On March 2, 2002, Major General Franklin L. Hagenbeck launched Operation Anaconda to clear al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from their stronghold in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, Afghanistan. Anaconda involved over 2,000 troops from the coalition members — the USA, Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Afghanistan (Geibel, 2002). After seventeen days of combat, the U.S. and allied forces drove the remaining enemies out of the valley. The U.S. casualties totaled eight military personnel killed and over eighty wounded (Kugler, 2007). The enemy lost several hundred fighters; however, this kill ratio alone does not mean that Operation Anaconda was perfect. