August 12, 2004
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Anaconda: Object Lesson In Poor Planning Or Triumph Of Improvisation?
In his new book, retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks depicts Operation Anaconda, a March 2002 battle in Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley, as a clear victory against an estimated 2,000 al Qaeda and other fighters. Franks oversaw the battle from his Tampa, FL, headquarters as the top U.S. commander in Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Few would disagree with Franks’ bottom-line assessment. Despite 11 friendly losses and more than 80 wounded, an American-led joint force team killed hundreds of enemy forces, chased yet more from the area and claimed the region’s steep terrain over the course of two weeks of sometimes-intense fighting.
But the verdict misses what remains both interesting and troubling about Anaconda more than two years after the battle concluded, according to many who participated in or studied it. The biggest conventional conflict during the U.S. war in Afghanistan continues to draw great attention among military officers in all the services, not because the ultimate outcome was in serious doubt but because of troubling details that continue to emerge about how the victory came to pass.
Since September 2002, some Army and Air Force leaders and their aides have traded allegations that the battle was poorly planned or inadequately conducted.
The most widely discussed concern dogging Anaconda is a view, held by many senior Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force officers, that the battle's Army commander failed to draw upon their expertise and resources in the weeks of planning that led up to the operation. At times, the debate has devolved into finger-pointing, with the Anaconda commander, Army Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, in September 2002 accusing the Air Force of providing insufficient support. A couple of his Air Force counterparts, in a subsequent briefing, suggested the Army commander had intentionally left the other services out of battle planning, according to a recent paper on the Afghan operation.
Not all the emotion riding on Operation Anaconda can be dismissed easily with a label of parochial, interservice squabbling. Though the operation was Army-led, even some officers in that service have questioned why ground leaders vastly misjudged the number of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the ground as being one-tenth the number U.S. forces and their Afghan allies ultimately encountered (Inside the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2002, p1).
Some question why badly trained and equipped Afghan troops were designated as the vanguard force for Anaconda following the poor performance of indigenous fighters two months earlier at Tora Bora, when they failed to trap senior al Qaeda leaders. And countless observers scratch their heads over Anaconda’s apparent lack of a well-considered “Plan B,” which might have been readied in case the main effort failed.
Which it did.
“When the first shot was fired, the plan — by and large — had to be dramatically adjusted early on,” Hagenbeck, the Anaconda commander, acknowledged in a July 16 interview. “But when it’s all said and done … do [the miscues] play a large role or a small role in the outcome of the contest?
“We had to sort through a number of things to make all that happen,” he said, “but believe me, everybody was trying to make it work.” Tenth Mountain Division’s two-star commander during Anaconda, Hagenbeck has since been promoted and made his service’s deputy chief of staff for personnel.
After the rough, opening days of Anaconda, an air-ground team finally found their groove, but it wasn’t taken from any playbook.
“The ground forces would pin [enemy forces] down, and then the Air Force or Navy planes could come in and drop the ordinance and kill them,” Hagenbeck said. “And that became very effective. But that took two or three days to sort out. And it was done not by guys like me sitting up in some headquarters. That was guys in the air and guys on the ground figuring out how to get at those guys. That’s what happened.”
“Operation Anaconda in large measure, in my mind, succeeded because of the tenacity and the adaptability of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” Air Force Lt. Gen. John Corley, who served as night director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia during the battle, said in a July 16 interview. That was the case “despite perhaps not having the equipment, perhaps not having the command and control they should have, perhaps not having all of the resources at their disposal, perhaps not having the joint planning,” he said.
Also a two-star during Anaconda, Corley now serves as the top Air Force military deputy for acquisition.
“The operation was inefficient — and in many cases fought as a ‘pick-up game’ rather than a well-oiled military operation,” according to Army Maj. Mark Davis, who recently wrote a paper on Anaconda at Air University in Alabama (ITP, July 29, p1). “A more capable adversary could have exploited these inefficiencies and possibly handed the Americans a major defeat.”
Is Operation Anaconda an object lesson in poor planning — or a triumph of improvisation? The answer matters, according to students of the battle. Initial planning missteps meant U.S. forces went into Operation Anaconda substantially less prepared than they should have been, these officials and experts say. Though the battle raged on for nearly five times the number of days Hagenbeck originally anticipated, victory was plucked from a possible defeat.
But should the success or failure of future battles in the war on terrorism ride on the “tenacity and adaptability” of U.S. forces? What do troops have a right to expect from their leaders?
Hammer and anvil
Hagenbeck envisioned Operation Anaconda as a traditional “hammer and anvil” operation. The general, designated just days earlier as commander of Combined Joint Task Force Mountain, would use Task Force Rakkasan — a “brigade-minus” from the 101st Air Assault Division — as the anvil, taking up blocking positions along the valley’s eastern ridge line. Acting as the hammer in the battle, special operations forces would lead Afghan Gen. Zia Lodin’s indigenous troops in clearing the valley’s three villages of enemy fighters, entering from the north and south.
“It was anticipated that the bulk of enemy forces would be down in the tri-village area in the valley, and that there would be a number of them, but small numbers, [on] the higher ground,” Hagenbeck told ITP. “So the blocking forces — the ground forces — were going to take out those anticipated few numbers of enemy and block the escape routes going into Pakistan. That was the idea.”
