Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine Grossman
July 29, 2004
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Was Operation Anaconda ill-fated from start?
Army Analyst Blames Afghan Battle Failings On Bad Command Set-Up
A new analysis of a hotly debated 2002 battle in Afghanistan contends a “sloppy” chain of command set up by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then the top warfighter in the region, made combat failures in “Operation Anaconda”
almost inevitable from the start.
Senior Army commanders have been widely criticized by their air and naval counterparts for not coordinating effectively across the services in the days and weeks of ground-force planning that led up to Anaconda.
During the two-week-long fight in the Shahikot Valley in early March, more than 1,400 American ground forces encountered 10 times the 150 to 200 enemy troops originally anticipated. A plan to use Afghan troops as the vanguard force fell apart in the opening days of the campaign when they encountered heavy resistance and lost three soldiers. In the days that followed, a fierce battle against al Qaeda fighters hidden in the steep mountainous terrain of southeastern Afghanistan resulted in eight U.S. losses and dozens more wounded. The battle’s Army commander — initially convinced he could wrap up the fight in just a few days using ground forces with little external support — was forced to issue an emergency appeal for air and naval fires and logistical assistance (Inside the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2002, p1; and Nov. 21, 2002, p1).
One of the enduring casualties from Operation Anaconda has been trust between the services, with Air Force and Army officers most seriously divided over how the battle was planned and waged, evidenced in extensive interviews on the topic. But the two services also have made some high-level efforts to repair their fractured relations, setting up new channels of communication between ground and air commanders during last year’s war in Iraq (ITP, Feb. 13, 2003, p1; and Feb. 27, 2003, p1).
Ultimately, U.S. forces prevailed in the March 2002 battle. But concerned that future battles may result in higher costs, many military officers and outside experts remain determined to draw the right lessons from the experience in the Afghan mountains.
What went wrong in Anaconda?
“Ambiguous command structures established on an ad hoc basis and approved by U.S. Central Command created conditions that inadvertently excluded the Air Force from the planning of Anaconda,” according to an Army officer’s new paper, obtained by Inside the Pentagon. “In the rush to conduct combat operations in Afghanistan, CENTCOM lost sight of two age-old principles of war: unity of command and unity of effort.”
The 146-page thesis was written by an unlikely source: a 38-year-old Army special operations officer who, in June, completed a master’s degree at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, AL. The paper is based on extensive interviews the officer, Maj. Mark Davis, conducted over the past year with air, ground and special operations commanders, staff officers and forces who participated in Operation Anaconda.
As the U.S. Central Command chief, Franks served as the unified commander of all operations in Afghanistan. Yet, below Franks on the command chain, “at the operational and tactical levels, no such unity existed,” writes Davis. “In the first six months of operations, Gen. Franks established three Joint Special Operations Task Forces and numerous functional and service component commands. This resulted in overlapping responsibilities and conflicting command relationships.”
Davis describes a serpentine command structure in which reporting mechanisms were overly complex and often unclear to U.S. commanders issuing orders from battle command centers and fighting on the ground.
Just days before Operation Anaconda was launched, Franks named Anaconda’s lead officer, Army Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, a joint task force commander.
Yet Hagenbeck “did not have operational control over all the forces necessary to effectively prosecute the mission assigned” by his immediate superior, Army Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, writes Davis, whose own combat experience began just this month with a tour in Iraq. Hagenbeck’s inability to direct special operations forces on Takur Ghar mountain three days into Operation Anaconda — where seven of the eight U.S. troops were lost — meant he could not effectively “cope with the unforeseen events that normally occur in combat,” Davis writes.
Franks retired in August 2003. Hagenbeck, promoted to three stars in January, now serves as Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. Mikolashek, his former boss, is the Army’s inspector general.
Many air, ground and naval officers interviewed over the past few weeks commended Davis for his painstaking reconstruction of the events surrounding Anaconda, and agree with the Army major that ad hoc command arrangements set up for the Afghan war were, at times, disjointed. At the same time, a number of officers disagree with Davis’ conclusions about the role a complex command structure played in Operation Anaconda. They point to such factors as insufficient planning or poor communications between leaders as more significant to the course of that battle.
In any case, emotions continue to run so high over Operation Anaconda among uniformed leaders that more than two years after the fight took place, an Army major’s graduate thesis has already ignited controversy of its own inside the Pentagon.
