect that slowed down the spread of the Pashtun rebellion.

A CIA veteran of the Mujhadeen days I interviewed on October 1 was equally unequivocal: "The Taliban is not that strong of a force, and it's not going to take much to kick them over."

H. Thomas Hayden, a former Marine Lieutenant Colonel who's written on modern military operations, also shared Vandergriff's view of the inevitable, noting in early November that with "a very weak military command structure, no firm chain of command, no supporting general staff, no trained supply and logistics staff [and] no major reserves to shift to strategic locations and certainly no planning level headquarters that could have directed the changing back and forth campaign," the Taliban and its al Qaeda adjuncts weren't likely long for this world as an organized military opponent.

From where Vandergriff and others sat, it wasn't what happened after the Taliban and al Queda began their retreat that was problematic; it was what didn't happen. First the Taliban retreated from Mazar-e-Sharif; next, Herat and finally, Kabul and Kandahar. While the number of bombing sorties had increased – as had the deployment of Special Forces teams advancing with the Northern Alliance – but there weren't any conventional forces positioned cutoff the Taliban retreat from their defensive positions. "There should have been at least two air assault brigades on stand-by," opines Vandergriff, now as he did then, "units that could have swept in and assumed blocking positions at key points."

Others I talked to at the time spoke similarly, including the ex-CIA officer, who noted that while not enthusiastic about sending in lots of US troops, it would be much better to maximize Taliban prisoners and casualties than let large numbers flee to higher ground.

In combat, the rate of capturing prisoners is usually, though not always, a reliable qualitative indicator of success (much better than a body count). A rapid accumulation of prisoners usually suggests the enemy is coming unglued and cannot adapt to menacing circumstances in a focused way, whereas a high body count may indicate the enemy has retained his moral stability and was willing to fight to the end. Viewed through this lens, the negligible number of hard-core Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners taken to date is not reassuring.

To be fair to the US government, inserting ground forces quickly into blocking positions was, to some extent, easier said than done, given the issues of basing rights in neighboring countries and the logistical difficulties of transporting a force into such an inaccessible area. But, according to a growing number of Army officers, the fact that there were no regular Army units ready to go – coupled with the fact that first ground forces into Afghanistan were Marines – highlights some very serious institutional problems the Army has yet to fix.

It's not like the Army leadership is unaware of these problems; the force's top officer, General Eric Shinseki, has talked at length about the service needing to make itself over into a lighter and more maneuverable force of smaller units that can deploy anywhere with speedy deliberation. Alas, Shinseki's efforts seem to be moving about as quickly as an Abrams tank stuck in a bog. And while everyone interviewed for this article were largely praiseworthy of the Army's Special Forces, they also noted that their strength is, as one of their own put it, "Going in, really messing stuff up and getting out. You can't fight every battle or conduct operational-level maneuvers that way."

Indeed, as one captain stated in late December, the situation was yet another example that "we have the world's fastest strategically immobile Army." West Pointer Bob Krumm -- a captain with cavalry experience currently posted to the Army's Training and Doctrine command – went so far as to post his personal views in an on-line forum – frustrations that give some insight as to why the Army has a real problem holding on to junior officers. [See Comment #434]

"My Army is operating equipment designed to fight Soviets in the Fulda Gap, and the stuff in the pipeline is just a more expensive version of the same," he wrote. "My Army has a personnel system that was built to defeat the Kaiser. My Army trains to fight fictional forces in make-believe lands instead of focusing on real-world missions. My Army has one-half the number of generals as we did at the height of World War II, even though the force is one-tenth the size. The end result of all this is we get to watch the Marines perform Army missions because they can do them better." While the New York Times coverage of the Marines arrival in Afghanistan as military-business-as-usual, the magazine Government Executive noted the fury of mid-level Army officers, chagrined that a sister service who's specialty is amphibious operations had been the first corps of regular troops into Afghanistan – a land-locked country.

By March, however, elements of the regular Army's 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Division were seeing action in Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. And once again euphoria in the media began to break out.

