Mission command, as opposed to direct command, aims to increase the armed forces’ flexibility in reacting to the challenges of the battlefield. By issuing mission-type orders that leave the execution to the commander’s discretion, mission command enhances the armed forces’ ability to reduce the fog and friction of war and increase the efficiency of their actions. Operation Anaconda, which took place in March 2002 during the US invasion of Afghanistan, represents a noteworthy case in this regard. While ultimately a success that resulted in heavy enemy casualties, the operation was imperfect in many respects. Weak intelligence, insufficient planning and preparation, and poor integration of the air component resulted in problems with almost all seven principles of mission command during Operation Anaconda.
The first and fundamental principle of mission command is competence at all levels. ADP 6-0 stresses that “tactically and technically competent commanders, subordinates, and teams” are absolutely essential for achieving mission success (“Mission Command,” 2019, p. 1-7). While the US forces involved in the operation generally corresponded to this requirement, the Afghan allies did not. Previous operations in Afghanistan have established the patterns of US forces providing support and Afghan allies doing most of the fighting on the ground. However, in Operation Anaconda, Afghan allies were not the well-motivated and battle-hardened troops of the Northern Alliance but local Pashtun militias (Kugler, 2007). Their low efficiency hindered the allied action at the beginning of the operation and left American forces to perform most of the fighting on the ground. Thus, insufficient tactical competence of local allies limited opportunities for the implementation of mission command.
The second principle of mission command is mutual trust, which is particularly important for joint operations. ADP 6-0 stresses that only “shared confidence between commanders, subordinates, and partners” may ensure skilled and effective execution of the battle plan (“Mission Command,” 2019, p. 1-7). That was not the case in Operation Anaconda, where the lack of trust was apparent both within the US forces and between Americans and their Afghan allies. Firstly, the command of the combined joint task force (CJTF) Mountain responsible for the operation did not include the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) into its planning effort (Andres & Hakill, 2007). Secondly, a friendly-fire incident at the beginning of the operation killed two allied Afghan soldiers while injuring 17 more, thus destroying any trust there was between Americans and their Afghan allies (Andres & Hakill, 2007). As a result, Operation Anaconda suffered from a lack of trust between air and land components as well as Americans and Afghans.
This lack of trust naturally transferred into difficulties in establishing shared understanding, which is the third principle of mission command. ADP 6-0 obligates commanders and staffs to “actively create shared understanding throughout the operations process” on all states from planning to assessment (“Mission Command,” 2019, p. 1-8). The lack of shared understanding was arguably the gravest fault in planning Operation Anaconda from the mission command perspective. The failure to properly involve CFACC in the planning resulted in limited intelligence, insufficient air strike preparation, and misconceptions about the tactical roles performed by the air component (Andres & Hakill, 2007). If CJTF fostered shared understanding and collaboration with CFACC, as mission command principles instruct, Operation Anaconda would have most likely progressed more smoothly and swiftly.
In terms of the fourth principle of mission command – namely, the commander’s intent – was arguably the only one fully realized in Operation Anaconda. ADP 6-0 defines the commander’s intent as a succinct expression of operational goal and the desired military end state, including key tasks to be performed ((“Mission Command,” 2019). For Operation Anaconda, the intent was to cut off and destroy Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the Shahikot Valley and neutralize or capture the enemy senior leadership presumably stationed there (Kugler, 2007). From the mission command perspective, the problems with Operation Anaconda were not in the commander’s intent, which was clear and concise, but in the realization of other principles.
Mission-type orders, which are the fifth principle of mission command, did not feature prominently in Operation Anaconda either. The defining feature of mission orders, as explained in ADP 6-0, is that they define for the subordinates “the results to be attained, not how they are to achieve them” (“Mission Command,” 2019, p. 1-11). During Operation Anaconda, the lack of mission orders was particularly apparent in the performance of the air component. Due to restrictions imposed by detailed command, it could not engage infrastructure targets or communication lines without approval from CENTCOM or higher (Kugler et al., 2009, p. 27). Consequently, the neglect of mission orders limited the efficiency of superior air power.
The sixth principle of mission command is disciplined initiative, and the approach to command and control taken during Operation Anaconda limited its implementation as well. The concept of disciplined initiative refers to initiative exercised within commanders’ intent toward a more efficient achievement of the task set before the forces (“Mission Command,” 2019). The aforementioned neglect of mission orders constrained the air component in exercising disciplined initiative. For instance, prior to and during the operation, the air component discovered multiple potential targets but lacked the authorization to attack them on its own initiative (Andres & Hakill, 2007). As a result, the exercise of disciplined initiative suffered from the propensity toward direct command.
The seventh hand final principle of mission command is risk acceptance, and the US forces did not fare well in this respect either. ADP 6-0 specifically gives “committing significant forces to a potentially costly frontal attack to fix the bulk of enemy forces” for the following envelopment as an example of risk acceptance (“Mission Command,” 2019, p. 1-13). This was exactly the case in the original plan of Operation Anaconda, which aimed to use Task Force Rakkasan to cut off the enemy escape routes. However, when the first wave of 200 troops encountered stiffer resistance than expected, American commanders decided to withdraw it and abandon the second wave, thus leaving the escape routes open (Andres & Hakill, 2007). This example illustrates how risk aversion prevented a full envelopment of the enemy and allowed its forces to withdraw partially.
To summarize, the planning and execution of Operation Anaconda demonstrated deficiencies in all principles of mission command except for the commander’s intent. Most of these deficiencies manifested as coordination and collaboration issues between the land and air components and American forces and their Afghan allies. Additionally, risk aversion prevented the full envelopment of the enemy forces and allowed some of them to retreat after suffering casualties. While Operation Anaconda was ultimately a tactical success, analysis demonstrates the importance of mission command principles in planning and executing a joint task force operation and the difficulties that arise from neglecting them.
ADP 6-0. Mission command: Command and control of army forces. (2019). Department of the Army.
Andres, R. B., & Hukill. J. B. (2007). Anaconda: A flawed joint planning process. Joint Force Quarterly, 47(4), 135-140.
Kugler, R. L. (2007). Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan: A case study of adaptation in battle. Case Studies in Defense Transformation, 5, 1-22.
Kugler, R. L., Baranick, M., & Binnendijk, H. (2009). Operation Anaconda: Lessons for joint operations. National Defense University.