The battle was to commence on March 2 with bombs dropping on 13 preplanned targets, Davis writes in his June 2004 paper, “Operation Anaconda: Command and Confusion in Joint Warfare.” But problems began almost immediately when the air-ground attack sequence went awry, a “previously unknown reconnaissance team” in the area called off the bombs beginning to fall around them, and a B-1 bomber suffered a weapons malfunction, Davis reports.
Then, as Lodin’s Afghan troops approached the first village, Sherkhankhel, they came under heavy howitzer and mortar fire from enemy forces and began taking casualties. To make matters worse, “an Air Force AC-130 [gunship] misidentified the coalition convoy as it proceeded up the valley and opened fire, stalling the [friendly] advance and killing several Afghan soldiers and one [Special Forces] adviser,” Davis writes.
The battle had actually been delayed because of weather, but the effects were still being felt.
“It would snow at night, bitterly cold, and then the next day the snow would melt. And so the Afghans were moving down these two roads, and the vehicles they were moving in broke or got stuck in the mud,” Hagenbeck said. “The fight here caused Zia, who was strung out, to withdraw. So immediately the plan had to change. I mean, that was the main attack, and conditions caused it to have to change.”
The friendly fire incident “became a turning point in the battle,” undermining Lodin’s confidence in the U.S.-led operation, according to Davis. Lodin’s decision to withdraw his forces back to Gardez to regroup meant they would not “return until 6 March — after the hardest fighting was over,” he writes.
Special operations forces had “worked closely with Gen. Zia [Lodin] for weeks, training them and preparing them for this mission,” Hagenbeck said in a July 27 written reply to additional questions. “The biggest lesson . . . was not to expect from your allies what you expect from your own forces. Our Afghan allies have different training, weapons and experiences, and their reactions to combat situations are different from what you would expect from a U.S. infantry unit. Not necessarily worse, but different.”
With the initial battle plan falling apart, remaining U.S. conventional and special operations forces were left confused and under persistent enemy fire, according to Hagenbeck and others.
On a ridge of Takur Ghar mountain, seven special operations forces died as two MH-47 Chinook helicopters were hit and commandos found themselves in a “hot” zone filled with al Qaeda fighters on the third day of battle, according to Anaconda veterans.
Another “element from the 10th Mountain Division got caught in a crossfire” between fighters high on the ridges and others shooting from the town of Marzak in the valley, Hagenbeck said. He called in emergency air strikes on the village.
An Army decision not to bring its 105 mm artillery into Afghanistan during the war is well known in defense circles. But in another, less-noticed omission, Army commanders left most of their mortars out of the Anaconda fight, as well. One of Anaconda’s two battalion commanders brought in two of his four mortars on the first day of battle, but his troops were unable to get the weapons set up because their landing zones were under fire all day long, Army officials said. The other battalion at Anaconda had four mortars in Afghanistan, but failed to bring any of those into the fight early on because they were believed unnecessary, officers told ITP.
Thus, “we were forced to use the close air support … to provide suppressive fires for our ground forces because we were unable to get our mortars into action, on that first day at least,” Army Maj. Dennis Yates, who served in Anaconda as 3rd Brigade fire support officer for the 101st Airborne Division, told ITP in 2002.
Meanwhile, enemy forces “were sending out messages that this was the fight that they had been waiting for because they thought it was going to be a replica of the fight with the Soviets where they had bloodied them badly,” Hagenbeck said. “So they were calling for a jihad against the Americans. And they were infiltrating people in daylight hours, spread out [so] that [they] didn’t present themselves as big targets.”
Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders “moved in hundreds more fighters over the three-day period, but when they moved into those villages … we were able to kill them,” he continued. “If we didn’t get them right away they would go up into the mountains.”
Hagenbeck called in combat and support aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to provide emergency strikes and to sustain ground forces under the unexpectedly fierce fire (ITP, Nov. 21, 2002, p1).
In the battle’s opening days, the enemy “fighters would come out and shoot either mortars or small arms, machine guns,” Hagenbeck said. “And when they heard — we call them fast-movers — but when they heard the jets overhead, they would dash back into the caves until the fighters went by.”
The “carefully balanced details of the plan didn’t survive first contact with the enemy,” Franks writes in “American Soldier,” his new autobiography. “Anaconda was turning into a hell of a fight.”
Hagenbeck’s battle plan assumed the entire operation would be over in just 72 hours, according to Army officers. Although the Soviets had never succeeded in taking the Shahikot Valley — surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks and saddled with poor roads and foul weather — the American commander was confident his plan differed from history in some crucial respects.
Unlike the Soviets in 1987, Hagenbeck would not signal the coming ground battle through protracted air strikes in advance. Air generals, by their own account, had implored Hagenbeck to consider softening the battlefield with a longer series of strikes, but he resisted in a bid for tactical surprise. The plan called for air strikes in support of ground troops, but mostly after the land attack was launched, he said.
The Anaconda commander also had learned from the opening months of U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom that air power was most useful when troops were not closely engaged with enemy forces, he said.
“It was the special forces working with the Afghan militias,” Hagenbeck said. When “air power was used, by and large — [though] not always — there was a stand-off distance, if you will, terrain distances between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and special forces and friendly forces. So air power was used extraordinarily effectively, and there was not an intermingling of friendly and enemy forces.”
Hagenbeck also prepared to focus simultaneously on threats both from the mountainsides and from inside the villages, another lesson the commander learned from the Soviet experience, he said.
“What we wanted to do was take out the known targets in those villages, and then be prepared to respond against targets inside of the valley,” Hagenbeck said.