Confusing command relationships
“Thus far, the services and the joint community have missed the important lessons of Operation Anaconda,” writes Davis.
Six months after the battle concluded, officials from all four services began trading barbs over perceived failures in the operation. Hagenbeck complained in an Army Field Artillery magazine article that his ground forces received inadequate air support. In response, some in Hagenbeck’s own service joined Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps officials in charging the Army general had failed to adequately include the other components in planning for Operation Anaconda, and instead relied on their hastily assembled support only as his battle plan began to fall apart.
“The conversation has been polarized by either/or characterizations over the effectiveness of air power, who can direct air power, the altitudes at which airmen operate, and who knew what and when,” Davis states in the thesis, “Operation Anaconda: Command and Confusion in Joint Warfare.”
“These are minor tactical issues that need to be addressed, but distract from the fundamental point: The DOD failed to establish proper command structures and relationships needed for integration among the services”
during combat in Afghanistan, he writes.
A number of command-and-control decisions Franks made leading up to Anaconda, as well as poor communications between various component commanders, set the stage for confusion and questionable battle-planning decisions, Davis says.
For example, the author questions Franks’ decision to command the Afghan war from his headquarters in Tampa, FL, 7,000 miles and 10 time zones away. Davis cites Defense Department pressure to keep U.S. troop levels low in Afghanistan and the fast pace of the war in explaining Franks’ reluctance to moving hundreds of headquarters personnel and tons of additional command-and-control equipment into the theater. But the distance harmed the war effort, Davis contends. A reliance on video teleconferences, “rather than personal communication, would ultimately limit the level of integration between Gen. Franks and those conducting operations on the ground in Afghanistan,” he writes. “A cascading effect of this long-distance command organization was that the battle rhythm in theater tended to operate on Eastern Standard Time rather than local time.”
The top commander — attempting to adapt to a new brand of warfare in which special operations forces, supported by air power, would take the lead role in the Afghan war — created an ad hoc command system that was destined to become dysfunctional, Davis argues. “Franks designated himself as the unified commander for Afghanistan and established numerous subordinate [joint task forces] and functional commands,” he writes. “By mixing options rather than simply choosing one approach, he continued a long and problematic tradition” in which an overly complex command chain can lead to chaos in battle.
One example is that Franks put two special operations task forces — code-named Dagger and K-Bar — “in a position where they could be potentially tasked simultaneously by three different commanders: [Franks at] CENTCOM, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component commander and the Combined Forces Land Component commander. Joint doctrine is clear that this sort of command structure should be avoided,” Davis writes.
Maintaining a feasible “span of control” was another military principle Franks breached in Afghanistan, according to the thesis author. “Because of the large number of independent units that participated in OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom], there was no possible way for Gen. Franks to maintain the necessary command presence over this expansive command structure,” the paper reads. “As a result, CENTCOM staff officers, rather than Gen. Franks, made command decisions concerning the operations of subordinate elements.”
In addition, CENTCOM’s designated special operations element “was noticeably absent in the early phase of the [Afghan] campaign, despite being responsible for the command and control” of special operations forces, according to the paper. “Although he was designated the supported commander on 1 November 2001, [Rear] Adm. [Albert] Calland would not have a fully operational headquarters in theater until mid-November.” The impact of a late-arriving special operations headquarters was a failure to create a “grand plan” for command and control over those forces, writes Davis, citing an after-action report from February 2002.
One repercussion was that Col. John Mulholland, commander of Task Force Dagger special operations forces, “performed the duties that should have been performed by Rear Adm. Calland and his staff,” namely advising Franks as the senior special operations officer in Afghanistan, according to the thesis. “In the early phases of OEF, Col. Mulholland and his tiny Army-centric staff had to perform at the strategic and operational levels of war,” Davis writes. “On more than one occasion, Col. Mulholland talked directly with the secretary of defense, Gen.
Franks, and the other component commanders on matters that were of strategic and operational importance.”
New commands operated independently
New military commands began cropping up in Afghanistan throughout November 2002, including Task Force K-Bar — responsible for southern Afghan operations — and the Combined Forces Land Component Command.
Mikolashek, the land component commander, became the lead general in Afghanistan. His tactical control extended to all special operations forces except those in Task Force Sword, an elite unit from Fort Bragg, NC, undertaking missions “so classified that [Task Forces] Dagger and K-Bar were [often] unaware of them,” Davis writes.