According to immediate analysis pieces in the news media, Anaconda was a good thing, in that it showed the Army had learned the lessons of Tora Bora, where US forces failed to capture scores of Taliban and al Queda soldiers, thanks to their reliance on the notoriously fickle Afghans – who many old CIA hands had warned couldn't be trusted. (For an excellent critique of Tora Bora, readers should examine Phillip Smucker's brilliantly reported piece in the March 4 edition of the Christian Science Monitor.)

Commentators on the Jim Lehrer Newshour, for example, waxed eloquently that Tora Bora failed because it was a hasty engagement whereas the Army had plenty of time to plan for Anaconda – a comparison that triggers howls of derision from seasoned combat soldiers, who point out that the mark of a professional army is precisely its ability to adapt quickly to or exploit unforeseen fleeting circumstances. In the case of Anaconda, while 1000 Afghan troops would still be used, 1000 American troops (the equivalent of a reinforce battalion) were deployed as a blocking force as well. The Pentagon line was that hi-tech satellites and UAVs had been tracking the quiet return of al Queda cadre to the Gardez area for over a month; Anaconda would throw 2000 US and Afghan troops in a circle around the enemy, closing in on him like a snake and crushing him.

According to a March 5 analysis in The Washington Post, Anaconda sent a powerful "message of US resolve," where the choices for the enemy (numbering "perhaps 400," as the Post deferentially quoted Pentagon officials, adding that "100-200" were already dead) were, in the words of a retired marine general, "stark," forcing the enemy to either flee to his death or fight and die. It was also a "classic military maneuver routinely practiced by light infantry units," a "movement to contact that pushed the enemy against a pre-positioned blocking force" that would be made even more deadly and effective by the use of direct fire, mortars and coordinated airpower.

While Anaconda may be all of those things, again, a number of CIA veterans and military officers back in the states were immediately skeptical, if not incredulous, for a number of reasons. The first was the maneuver itself and the rationale behind it. While the military was saying, and media reporting, that the operation had been mounted to encircle an enemy quietly creeping back in preparation for a new wave of attacks, some observers here took the opposite view: the fighters of Al Queda were, in fact, untroubled by observations of their movements, because they were looking for fight in which they could (a) kill Americans, and make martyrs of themselves, necessary and (b) use (a) to fire up public opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Less interested in launching an offensive or inviting a siege, the utility of the action was also more likely rooted in seeing how the Americans fight and how many could be killed as a means of preparing for wider guerrilla operation when the snows melt in the Spring. "It's more like, they've got us surrounded, and now we've got them where we want them," said one CIA veteran.

It wasn't just uncertainty over the enemy's motivations that irked veterans of combat operations, however. Before noon on March 5, I received an email from a now-retired combat Marine who, in addition to having written books, has also penned some official US military training manuals. Irked by the Post's analysis – "another example of over concentrating on the big picture at the expense of the little picture," he wrote – he took extreme issue with Post's obsequious approach, and proved to be remarkably prescient, predicting both a likely influx of enemy troops spread out over an area greater than the military expected, which it later admitted.

"On 1:250,000 map, 70 square miles doesn't look like much," he began. "But to the US infantryman crawling uphill against carefully planned machine-gun fire, this particular 70 square miles in Eastern Afghanistan must seem as big as Texas. To make matters worse, this patch of highly precipitous terrain in Paktia Province may be honeycombed by tunnels extending beyond its imaginary borders – something all to often encountered by US cordon operations in Vietnam. That 100-200 enemy soldiers have been killed is mostly speculation – a probably estimated from 10,000 feet of what an inordinate amount of high explosives can do to loosely controlled and highly innovative people who have been preparing for quite some time to avoid its effect. The enemy has only to disperse more widely to avoid destruction from the air. Until 'smart' bombs learn how to fly deep into tunnels, penetrate recessed blast doors, find every rear entrance, plug every air shaft, and for all practical purposes discover how to outthink human beings, they will not take the place of highly skilled ground forces."

The ex-Marine wasn't the only one concerned about the ratio and selection of troops to geography gave some observers pause. That a total of 2000 troops – including some Afghans whose trustworthiness was at best questionable – would be presented as being able to quickly and effectively encircle an enemy over a 70 square mile swath of land on top of enemy tunnel complexes over brutal terrain at high altitudes struck many as being more than a little short, manpower-wise. While the fact that Americans and Afghans could rush reinforcements in as the battle unfolded might have seemed impressive to layman, not to mention the reporters at the Washington Post, professionals here took this as a sign that Anaconda's planners had seriously underestimated the strength of the enemy, as well as his location. When US and Afghan troops first came under enemy fire, it was as they dismounted from trucks -- something usually done 4-5 kilometers away from where the enemy is believed to be.

The Question of Intelligence and the Theory of Dominant Battlespace Knowledge

The most enduring aspect of Operation Anaconda may be an at-best hazy sense of just how many of the enemy were present at any one place and at any one time, who the actually were, and how many were killed. It is yet another example of the fatally flawed theory of Dominant Battlespace Knowledge that lies at the technical and conceptual heart of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs.

The danger of papering over this flaw can be inferred by comparing two news dispatches from March 16. One, from Agence France-Presse, decrees that the "core of al Qaeda officers" have been "wiped out in Anaconda," and attributes this contention to the "US military". Going into further detail, a "senior military official" reports that "some of [bin Laden’s] most hardened leaders and trainers" have been killed, "few" managed to escape, and cites the contention of an Afghan official that "fewer than 100 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were left in the region." The Associated Press, meanwhile, headlined its story "Operation Anaconda Ending in Muddle," reporting that "there is little hard evidence to support claims by US officers that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were killed." The AP report actually cites specific but conflicting casualty numbers from different sources whose commonality is in their paltriness. The article also notes "disagreement" between Afghans and US soldiers as to just how many caves there are in the area; too, the Afghans report that substantial enemy cadres successfully fled, while the Americans say not. The dispatch and reports that "Afghan commanders say they have received no indication that any Al-Qaida or Taliban leadership heavyweights were among those holed up in the Shah-e-Kot area." The piece also quotes a US general as having considerably revised upwards the estimate of al-Qaida fighters in the area when the battle began to 1000.)

Indeed, three days into Anaconda, more than a few career CIA officers were growling about the potential enemy size. According to them, CIA field assessments from earlier this year had put the number of not only al Queda, but also Taliban, cadre in the general area in the thousands, suggesting an easy flow of reinforcements into the battle. Tactical information used for battle planning is, however, mainly the province of military intelligence, who in the March 8 view of a CIA veteran, "did a very poor job" in this case, because "it's clear they were not prepared for what they met."

The military officers interviewed for this piece between March 4 and March 8 also expressed skepticism that an air-tight cordon capable of preventing enemy infiltration and exfiltration was realistic, a view seemingly reflected by the constant readjustments by the US military of enemy troop strengths. When I spoke on March 5 with retired Colonel Michael Wyly - a key architect of the Marine Corps' doctrinal reforms in the mid-1980s - he said emphatically that establishing impenetrable cordons in combat zones is impossible. "I used to get that order all the time as a company commander in Vietnam," he said, "and I am telling you, people always sneak through." Other officers wondered just how much field artillery and forward medical assets had been deployed in Anaconda, and whether the regular troops deployed were the most appropriate and/or ready for the battlefield.

Training and Readiness for Mountain Fighting

Again, I recalled the October discussion I had with one of the CIA officers who held a senior position during the Mujhadeen operation. He wasn't enthused at the prospect of US forces fighting at high altitude. "They're not adequately trained for it," he simply said. "You're fighting two foes – the Afghans, and the physical country itself. At high elevation, artillery and everything else will not function like they're expected to. The weather can change quickly, and change everything. They may have some success, but our guys really are not trained for this."

Efforts at fleshing out this point yielded some interesting answers that anyone interested in reforming or improving the US Army would do well to examine. When I rang Lt. Col (ret) Lester Grau – the Army's leading scholar on Afghanistan and author of three books and numerous articles on Soviet-Afghan tactics and battle history -- on March 7 to chat a little more about the historical lessons of mountain combat in Afghanistan, he very reluctantly told me he was unable to help; not, he said, because he didn't want to, but because the Army had ordered him not to discuss any of his work in the context of Operation Anaconda.

Other officers I interviewed found it interesting that the person arguably best suited to help the public understand what was going on in Shah-i-Kot had been muzzled, and were not charitable in speculating as to what that meant. One officer who follows Grau's work did, however, draw my attention that day to a recent article co-authored by Grau for the Military Review Bulletin, published by the Army Command and General Staff College. Entitled "Ground Combat at High Altitude," the article flies in the face of early official optimistic pronouncements about Anaconda, essentially stating that the US Army's knowledge about high-mountain combat – defined as 10,000 feet and higher – is disturbingly deficient. (Anaconda ranged over turf from 8500 to 13,000 feet). "The US Army has no experience fighting in truly high mountains and its mountain warfare manuals deal primarily with low and medium mountains," the piece begins, adding that the Army "needs to know how to conduct high-altitude mountain warfare, develop the tactics, techniques and procedures to do so, and share the experience of other armies to understand and prepare for possible high-altitude conflicts."

In light of how Operation Anaconda has unfolded, it's worth excepting a few of the article's other key points, verbatim:

* Physical conditions at high altitude are often more dangerous than enemy fire. Nothing is fast in high-altitude combat, and the first enemy is the environment. Maneuver is slow and limited. Movement is calculated in time rather than distance at high altitude.

* All experienced armies agree that high-altitude acclimatization cannot be achieved in less than 10 days, and an acclimated soldier is still not an experienced mountaineer. Training for mountain combat is not simply light infantry training. Soldiers selected for high-altitude duty should be screened for their ability to function in this environment.

* Equipment – especially trucks and helicopters – will not function, or will function marginally, at high altitudes. The use and effectiveness of artillery are constrained by high-altitude combat. While helicopters are preferred for mountain warfare, mountains aren't the optimal helicopter environment; as such, intense, specialized training is required.

* Mountains restrict effective bombing and strafing by jet aircraft. It is difficult for them to pick out targets that are camouflaged or concealed by natural cover. Weather, deep shadows and the environment also restrict pilots vision. Climate and terrain restrict jet aircraft from diving freely or flying low enough to engage targets effectively.

Regarding the environment and the troops sent to fight in it, on March 10, the Associated Press reported that US soldiers had been "unprepared for the subfreezing temperatures at 10,000 feet," with some reporting that "they hadn't even brought sleeping bags" and had taken to sleeping "by day when it was warmer"; there were also "cases of hypothermia," the dispatch continued, adding that "drinking water froze in the cold." While news stories focused on the bravery and endurance of troops in these conditions, they did so at the expense of holding the chain of command accountable for putting soldiers in such conditions. "No wonder some troops left their sleeping bags behind," an active-duty officer told me. "The leads they have to carry even without them are incredible, and that's without considering ammunition, which because it's an expendable item and not part of a table of equipment, most Army logisticians appear to believe has no weight and takes up no space." Mule transportation, he noted, would have been better – echoing another point in Grau's article: "High mountains are counter technology. Mules are a good option for high-altitude logistics." (Author's aside: I found this particularly resonant, having seen the Ethiopian army successfully break its stalemate with the Eritrean army in May of 2000 by eschewing machinery and sending mule-supported troops through high mountain passes to commence a surprise attack on Eritrean forces.)

Too, early reports of troops "inching within 100 yards of enemy bunkers" belied the reality that what mattered was not the distance, but the amount of time it would take to move. Students of Grau's work were also particularly troubled by a report which stated US forces were not only surprised by the fact that al Qaeda took the offensive, but were surprised that the assault relied heavily on mortars; as Grau noted in his article, "mortars are frequently more effective than guns or howitzers" at altitude, "easier to shift around, and can better engage reverse slopes and me moved closer to forward posts."

[Additional comments on the preparation of our forces for mountain warfare can be found in my 21 March essay posted on the American Prospect website at .

Skeptical that Anaconda's planners had taken to heart Grau's publicly-available advice on appropriate selection and training of personnel, I asked an Army officer for his opinion. He noted that Fort Drum, the home and training center of the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York, is on ground that bear little resemblance to Afghanistan. (And when it was reactivated in 1985, the 10th wasn't actually set up for mountain combat, but as a general-purpose light infantry force; the "mountain" designator was, in fact, deployed in the hopes that it would endear the Army to then-Senator Bob Dole, who served in the original, World War II-vintage division.) "The 10th really isn't a mountain division at all -- it's been deployed so much for peacekeeping missions that it hasn't been able to focus much on mountains," he said. "And while we do have an excellent mountain warfare school in Vermont, but it's only for individuals, not units."

He also referred me to a September 2000 report written by a US Senate staffer that now seems more germane than ever. Entitled, "10th Mountain Division, Ready or Not?." [see ] This report notes a "favorable overall readiness rating and understandable expression of confidence by various commanders," but the author also found that "the 10th Mountain is today experiencing multiple, serious shortage of people and material resources, training deficiencies, and other impediments to readiness, a large number of them resulting from policies imposed by Washington." Among other things, it noted that "expensive advanced communications technology" not suitable for combat was being provided "at considerable cost, [but] basics such as training ammunition, lighter machine gun tripods, and road marching gear are not provided"; Army personnel policies "are imposed that seriously degrade unit manning and readiness," and the at "training is allowed to deteriorate, but an intense deployment schedule is maintained."

Not that this should come as a surprise: Last year, the latest in a series of influential reports by another congressional staffer – who writers under the nom de plume Spartacus – revealed that Pentagon funds earmarked for things like training and maintenance (or "readiness") have been siphoned off to fund other defense programs, and that the Bush Administration was keen to continue drawing off money for new weapons systems. "With defense spending increasing and with readiness spending declining, the current defense budget has achieved a condition of declining readiness at increasing cost," the report marveled.

Concluding Comments

On the purely technical front, there was actually some surprising good news from Shah-i-Kot about one model of helicopter, the Apache: originally designed with sophisticated defense to evade hi-tech Soviet ground-to-air systems like heat-seeking missiles, the Apache actually held up rather well under small arms and RPG fire. According to one official familiar with the damage reports, 5 of 7 were disabled, but the helos withstood a surprising amount of punishment. But others noted that the Apache requires so much logistical support that it was necessary to use some of them as hanger queens to support the others in this operation. Moreover, one officer said the rotary air support that appeared to have borne most of the burden were Cobra attack helicopters from the Marines -- which, unlike the Apache, don't require 20-30 man-hours of maintenance per flight hour, a requirement which isn't exactly optimal for combat.

On the other hand, there was virtually unanimous criticism that some rotary wing aircraft were misapplied in the battle -- particularly in the case of the CH-47 Chinook, two of which were shot down incurring fatalities. A particularly vulnerable and unwieldy helicopter, the Chinook was never meant to be exposed to small arms or anti-aircraft fire; in fact, it shouldn't be close to the line of contact at all. But as they were, it begged another question: While much had been made in news reports of air superiority including the use of AC-130 Spectre gunships, the Spectres didn't seem to be anywhere near the Chinooks.

At the core of my interviews is a widening gulf between the orientation of high level civilians and general officers and the lower level professional cadre of serving and retired officers. At its heart lies a conflict between the assumption that technology will lift the fog the war making the conduct of war an intellectually easy effort versus the chaotic day-to-day realities of the operational art that cause almost unimaginable difficulties for soldiers doing the heavy lifting in the small units at the pointy end of the spear.

In this regard, it is worth pointing out a passage in Grau's article that noted how other armies sometimes build their force structure around the smaller-sized regiment, and managed personnel by assigning them to longer tours of duty in same units. This practice stands in sharp contrast to the US system, which is centered around large divisions and frequent individual personnel rotations. The regimental system tends to do best in high altitude combat. (In his March 5 email, the ex-Marine tactician expressed concerns about this: while "the Army's plan is not without merit," he wrote, "encircling an undergunned but otherwise powerful enemy force involves dangerously dividing one's own. Each encircling unit must have the tactical skill to weather a concerted attack. It cannot depend on firepower alone, but more importantly on human skills and the cohesion of small units." He noted that below company size, American units seldom acquire advanced infantry methods through overemphasis on large-unit, long-range combat may have unintentionally developed a shortfall in small-unit, short-range combat."

Intriguingly, Grau's regimental orientation parallels the approaches advocated by Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a controversial but highly regarded officer, in his book Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century, and Major Donald Vandergriff, another highly regarded officer, in his forthcoming book, The Path to Victory: America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. In early March, Macgregor was reassigned over the Army's objections to a position at the National Defense University, where he'll be reporting directly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- a sign many take to mean Rumsfeld may actually be serious about making real changes in the defense establishment. Vandergriff remains buried as an ROTC instructor at Georgetown University.

On the other hand, reformers weren't buoyed by the Washington Post's analysis pieces on March 5 and March 10, which one reformer characterized as "triumphalist spin, the first of which basically said 'We knew what we're doing,' and the second of which basically said, 'Well, actually, we didn't, but that's ok, because none of this could have been avoided because we couldn't have known any better, and really the important thing is that the whole operation proves you can trust the administration, because they said this war wasn't going to be quick and dirty."

And then there's still Afghanistan. Veterans of the CIA's covert operations there are growing increasingly concerned that the US is getting hopelessly enmeshed in the seething tribal conflicts that have always been characteristic of Afghanistan, where alliances are constantly shifting and bribery and deception are coin of the realm. There's a vague consensus among these guys that getting US forces out of Afghanistan sooner is better; they and see the potential for a slide into a scenario where more troops are deployed in the service of playing "whack-a-mole" against an enemy who pops up, fights, leaves some dead and pops up again, all against a backdrop of inter-tribal conflict the US cannot hope to ameliorate and in which US forces could find itself used and deceived more than it would care to admit.

Of particular concern on March 10 was the movement of ethnic Tajik troops from the Northern Alliance into Shah-i-Kot in support of US soldiers: "If we're not careful," said one former intelligence officer intimately familiar with the region, "it's going to start looking like that barroom scene in Star Wars, with us caught in the middle. [Operation Anaconda] wasn't a disaster. But if [the military] keeps repeating this, it's going to start looking a bit like the Soviet model."

End Vest Report

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Will They Ever Get It Right?

By David H. Hackworth
DefenseWatch (
March 20, 2002

The Vietnam War and the current shootout in Afghanistan have a lot in common - killer terrain, nightmarish weather, a determined, irregular foe with years of combat experience. That's a deadly enough mix without U.S. generals who don't understand guerrilla warfare.

Recently, I was reminded of these unfortunate facts by both a movie about an early U.S. battle in Vietnam commanded by an old friend, and the fighting at Shah-e-Kot.

The movie, We Were Soldiers, essentially a duel in the jungle between a U.S. helicopter outfit and a primitive, foot-slugging North Vietnamese infantry unit, caught Hal Moore to a T - brave, tactically savvy, the ultimate combat leader. It also captured his well-disciplined troopers hanging together like a veteran team even though they were grass-green in their first serious fight. Like their skipper, they were extraordinarily steadfast and held their ground against an enemy force many times their number.

Without Hal at the helm, I'm convinced the 7th Cav would've met the same fate it suffered under a previous commander, George Custer, at Little Big Horn: total destruction. Hal led from the front, and in his training he'd instilled a go-for-broke warrior ethic that allowed his men to accomplish the impossible.

The United States won the battle but eventually lost the war, since Gen. William Westmoreland concluded from the fight at LZ X-Ray that his big-battle style of warfare could beat his lightly armed opponent. His adversary, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, decided to take another approach - developing tactics designed to make his foe bleed. In the end, the United States and our main ally, the South Vietnamese, lost about a quarter of a million dead, and even though the communists paid a far greater price - with close to 2 million soldiers killed - they raised their flag over Saigon. They gambled that the American public would pull our troops from that meat grinder, and after eight years of our blood pouring out of the tube, we finally obliged.