Intelligence provided by U.S. Central Command headquarters, according to Davis, suggested there would be “about 150 to 200 bad guys in the area, most of them down in the villages, and some on the hills,” in Hagenbeck’s words.
But, he said, “we didn’t know until hours before we launched that there were probably closer to 400 in the valley than there were of 150 to 250. And that number grew over time, as they infiltrated, trying to reinforce their positions, as opposed to exfiltrate like we’d anticipated.”
“We’re being shot at by a lot of people, and it becomes clear to us as we began to look at this that this is a larger group of people,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, then a three-star and the region’s top air officer, told ITP in an interview.
There were even more enemy fighters hidden in the mountain’s recesses.
“Before the fight was over we had between 100 to 200 up on the eastern ridge that had to be fought,” Hagenbeck said. “So the adjustments that had to be made, and they were made on the very first day.”
Even so, Hagenbeck and his battle planners held “the firm belief” that the initial, Afghan-led thrust would meet little resistance, he said. Planners also mistakenly lumped Taliban and al Qaeda fighters together in their minds, believing the fighters might easily surrender or even switch sides, as Afghans had done in the past, Yates said.
Under the battle plan, the Afghan coalition forces would attack the villages “at dawn [and] we would come in behind and block the seven escape routes,” Hagenbeck said. “If history proved itself, as it had up to this point on a smaller scale, there would not be initial fighting” down in the valley, he said.
Rather, “this would be Afghans confronting Afghans, with foreign fighters integrated in there, and there would be negotiations going on all day,” Hagenbeck said. “And one of two things would happen. They would either surrender, or they would negotiate all day long.”
In the worse of the two cases, “the sun would go down, it would be nighttime, and the key leaders would try to escape,” he said. “And the next morning there would be a surrender with no bad guys there, or there would be a fight with what remained. That was kind of the basic premise that it was going to be when [the battle plan] was established.”
What didn’t happen
It is Feb. 20, 2002, and a young officer in the Army-led “Battlefield Coordination Detachment” at the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia receives a 110-page set of PowerPoint slides describing a major ground offensive, with air support, to be launched in Afghanistan’s Shahikot Valley. The slides indicate an operation has been ordered with an anticipated launch date: Feb. 28.
“Oh my God,” is how Corley, the former air operations center director, describes the response from the young officer, who then “captured the attention of a senior leader.”
It would be another three days before Corley received his first briefing on Operation Anaconda. He immediately summoned Moseley back from a secret mission to the Persian Gulf. At the time, Moseley was in Manama, Bahrain, where he was arranging base access and support for the future war against Iraq, which would not be launched for another year.
Moseley says he now understands the briefing was sent Feb. 20 at the behest of Army Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, Central Command's ground force chief.
“He’s briefed on [Anaconda] on the 17th,” Moseley says of Mikolashek. “And one of his questions is, 'Does the CFACC [combined force air component commander] know about this?' Three days later is when we get the e-mail on the 20th … So P.T. [Mikolashek] is asking the right question.”
At issue in much of the debate over Anaconda is who was responsible for initiating coordinated planning between the ground commanders — assigned the lead in the battle — and their air and naval counterparts. Airmen, sailors and Marines offer the potential to provide substantial logistical and combat support to ground forces, if sufficient planning and logistics is done upfront, military officials and experts agree.
Since his arrival in the theater in November 2001, Moseley had participated in Franks’ twice-daily video teleconferences between the air, naval, ground and special operations forces component commanders. In Moseley’s absence, his deputy or an air ops center director like Corley would attend. No air commanders recall Hagenbeck or Mikolashek raising Anaconda during a teleconference before the PowerPoint slides were brought to their attention in late February, Moseley said in his July 16 interview with ITP.
“I can tell you definitively it never came up,” Corley agreed.
Davis suggests in his paper that ground officers in the air center’s Battlefield Coordination Detachment may have dropped the ball, failing to appreciate the importance of the coming Operation Anaconda or perhaps unaware of the pressing need to facilitate air-ground coordination in advance. This ground liaison element had not played a significant role during the first part of the war in Afghanistan, when special operations forces — rather than conventional troops — took the lead on the ground, Davis says.
These operations were so “decentralized” — lacking in close oversight by commanders outside the battlefield — that “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 grown forces,” Davis writes. “This lack of integration at the operational level would continue and climax with the execution of Anaconda.”
Davis notes how the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban regime — and the concomitant risk that Taliban extremists and al Qaeda terrorists would escape Afghanistan — required a shift in U.S. strategy and the introduction of greater numbers of conventional ground forces. That occurred as the new year began.
“When [Hamid] Karzai was put in as interim president there in December … all the effort then shifted to chasing down individual, high-value targets,” Hagenbeck told ITP.
Davis, a special operations officer, suggests e-mail traffic to the detachment regarding an upcoming battle in the Khowst-Gardez region had begun arriving as early as January 2002. Such messages were also sent to Central Command's Air Force sector, which Moseley headed, but apparently never reached his command center, Davis found.
Moseley rejects the notion his air operations center had in any way become disengaged in the Afghan effort.
“That’s not true,” he said. “The staff was focused on Afghanistan because that’s where we were fighting.”
Yet, even if the ground detachment in Saudi Arabia failed to draw the air component into planning for Anaconda — which reportedly began in January — it appears Hagenbeck, as the battle commander, or Mikolashek, as the top ground force commander for Afghanistan, were not troubled by the absence of air coordination as their plans for Anaconda grew throughout January and February.