“This added a completely new dynamic to a command environment that was already challenging,” according to the thesis author. “As Rear Adm. Calland” — also newly in theater — “gained traction, he began tasking [Task Forces] Dagger and K-Bar on a more frequent basis,” Davis writes.
Meanwhile, Mikolashek “was often unaware” of mission orders Calland issued. “Because of the command relationship established, Lt. Gen. Mikolashek could not direct [special operations forces] outside the limits of the original tasking unless Gen. Franks or Rear Adm. Calland approved,” Davis writes. Mulholland and his staff “were forced to operate at an increased level of responsibility that they were not manned, trained or equipped adequately to perform without significant personnel and technical augmentation,” he writes. “It was only through the professionalism by all the components that these problems did not lead to operational failure.”
Confusion extended to the conventional ground force chain of command, as that component’s responsibilities in the Afghan war expanded toward the end of 2001. “Throughout late November and early December, Lt. Gen.
Mikolashek and his headquarters struggled to find a purpose in a campaign that for the most part was being fought and won by special operations soldiers,” writes Davis. Mikolashek had “walked into a theater command structure that remained unchanged, despite the transition from [special operations forces] to conventional operations.”
Strained by a “disjointed command structure” and with 25 different organizations reporting to him, Mikolashek “could not possibly maintain a command presence over all the units under his control,” according to Davis. “The result of this flat command structure was that units were being directed and commanded by [Mikolashek’s headquarters] staff and not through command channels.”
On Dec. 12, 2001, “command and control would become even more ambiguous” when Mikolashek created a “forward” command post to represent him at Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan, under Hagenbeck’s command, Davis writes. Initially Hagenbeck’s 10th Mountain Division force elements were tasked to provide force protection for the Task Force Dagger compound. But frustrated with the failure to trap senior al Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora — possibly resulting in Osama bin Laden’s escape — Mikolashek also saw Hagenbeck as his eyes and ears on the ground, Davis says.
Two months later, Mikolashek redesignated Hagenbeck the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Mountain and ordered him to plan and lead Operation Anaconda. Yet that put Hagenbeck in charge of “a scaled-down Army division headquarters with corps-level responsibilities” — meaning his staff, too, was operating above its capabilities. Hagenbeck was one of just three officers at the task force with joint operating experience, “and as a result few in the headquarters had knowledge of operational planning and theater command structures,” Davis writes.
The newly formed task force had “inadequate intelligence gathering and analysis capability,” and “some have speculated that this contributed to inaccurate estimates of the enemy composition and disposition during the planning for Operation Anaconda,” he writes.
Hagenbeck’s command was also “incapable of fully integrating with other joint components, especially the air component,” Davis asserts. “In response to its original force-protection mission and DOD force caps, 10th Mountain had deployed without its Air Support Operations Squadron or a Tactical Air Control Party.” Both these elements are widely viewed as necessary for coordinating air support of ground troops in combat.
“If Gen. Franks truly intended Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck to function as a [joint task force] commander, he should have given [Hagenbeck] component status equal in authority” to the land and air component commanders, like Mikolashek or his air counterpart, Air Force Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Davis argues. Or, he should have “designated appropriate supporting and supported relationships that were known to all the components,” he says. The failure to give Hagenbeck operational control over all the forces under his command is a “clear violation of joint doctrine,” Davis writes.
In an interesting twist, Davis writes that Mikolashek “never supported the idea of designating Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck a [joint task force] commander.”
Interviewed July 11 by ITP, Davis said Hagenbeck and his staff did not reach out for substantial support from other general and flag officers in planning Anaconda essentially because “they didn’t think they had a problem.”
But the author also takes the air component to task for not ensuring staff officers were capable of keeping their commander, Moseley, informed about plans for future operations. Hagenbeck’s battle plans for Anaconda began crystallizing as early as January 2002, according to Davis.
The air piece
On the air side of combat operations in Afghanistan, Davis describes a ground component liaison element — situated inside the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia — that did not play a leading role in the opening months of Operation Enduring Freedom. He suggests the conventionally oriented “Battlefield Coordination Detachment” may have been slow to recognize the significance of early-2002 planning for Operation Anaconda, and thus slow to get involved in cross-component coordination. “Because [special operations forces were] the only ground component in Afghanistan for the first three months of OEF, the [Battlefield Coordination Detachment] did not play a major role in coordinating or deconflicting special operations,” according to the paper.