Now we've just finished the first big U.S. conventional fight of the Afghanistan War. Sadly, our fine troops trained in the flatlands of New York and Kentucky weren't conditioned for mountain warfare at elevations of 9,000 feet, where their cruel and crafty enemy knew every fold in the ground. Our Joes were sent into battle loaded down like pack mules, insufficiently prepared for the freezing conditions and far from physically up for the game. The guerrillas also outranged our grunts both with a superior .30-caliber rifle, as opposed to our little popgun 5.56 M-16, and by the use of reverse slope mortars.

The crying shame is that our soldiers - bunched up like beetles at a bugfest - weren't ready to face some of the toughest fighters in the world employing the same timeworn tactics they used to defeat the Soviets and the Brits. And when our brave Apache gunship pilots came to the rescue, they lost all their ships to enemy fire. The guerrillas cleverly recycled the same techniques with which they destroyed fleets of Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan and again in Somalia during Black Hawk Down.

The generals, from jovial Tommy Franks down to the two-star on the ground, didn't get much right until they shrewdly declared victory and hauled butt away from the bomb craters and their plan that went awry.

The generals had envisioned sealing the enemy inside a noose and then pounding him with bombs, a tactic that seldom worked in Vietnam and didn't work in Afghanistan this time around. Firepower's never the answer unless battle-ready soldiers deployed smartly back it up. It didn't help that our intelligence was bad regarding the size of the enemy force and its willingness to fight. Or that we forgot the lesson learned in Vietnam - never to allow the success of an operation to be dependent on a non-U.S. unit - and trusted our so-called Afghan allies, who left us in the lurch.

Amazing that none of the brass seems to have bothered to dust off copies of the Soviet-Afghan after-action reports. In Vietnam, we were also too arrogant to learn from those who failed before us, in that instance the French. I hope our generals learn fast and get it right in future battles.

As now-retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore would.

Reference # 2

Al Qaeda's Ploy: Parry And Run

As US officials declare Operation Anaconda a success, Al Qaeda is regrouping with fresh recruits and funds.

By Ilene R. Prusher,
The Christian Science Monitor
March 22, 2002, Pg. 1.




Al Qaeda, too, is thinking bigger and better than anyone expected. And they are reportedly regrouping with additional funds in the region. But both Afghan and international military analysts say that the caves - the focus of US firepower in Tora Bora last December and here in Shah-e Kot this month - may be decoys that Al Qaeda is laying out for coalition forces to target, while the planning for guerrilla warfare here and terrorism abroad is done in other quarters.

"You're giving the enemy a target so that he attacks that. And your enemy protects you, because he's busy fighting you, and you're not there," explains Paul Beaver, an independent London-based military analyst. "The Al Qaeda and Taliban are actually much better equipped than we expected. They're talking across the Web so they can't be traced. They're not the simple fighters we thought they were."


Now, pro-government Afghan forces cite several reasons why the US-run campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has not been effective: American military intelligence is weak, often comes from sources who work for both sides, and is sometimes too slow to be effective.


 Moreover, rivalries among competing forces make it difficult. "The problem is that when the Americans give money to one commander, the other commander will get angry and give information to Al Qaeda," Mohammed says. To break that pattern, the interim government needs to create one national military that crosses ethnic and geographical divides.


 But, warns another official in Afghanistan's interim government, the Pashtuns - the country's largest ethnic group - are feeling slighted by the US military's reliance on the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of Tajiks and some Uzbeks.


If the good news is that many Afghans are allied with the US, the bad news is that Al Qaeda could gradually glean more local support: The longer the US stays, the more likely it is to be seen as another occupier. Four Afghan Islamic factions are, according to several Afghan military sources, trying to unite to launch attacks on the Afghan government and US forces in the spring. In the countryside, Islamists have been spreading the word that "communists" are trying to take over the nation.


An added and equally troubling danger is the possibility of help coming from abroad. "There are reports that there are recruits coming in from outside to fight in Afghanistan," Mr. Bedlington says. "They have lots of support in the Islamic world, and you could have lots of people inside Afghanistan joining that effort. It seems to be moving into a proper guerrilla war."