“Air power was not ignored in the planning; it was integral to our fight,” Hagenbeck said last month. “I talked to my ALO [air liaison officer] when he was there, [and] I had my fire support officer, [Lt.] Col. Chris Bentley, working with him.” But, Hagenbeck hastened to add, “it became a much larger fight than anybody anticipated.”
Hagenbeck’s air liaison officer, Air Force Lt. Col. George Bochain, was actually in Afghanistan on loan to special operations forces to help coordinate air-ground attacks. Bochain’s boss, Air Force Col. Michael Longoria, had attempted to convince 10th Mountain Division staff officials to deploy Bochain and his team of ground-based forward air controllers, according to Longoria. But they did not get Bochain and his group on 10th Mountain’s deployment orders, citing force caps and the division’s initial mission, which was limited to force protection for a special operations compound in Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan. That mission would not require close air support.
Longoria — then commander of 18th Air Support Operations Group — says he argued at the time that 10th Mountain’s mission could well expand into offensive operations requiring air support — which it quickly did with the plans for Anaconda. Davis writes that Hagenbeck’s staff requested Bochain and his team be deployed with the division, but the request was denied by “higher headquarters” the author was unable to identify.
Bochain, then commander of the 20th Air Support Operations Squadron resident at Hagenbeck’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY, “got there because I cheated,” Longoria told ITP in a July 16 interview. Longoria convinced a colonel who headed a special operations task force in Afghanistan that he needed a forward air controller with every “A-team.” Bochain thus was sent in November 2001 to command air controllers for the special operators.
Later, as the war in Afghanistan began to transition from special operations to conventional forces in the lead, the sole air liaison officer in the area started pulling double duty.
Bochain was told “instead of working 22 hours a day, to work 24 hours a day,” Longoria said. “We were doing that” because of the “decision that 10th Mountain made,” he said.
Yet, with Bochain limited in his ability to support Hagenbeck, “10th Mountain was incapable of fully integrating with other joint components, especially in air component,” Davis finds.
“Working with the ALO, means that they’re talking back” to the air component, Hagenbeck said. “Think about, again, the human dimension of all of this — where everybody is located and who they are. I’m working through my staff, and telling them directives, and I’m getting, in essence, a thumbs-up.”
Hagenbeck himself was a moving target. Leading up to the Feb. 26 teleconference briefing for Franks and the component commanders, the Anaconda commander was juggling more than just an impending battle.
“Within a period of less than a week, Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck’s headquarters was redesignated a JTF [joint task force], assumed responsibility for a major combat operation involving 10 coalition partners, and relocated an entire headquarters [from Karshi Khanabad] to Bagram,” writes Davis. “All of this added additional complexity that would not have otherwise been present and certainly affected the planning of Anaconda.”
Indeed, while Hagenbeck had just moved to Bagram, Bochain remained based at Karshi Khanabad with the joint special operations task force commander; Longoria had improvised a new “Air Combat Center” at Camp Doha, Kuwait, Mikolashek's regional ground force headquarters; Moseley's air component headquarters was located at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia; and Franks commanded U.S. forces in the region from his Tampa headquarters, 7,000 miles and 10 times zones away.
With “no operational communications systems,” Longoria's new Air Combat Center “was not manned or equipped to monitor the activities of the deployed [ground-air controllers] or stay abreast of current and future operations, until the first day of Anaconda,” Davis writes. “Instead, Col. Longoria and his small staff integrated themselves into the CFLCC [combined force land component command] staff, and tried to keep Lt. Gen. Mikolashek informed as best they could on the day-to-day air operations in Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Bochain recalls working with special operations forces in January on plans for an upcoming operation in the Khowst-Gardez area — one of several ops on the table — but says he had no hint it was part of a larger conventional force battle Hagenbeck was formulating.
Looking back, Bochain expresses incredulity that the burden of coordination between the ground and air components somehow came down to him — on loan to special ops and not even an officer 10th Mountain had opted to deploy — and was not taking place at higher levels.
“Why that was not brought up from Gen. Hagenbeck’s and Gen. Mikolashek’s side of the house to the CFACC [Moseley], I have no idea,” Bochain told ITP in a July 8 interview, using the acronym for the combined force air component commander. He is now a full colonel and commander of 1st Air Support Operations Group at Fort Lewis, WA.
“It is beyond comprehension that this would not come up in these discussions,” Bochain said.
Senior commanders do contact one another directly “if they need to,” Davis said in a July 11 interview. The ground commanders “didn't believe that — based on the task that [Hagenbeck] had for the Air Force — there was [much] input that he could give them.”
In mid-February, Longoria — apparently still unaware of the coming operation — allowed Bochain to go home on a family emergency, a move Longoria says he would not have made if he knew an operation the size of Anaconda was being planned. Davis cites a Feb. 17 e-mail — sent five days after Bochain’s departure — from Hagenbeck’s staff to Longoria mentioning Anaconda. But the Air Force colonel told Davis it contained no indication a major operation was under development.
On Feb. 20 — the day air command staffers in Saudi Arabia say they first became aware of Anaconda — Air Force Maj. Pete Donnelly arrived in theater as Combined Joint Task Force Mountain’s first assigned air liaison officer, according to Davis.
But from Hagenbeck’s perspective, the airmen he saw were kept in the loop and mentioned no problems with his plans for air support.