Moseley requested Mikolashek beef up the ground detachment at his air headquarters during Operation Anaconda, and the ground chief did so, Moseley told ITP in a July 16 interview.
In addition, Franks’ CENTCOM headquarters tended to play a strong role in commanding air strikes in Afghanistan at the war’s outset. As U.S.-led ground attacks became more decentralized during the war, the air component was sluggish in becoming a more proactive player in joint operations, Davis contends.
“These decentralized operations often created significant lapses in situational awareness among the components,” Davis writes. “In some instances, neither the [Battlefield Coordination Detachment] nor [the Combined Air Operations Center] knew about an operation until a request for air support was initiated by the ground forces. This lack of integration at the operational level would continue and climax with the execution of Anaconda.” So, too, did a “Special Operations Liaison Element” at the air operations center find it “difficult to fulfill its doctrinal responsibility of providing [air chief Moseley] the [special operations forces] scheme of maneuver,” Davis writes.
An “Air Support Operations Center,” normally established at the corps level to coordinate and direct air support for land forces, initially was not established during the Afghan war because of the small number of forces — and their unconventional nature — operating on the ground, Davis writes. It was not until April 2002 — two months after Anaconda — that a full ASOC was set up. As an interim measure, Air Force Col. Michael Longoria — the senior airman at the land component headquarters — “cobbled together and established an air combat center,” an improvised solution, Davis writes.
But the ad hoc patch was insufficient to support effective warfighting, according to the author. The air combat center was unable to “perform the responsibilities of a more traditional” Air Support Operations Center, Davis writes. “With only 15 personnel and no operational communications system, the [air combat center] was not manned or equipped to monitor the activities” of airmen on the ground responsible for directing close air support to ground targets. The improvised center also could not effectively “stay abreast of current and future operations, until the first day of Anaconda,” he writes. “Instead, Col. Longoria and his small staff integrated themselves into the [land force headquarters] staff, and tried to keep Lt. Gen. Mikolashek informed as best they could on the day-to-day air operations in Afghanistan.”
Command authority ‘more in name than reality’ Leading up to Operation Anaconda, “I got the authority” to command a joint task force headquarters, Hagenbeck told Inside the Pentagon in a July 16 interview. Yet “it was more in name than reality of what a CJTF [combined joint task force] is.”
Hagenbeck says he understood at the time that although “I wanted everybody to report to me,” he would have less than full authority to direct forces ostensibly under his battlefield command.
But he sought the joint task force commander designation anyway “because names can be powerful,” he said. “In this instance, because most of that team came together from disparate pieces and parts across the battlefield and other organizations, it was important, I think, that we had a focus and a unity of effort, and that name gave us that.”
Hagenbeck confirmed Davis’ characterization of the general’s limited authority over special operations forces, noting that although Mulholland’s Task Force Dagger forces “were working with me . . . they still had their own reporting chain back to the [Persian] Gulf.” In the case of “black” special operations forces — some of whom were involved in the supporting operation that went awry on Takur Ghar mountain — “they had a distinct, different authority to report to, which went back through [another] general officer, and directly to Gen. Franks,”
In his thesis, Davis suggests Franks might have alternatively named Calland — CENTCOM’s top special operations commander — as the lead on all operations in Afghanistan’s Khowst-Gardez region, where Anaconda took place.
“One of the most puzzling questions is why Gen. Franks tasked Lt. Gen. Mikolashek for the mission in the Khowst-Gardez region, as opposed to tasking the Combined Forces Special Operations Component commander, Adm.
Calland,” Davis writes. “Since Adm. Calland had operational control of all [special operations forces] in Afghanistan (minus [Task Force] Sword), it would seem that unity of command would have been enhanced if he, rather than Lt. Gen. Mikolashek, had been tasked for the mission.”
The author goes on to say that “one possible explanation is that during much of OEF, Gen. Franks did not have a high degree of confidence in Adm. Calland’s ability to plan or execute an operation of this magnitude.” Davis adds in a footnote that planners at CENTCOM’s special operations branch — which Calland headed — “did not have any knowledge of the planning of Anaconda. Command relationships were the primary cause of this lack of situational awareness.”
Hagenbeck rejects the notion that Calland could have more effectively commanded Operation Anaconda.
