Successful missions are not necessarily free from errors in planning and execution. Operation Anaconda, conducted in March 2002, serves as an example of a successful yet inherently flawed mission. While the U.S. troops managed to rectify the situation on the battlefield and achieve mission goals, Operation Anaconda provided valuable lessons for the U.S. military (Marzano, 2006). Analysis of Anaconda’s flaws from the mission command principles perspective highlighted the importance of accurate intelligence, shared understanding, and discipline in mutual trust. These factors directly affect critical mission components, such as risk acceptance, the tactical performance of coalition forces, and close air support (CAS) effectiveness.
Operation Anaconda that took place on March 2-18, 2002, had the objective of clearing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters out of Shah-i-Kot Valley. In this regard, Anaconda can be considered a success since the Coalition Joint Task Force (CJTF) MOUNTAIN troops inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. At the same time, the casualties sustained by the U.S. and allied forces were relatively low, despite unexpectedly fierce resistance. However, the planning, execution, and mission command of Anaconda were far from optimal. An intended hammer-and-anvil ground operation did not unfold as planned due to the quick withdrawal of Afghan allies (Kugler, 2007). In addition, American units left in a vulnerable position had to deal with complications and confusion stemming from the flawed mission command. Therefore, Operation Anaconda provided the U.S. military with many important lessons despite its successful outcome. An analysis of Operation Anaconda through the lens of mission command principles allowed to highlight three critical implications for the future joint expeditionary operation and tactical battles.
Most importantly, intelligence accuracy has a crucial influence on risk acceptance — one of the key mission command principles. Essentially, the more accurate mission intelligence is, the more calculated risks can be accepted by the commander. Operation Anaconda provides a classic selection of challenges in estimating enemy forces and their tactical capabilities. According to Kugler (2007), U.S military officials relied on human intelligence, communications intercepts, and overhead reconnaissance. However, the rugged terrain of Shah-i-Kot Valley and the enemy’s skill at concealing itself distorted the picture.
As a result, mission command erroneously decided that enemy presence is limited to 200-300 lightly armed fighters. In addition, inaccurate intelligence suggested that about 1,000 Afghan civilians were living on the valley floor (Kugler, 2007). These incorrect estimations had severe negative implications for Operation Anaconda. For instance, mission command decided against using significant air support in order to avoid major civilian casualties (Kugler, 2007). In reality, the valley was fully occupied by 700-1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. Overall, if Operation Anaconda had more accurate intelligence, mission command could have taken a riskier approach instead of relying on a conservative hammer-and-anvil ground attack.
Furthermore, the aftermath of Operation Anaconda shed new light on the mutual trust mission command principle. According to the Department of the Army (2019), commanders must trust their colleagues who are commanding supporting forces, but that trust must be earned, not taken for granted. During Operation Anaconda, the U.S. troops were supposed to serve as an anvil and cut off escape routes for the terrorists. Meanwhile, the hammer that primarily consisted of several hundred Afghan troops had to sweep through the valley floor. However, when the enemy resistance appeared to be much stronger than expected, the Afghans withdrew from the battle shortly after the operation’s beginning (Kugler et al., 2009). Essentially, the unilateral decision made by Afghan General Zia left U.S. troops exposed to counterattacks.
This example proves that all coalition forces involved in joint operations such as Anaconda should be incorporated into the united mission command structure. In the case of Anaconda, the Afghan forces were not commanded by Major General Franklin L. Hagenbeck, commander of the CJTF MOUNTAIN. Moreover, the Afghan troops acted independently from the U.S. Special Operation Forces (SOF) teams, which used to work with them closely (Kugler, 2007). As a result of such a significant trust, the Afghan forces had full freedom to depart from the original mission objective and exercised it with almost disastrous consequences. In this regard, the mutual trust principle must be supplemented with discipline and a shared understanding of mission objectives. Otherwise, trust in the ally’s competence might result in dangerous disruption of the battle plan.
Finally, Operation Anaconda proved the importance of CAS and air-ground interaction on the modern battlefield. This kind of interaction falls under the shared understanding principle of mission command. Essentially, two military branches — ground and air forces — collaborate to achieve a common goal. It is possible to claim that the shared understanding principle was violated during the planning of Operation Anaconda since Maj. General Hagenbeck paid little attention to collaboration with air forces. For instance, the combined force air component commander and the combined air operations center became aware of the operation on February 20, less than two weeks before its start (Bartels et al., 2017). Whereas Maj. General Hagenbeck’s judgment was seemingly justified by the intelligence reports, the unexpected ferocity and firepower of the enemy combined with the sudden retreat of allied forces created an urgent need for CAS. In the end, rapidly introduced and improved CAS became the key to winning the battle (Bartels et al., 2017). Therefore, the events of Anaconda taught a valuable lesson that even the plans of predominantly ground operations should include air component readily available for CAS strikes.
In summary, it is necessary to realize that even the mission command of successful operations is not necessarily perfect. Therefore, commanders and their subordinates must revisit the lessons of previous operations and use them in planning future battles. Operation Anaconda was conducted in circumstances of inaccurate intelligence, excessive trust in unreliable allies, and flawed collaboration between the U.S. ground and air forces. Overall, the favorable outcome of the battle in Shah-i-Kot Valley was achieved due to the competence of the U.S. ground troops rather than good mission planning and command.
Bartels, C., Tormey, T., & Hendrickson, J. (2017). Multidomain operations and close air support. Military Review, March-April, 70-79.
Department of the Army. (2019). ADP 6-0. Mission command: Command and control of army forces. Web.
Kugler, R. L. (2007). Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan: A case study of adaptation in battle. National Defense University, Center for Technology and National Security Policy. Web.
Kugler, R. L., Baranick, M., & Binnendijk, H. (2009). Operation Anaconda. Lessons for joint operations. National Defense University, Center for Technology and National Security Policy. Web.
Marzano, T. (2006). Criticisms associated with Operation Anaconda: Can long-distance leadership be effective? Naval War College. Web.