“At that level, they were not raising any issues to me that made me believe that there were any major disjoints,” Hagenbeck said.
“The assumption was made that given the contacts — the number of VTCs [video-teleconferences] that the components had on a routine basis — the fact that Operation Anaconda was going to happen should have been no surprise,” Bochain says in describing the ground component's view.
It would not be until Feb. 26 that Moseley, having returned hastily from Bahrain, heard Hagenbeck’s first full briefing on Anaconda during the commanders’ video teleconference. Had it not been for bad weather, the battle was to have been launched less than 48 hours later.
“The question was asked … when would you be prepared to attack,” Hagenbeck recalls. “So I said I would be ready as early as 28 February. That’s how the date, as I recall, was initially established, and that was approved. Then weather forced the delay.”
Franks says in his book that he found the Anaconda plans “impressive,” but sensed during the teleconference that something was “not exactly right” (ITP, Aug. 5, p1). He didn’t call a time-out on the battle, but did encourage the air, ground, naval and special operations commanders to work together on the plans. Franks adds he was thankful “Mother Nature was on our side,” with weather giving the commanders a few more days of advance work before the first shots were fired.
Asked if the threat justified the urgency to get the battle started — or if, in retrospect, he wishes he had taken more time to coordinate Anaconda in advance — Hagenbeck responded: “Part of what was driving my thinking was, ‘We need to get after these guys and kill them or capture them, sooner than later.’ So we did the staff analysis; I mean, I just didn’t pull the data out of a hat. We laid down and went through a very detailed mission analysis on what it would take for us to make this happen at that point. That was the agreement of my staff; that was the recommendation they gave to me.”
Moseley says he deferred to the ground commander's assessment that there was a potentially fleeting target of opportunity in the Shahikot Valley.
“I don’t recollect a notion or a lengthy debate about slipping this, because my recollection is [Task Force] Mountain had been given the time frame based on what they were told of the presence of the hostiles were in this area. So there was a desire to get at these hostiles quick,” Moseley said.
“When we got wind of this [imminent operation], my call to Gen. Mikolashek was, ‘P.T., tell us what you need, when do you need it, and how fast do you need it? What do you need us to put here?’” Moseley recalled.
After all, close air support and sustainment from the air — in the form of fuel and supplies — would be critical for Anaconda, even under the ground commander’s optimistic assumptions about the battle’s intensity and duration.
Moving ‘heaven and earth’
Once Corley receives his first Anaconda briefing from the Battlefield Coordination Detachment on Feb. 23, “heaven and earth moves from that moment forward,” the former air ops center director said. “We stop essentially doing what we should have been doing in Iraq” — policing what was then a southern no-fly zone — “to try to throw everything, everybody, everyone we can” into the Anaconda effort, he said. The air chiefs quickly shifted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms from southern Iraq to Afghanistan to prepare for the battle, he said.
Facing more questions than answers on what the ground commanders needed from the air component during the impending battle, Corley says he simply rounded up all the people, aircraft and supplies he could.
“What we wound up doing, we pushed and forced capacity in there,” he said. “Since they were unable to define what it was that they wanted from us, we just elected to do and push on our own … My answer was, I will give them more capacity than they could potentially use. I’m trying to do back-of-the-envelope planning so that even if they can’t define a requirement, they will have the resources necessary to successfully execute this.”
One example is fuel: “Since I couldn’t find out how much fuel they wanted, [and] since they couldn’t tell me what fuel storage they had, I just found airplanes and I flew fuel bladders into Bagram. And then what I started doing was flying KC-130 Marine aircraft in there to provide fuel. I brought in airplanes that were in-theater C-17s, put them into Bagram, pumped the fuel out of their wings [and] into the fuel bladders on the ground, took [the C-17s] off of Bagram, put them up on air tankers, and spiraled them back into Bagram [in] mountainous terrain, [at] night, [in] bad weather, [with] no lights, to give [the ground component] fuel.”
Fuel was on Hagenbeck’s mind in the closing days before Anaconda, as well.
“My biggest concern in the planning piece was getting fuel for our helicopters,” he said. “And we weren’t getting it fast enough.” Bad weather and threat conditions limited aircraft to flying into Bagram only at night, at the time.
Gen. John Handy, head of U.S. Transportation Command, “literally flew in through the clouds,” landing at Bagram’s primitive runway at midnight shortly before the battle began, Hagenbeck says. “We had a frank discussion,” the Anaconda commander says with a chuckle, “and I pleaded a little bit that I needed fuel for helicopters to do this, and the only way we were going to get it is if he would get the Air Force aircraft to fly in the daylight, to come into Bagram. So he did … He spent two hours on the ground, he made the change immediately, and forever after he’ll be one of my heroes.”
The U.S.-led forces “could not have even attacked on the delay, 2 March, without that fuel,” Hagenbeck acknowledges. “So it took them coming into a very uncertain environment at that point, flying in those planes, bringing in fuel.”
Not every critical asset arrived in theater by the time Anaconda began. Inside the Pentagon reported in 2002 that slow-flying A-10 attack aircraft based in Kuwait were not repositioned closer to the fight until the 12-day battle was half over.
The circumstances were dramatic. As the first days of battle raged on past Hagenbeck’s 72-hour expectations, Moseley was so desperate to base these close air support aircraft nearer to the fight that he had them airborne and flying towards the region before he was even able to reach his military counterpart in a neighboring nation for permission to land.
It wasn’t the preferred approach.