“I absolutely disagree,” he said in the interview. “It’s not personal. It’s just this was a very complex operation involving special ops, conventional forces and a wide variety of coalition forces, as well. And I think Gen. Franks made the right call. . . . [Calland] would have been more hamstrung, in my view, than the division headquarters was.”
Challenges in command and control ultimately had limited significance to the battle’s outcome, Hagenbeck argues.
“We went into this fight about as . . . well prepared as an organization — and I’m talking about all the components, in my view — that we could, given the conditions that existed: geographical separations, the evolving war inside Afghanistan, the relationships. And when the first shot was fired, the plan — by and large — had to be dramatically adjusted early on. And I think that we did that rather well. We had to sort through a number of things to make all that happen, but believe me, everybody was trying to make it work.”
Not everyone involved in Anaconda would agree, though, that CENTCOM’s failure to establish clear command relationships played a pivotal role in the battle’s lapses in planning or execution.
“It’s easy for a major to have an opinion,” Moseley, now a four-star general and the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, told ITP. “It’s much different to be a combatant commander responsible for combat ops in a theater.”
Moseley, who concedes he has not read Davis’ paper, suggests Hagenbeck’s responsibilities in Operation Anaconda were not substantially different from those of other task force commanders during the war. All were expected to coordinate complex operations, not only with those under their command but also with other components outside their command, he said.
“I believe Gen. Franks led everybody to this conclusion: The joint force commander [Franks] establishes the environment for the component commanders to interface with each other and execute their task,” Moseley said.
A multitude of actors were present on the Afghan battlefield, making command of operations challenging, Moseley said. But the command relationships were sufficiently clear to allow for communication and coordination between them, he holds.
“For instance, there are various forms of special operations. Some work for the combatant commander, some don’t,” Moseley said. “In the case of any of these combatant situations, there are a variety of people out there, to include other government agencies, [and] Red Crescent [or] Red Cross. There are . . . other civilians out there. There are regular military. There are Afghan militia. There are good Afghans in this case, there are less good Afghans, [and] there are unknowns. There is 10th Mountain. There are all of the special forces entities that are operating outside this particular area.
“And so it is not appropriate for the commander of 10th Mountain to have literal command, or OPCON [operational control], of all of those assets,” Moseley continued. “They were conducting activities separate from his task.”
Moseley suggests the reality of combat rarely matches the picture described in the Pentagon’s elaborate joint doctrine or in the isolation of the ivory tower.
“Was [Hagenbeck] frustrated not having his arms around a bigger pool of people?” Moseley asks. “I suspect he was. But some of those people were not literally within the purview of Gen. Franks,” much less Hagenbeck, said Moseley, apparently referring to the elite special operations forces.
The bottom line for the former air commander: Any joint task force commander “is responsible to up-channel to the land component, the maritime, the special ops and the air component his notion of a plan and his proposals relative to the task that he has been given. And it is incumbent on the component commanders, then, to provide any and all assistance, and any and all orchestration, pursuant to his task,” Moseley said.
Franks is not to blame for integration failures beneath his level, Moseley suggests.
“We’ve all walked through fire with and for Tommy Franks,” he says. A “higher level of understanding of inclusion and orchestration in joint planning takes you to a much more effective capability.”
Hagenbeck says that before Anaconda, he hedged against the possibility that “Plan A” might fail. “There were contingency operations planned” before the first shots were fired in the battle, he says.
“The coalition won one of the most lopsided victories in the history of warfare,” Hagenbeck told ITP in a July 27 response to written questions. “We killed several hundred hard-core, mid-level al Qaeda, Taliban,” and other fighters in the Shahikot Valley, he said. “Unfortunately, eight U.S. and three Afghan soldiers lost their lives, but their sacrifice does not change the fact that this was a historic victory.”
Still, according to Davis, “a serious breakdown” in communications occurred between Hagenbeck, Mikolashek and Moseley as Operation Anaconda was planned and executed. “No communications system in the world, no matter how advanced, replaces the interpersonal relationships that must exist among the component commanders,” he writes.
But Davis maintains that a clearer command structure up and down the chain could have facilitated the healthy working relationships he sees as so vital.
In retrospect, “the only clear line of command that existed during OEF was the one established by law between Gen. Franks and [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld,” Davis writes. “Gen. Franks had no blueprint for constructing a campaign that relied exclusively on the combination of [special operations forces] and air power and, because of this, theater command organizations were conceived on the fly and evolved out of necessity.”
— Elaine M. Grossman