“You just don’t arrive in another foreign country unannounced with combat-loaded airplanes to land on their runways and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to go conduct an operation,’” Corley said.
Did the urgency of the matter make it easier to negotiate in minutes a base access agreement that might otherwise have taken weeks or months — had the air commanders been involved in Anaconda planning from the start?
That may have been the case, Corley concedes. But the crisis approach introduced greater risk by minimizing alternatives and cashing in chips with an ally, he says.
“The earlier involvement in planning, the more opportunity for planning and rehearsal, the better opportunity you have for success in the execution,” Corley said.
Another missing asset during Operation Anaconda was a joint fire control network dedicated to close air support, so that forward air controllers on the ground could coordinate air strikes with pilots circling over the valley in layered “stacks” of multiple aircraft each, said Longoria, who now directs the Joint Air-Ground Combat Office at Air Combat Command.
Central Command had dedicated most of the frequency “bandwidth” on satellite-based communications systems available in Afghanistan to special operations forces, given their lead role in the opening months of the war, Longoria explained. The air component learned of the battle too late to request a frequency reallocation, leaving air controllers a single frequency on which to coordinate all target bombing close to friendly forces, he said.
“It’s like being in an AOL chat room with 36 other people, and you’re trying to have a conversation with one person,” says Lt. Col. Ken Rozelsky, director of an “Air Support Operations Center-minus” Longoria hastily installed at Hagenbeck's Bagram headquarters during Anaconda. Rozelsky was interviewed last month.
“And you have to do this emergency triage, this communication triage, to figure out what’s really important and what’s not. And that’s not what we want to be doing when we’re delivering fire,” Longoria said. “More time would have allowed us to raise this issue to CENTCOM and, no kidding, there would have been a frequency reallocation.” He estimated 48 hours of additional notice before Anaconda was launched would have been sufficient time to get the change made.
By the second day of the battle, it became apparent that Donnelly’s air cell “was totally inadequate to control the amount of close air support needed for the operation,” Davis writes. That's when Longoria moved Rozelsky and other personnel from Kuwait to Bagram to establish the “Air Support Operations Center-minus” — lacking full equipment and personnel — at Hagenbeck’s headquarters.
More lead time might have allowed that cell to be adequately sized and placed from the start, air officers say.
“We rushed as much stuff as we could, people and gear, to Bagram to stand up this ASOC up at Bagram to be the entity to provide air-to-ground support,” Moseley said. “I don’t believe that is a failing of anyone. I believe that is pursuant to the task that [Task Force] Mountain was given when it deployed. If you’re going to change the task, then you’ve got to have time to be able to change the footprint, to be able to bring the required tools to bear.”
On the other hand, Moseley does not agree that people or equipment should have been placed in-theater before they were needed — which ostensibly could have included Longoria’s air controllers.
“Remember, you don’t want to populate a combatant area with things that are unrequired,” Moseley said. “You only move assets into theater relative to the task that you've been given. Because for everything that you might want to deploy just because you might need it, you’re populated with people now that you’re going to deploy, and for how long and to do what? And what are the opportunities to maintain [skill] currencies? What are the opportunities to train? What are the opportunities to keep your equipment up? So you don’t just do things just in case.”
Corley said he tries to avoid the temptation of asking “what if,” perhaps leading to an incorrect assumption that history would have been different with one more month or week or even a single day of advance notice before Anaconda.
However, he allowed himself this: “We would have been able to go back to the States and request for some initial capability plus, perhaps, some redundancy in terms of a command and control net for them to be able to do that,” Corley said. “We would have had the opportunity for some mission rehearsals.”
“With more time to integrate and with more time to orchestrate and focus on the desired effects, we could have done a few of the following things,” Moseley said. “We could have prepositioned fighters closer. We could have focused the ISR collection better. We could have better worked and defined the sustainment piece of this — fuel, munitions, water. We could have prepositioned more fuel forward.
“We could have deconflicted the air space much better, because I believe you know from reading some of this that that battlespace is about as big as the Battle of Chancellorsville, and inside that battlespace were 37 or so ground controllers,” Moseley continued. “Well, 37 divided into the area of the Battle of Chancellorsville gives you about a mile or a mile-and-a-half square area for each of those ground parties. And so how then do you move that much air to do close air support when each [enlisted controller] has only got about one square mile, or six to nine thousand square feet of space? The airplane has to fly through multiple cylinders to get to that one controller. How do you horizontally deconflict, and how do you vertically deconflict moving the air into that confined space?”
“It’s not just a [question of] what are the planning factors,” Corley agreed. There is “an organizational element, a training element, an equipping element to get the resources over to the theater,” he said. “Whereas what we were constrained into is kind of a cobbling together of what we have in the theater, while at the same time, trying [to] request more.”
“I don't know what more could have been done at that point,” one Air Force officer, who requested anonymity, said in a July 15 interview. “The light went on and we realized this was very serious. They were launching this thing and needed our support.”
In the end, Corley was left with this message for the ground component: “I’d like to plan with you. But if I can’t plan with you, I need your requirements. But if you can’t define your requirements, I’m going to push capacity because my job is to help all of us be successful.”
At the same time, in the days leading up to the battle, Corley felt he must challenge the ground component’s planning estimate on the size of the threat in the Shahikot Valley, he told ITP. He’d seen intelligence estimates ranging from the hundreds up to about 2,000 adversary fighters there; and even if just 200 or so enemy forces were in the area now, potentially they could be reinforced, he told his Army briefer.
Davis dug up a “fragmentary order” Franks issued on Jan. 5, 2002, to Mikolashek, the ground force commander, identifying “the Khowst-Gardez area as the most dangerous remaining pocket of resistance and estimated the number of enemy combatants to be 1,500 to 2,000.”
In fact, estimates were very fluid depending on the date and the area circumscribed, Moseley said.
“I remember a continual rolling dialogue as these packs of hostiles moved around inside these tribal areas, because they’re very adaptive and very mobile,” he told ITP. “So at any point in time, what’s the biggest concentration that we know of, based on signals intelligence, based on electronic intelligence?”
The air component did not have a more accurate estimate of enemy forces than the ground component had, Moseley said. Both were able to draw off of Central Command intelligence data.
“The better question, I think, is did the task force plug into the Central Command J-2 [intelligence] archival data, and did the task force ask for ISR collection, pre-insertion?” Moseley said. “Did the task force provide a request that would then lead to an ISR collection deck focused on this particular area? And I don't remember that happening.”
Sending ISR aircraft and spy satellites over the Shahikot Valley earlier, in the run-up to Anaconda, “would have probably given us all a much higher level of confidence about who is there, in what numbers, and how are they equipped,” Moseley said.
Corley also was troubled by an apparent lack of contingency plans if the engagement lasted longer than three days.
“I would begin to question assumptions like, if an operation is perceived to be short duration, my study of history is that that’s almost never the case,” Corley said. “And if your plan can only succeed if it’s to be some 48 or 72 hours in existence, what would you do if the duration of this needs to be a week or two weeks? How would you still guarantee success?”
“What if [enemy forces] were going to try to truck in additional forces or march troops down a given road?” he continued. “I wanted to be positioned to blunt that resupply.”
“There were contingency operations planned,” Hagenbeck told ITP in late July, though he provided no further detail.
Corley said he asked the air component’s logistics director what he had been advised on the requirements for airlift, fuel and fuel storage during the battle, so that helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft could fly in and out of the battle area.
Having operated in Afghanistan over the prior four months, “we knew that truck drivers attempting to supply folks over the road [had a] life expectancy [that] was extremely limited. And therefore the ability to bring resupplies or get supplies into an area was almost non-existent, or not predictable.
“So from an airman’s perspective, what that told me was, OK, I’m not going to bring it in by ship, based on geography,” he continued. “I can’t get it in over the roads. I, as an airman, will be charged with responsibility for bringing it in.”
“Everything that goes into Afghanistan is flown in,” Moseley said. “So how much water do you need, how much additional food do you need, how much fuel do you need, how much bullets? What do you need? When do you need it?”
Corley wondered if he had “sufficient time to plan to get the resources into the theater,” he said. “The requirements were not defined in advance of the operation for the air component with regards to logistics. Nor were they ever defined or refined throughout the conduct of the operation, despite the fact that we made continual engagements, attempting to get what would be the logistics requirements.”
Assessing the requirements for air supply can only be a collaborative process, air officials say; it cannot be done independently by the air or ground sector alone.
“If you cannot tell me how many helicopters you’re going to involve in this operation, I cannot tell you — or provide to you — how much fuel you’ll need to operate those helicopters, [even] helicopters that might be used in a secondary [or] tertiary [role] with close air support,” Corley said.
One reason for advance planning in combat operations is that, as combat and resupply details are studied and honed, they tend to grow, military officers say.
“Just within the first 24 hours, there was an initial request [to airlift] 250 short tons and 600 passengers” into the area, Corley said. But before the day was over, both figures for materiel and personnel grew by more than 50 percent, he said.
On the combat side of the campaign, Corley was coming up with just as many question marks, he said.
“We made continual demands repeatedly, day after day, during the minimal time period that we had, for things like, ‘Where are targets of interest? Within those targets of interest, where could be the desired mean points of interest for us to drop munitions on there? How can we do pre-strike sweeps? Are there area targets?’”
Hagenbeck saw the utility of air power to his battle somewhat differently, but says he believed at the time his view was shared universally.
“The anticipated array of targets on the ground … were believed to be spread across the battlefield in this very steep and rugged terrain, which did not lend themselves for large displays of air power,” he said. “That was a consensus going into this fight.” Lingering emotion
Hagenbeck provided ITP with photographs showing him leading Army staff officers through a mission rehearsal at his Bagram headquarters on Feb. 26, 2002, the eve of battle.
Air Force officers are conspicuously missing. (Hagenbeck, though, says Donnelly was in attendance.)
One photo depicts a soldier using a laser pointer to mark a spot on a situation-update map. Above the map appear five paper rectangles, displaying the words: “Who-Else-Needs-To-Know?”
“Who else needs to know? Who else needs to know?” blurts Longoria, seeing the photograph for the first time. “I’d say the air component would need to know.”
There is still deeply felt emotion between the services over Anaconda. Just ask Air Combat Command chief Gen. Hal Hornburg. He met with Hagenbeck after the Army general's controversial 2002 interview appeared in the service's Field Artillery magazine, and felt afterward the two had come to terms about the published complaints on air power's role in the battle. But once again Hornburg is reportedly fuming, this time because he feels Hagenbeck has not since made good on their discussion, air officials say.
“He told me he would publicly correct the record on earlier comments attributed to him,” Hornburg told ITP in a written statement last month. “If you want to know why he hasn't done so, you'll need to talk to him.”
“I did put my thoughts down on paper,” Hagenbeck responds. “And the recommendation to me, which I agreed with, was that that would potentially throw more fuel on the fire.” Instead, he has addressed the issue in personal conversations, professional meetings and in talks at military service schools, he said.
Hagenbeck these days sounds somewhat chastened, perhaps a bit more cognizant of the challenges facing warfighters across the services.
“We had to work through, if you will, a different set of rules of engagement — read close air support,” Hagenbeck said. Military leaders wondered “how to do it in that environment, which was awful weather, very difficult and jagged terrain [and] an intermingling of forces on the ground — not just enemy and friendly, but different kinds of friendly forces on the ground,” he said. “So it was … a much more complex, integrated battlefield than we had experienced up to that point. And we all had to adjust to that, and I think everyone did that extraordinarily well. We had our frustrating moments, but I do think it worked very well.”
Davis, the Army author, theorizes that Anaconda's failures can be largely attributed to an overly complex command structure Franks set up for Operation Enduring Freedom, a system that denied Hagenbeck full control over fielded forces and destroyed coherence in combat. He says confusion between various task forces and components under Franks made communication difficult between them and led to misunderstandings.
Franks was unavailable for comment on the issue this week and last.
But in the end, even Davis finds his own theory fails to fully explain the lapses in coordinating Anaconda across the services. Despite having discovered a “mountain of message traffic” between the ground and air commands from early January to late February — discussing the development of what ultimately was to become Operation Anaconda — Davis concludes one leader reaching out to another might have cut through confusion and red tape at lower levels.
A “serious breakdown” in “direct communication” occurred between Franks, Moseley, Mikolashek and Hagenbeck leading up to Operation Anaconda, writes Davis. “No communications system in the world, no matter how advanced, replaces the interpersonal relationships that must exist among the component commanders.”
“I agree that you can’t escape that. Those [relationships] are integral to everything you do,” Hagenbeck says. “You know, you could sit around and have a cup of coffee and things might come out in a conversation that you would never discuss, [or] watch on a video-teleconference. And I think that’s the dimension that I would say is so important sometimes. The extended distances — you have to figure out ways to overcome that.”
On the ground side, “neither Lt. Gen. Mikolashek nor Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck did enough to integrate the [Combined Air Operations Center] during the critical planning period of 13 to 20 February,” Davis writes. “At a minimum, they should have personally contacted Lt. Gen. Moseley and briefed him on the plan well before the order was e-mailed to his headquarters on 20 February."
Davis similarly faults Moseley for having failed to contact Hagenbeck or Mikolashek directly, once the Feb. 20 briefing arrived, to request clarification or protest having been excluded. The Army author bases this finding on information he gathered in an interview with Mikolashek last January.
Moseley disputes the point.
“When John Corley calls and we come back [from Bahrain, I] say, ‘OK, what are the requirements?’ And then P.T. [Mikolashek] and I are talking. ‘How about fuel? How about water? How about munitions? The weather is not good? Pressure altitudes are going to be a challenge for helicopters. You know, what you need? How about pre-strike? What are the targets?’ We began to go through them,” Moseley said.
Davis also questions why the eight days prior to Anaconda was not enough time for the Air Force-led component to get set for battle.
“The evidence shows that the Air Force had enough lead time to prepare for the operation,” Davis writes. “However,” he continues, “the fact that neither Lt. Gen. Mikolashek nor Maj. Gen. Hagenbeck attempted to contact Lt. Gen. Moseley to inform him about Anaconda demonstrates that the Army was not serious about integrating the air component in the operation.”
Moseley insists he had regular contact with Mikolashek throughout the Afghan war.
“I’m engaged with Gen. Mikolashek — who, besides being a good friend [and] a good officer — he and I are talking about three or four times a week over things that we need to do.”
Moseley said he had a Shakespearean “band of brothers” kind of relationship with Mikolashek. “You’re committed emotionally, you’re committed personally, you’re committed professionally to fight that fight alongside that component commander,” Moseley said. “We had that relationship and that openness.”
The former air chief for Afghanistan says the Anaconda experience raises “a higher set of questions on how to execute a combatant commander’s task in the most effective way. . . . If there is a task force operation going on, it is incumbent on the prosecutor of that task to be absolutely, totally, fully inclusive of all of the other attributes of firepower and support.”
To underscore his interest in facilitating that brand of high-level dialogue among wartime commanders, Moseley placed a two-star general inside the ground component commander's Kuwait headquarters during the 2003 war against Iraq, to serve as his personal representative in coordinating air-ground operations (ITP, Feb. 13, 2003, p1). During last year's war, the change allowed Moseley's command to “offer air and space expertise from the very beginning, from the genesis of the motion, whether it's ever executed or not,” he said.
In retrospect, Hagenbeck now says he would have raised Anaconda during a video-teleconference with Moseley and others early in the planning process.
“Now that we’re all experienced, and we look in the rear-view mirror, we surely would have done some [things differently] and asked some harder questions of each other at that point,” he told ITP.
Still, Hagenbeck said, “no commanders I know ever take combat and the lives entrusted to them for granted.”
“You do what you have to do, so you play the cards you’re dealt,” Moseley said. “There is not one component that is dominant over the others. There are a set of components that have different tools that a combatant commander uses, and out of all of this we should have the closest of relationships because we’ve all walked through fire together.”
— Elaine M. Grossman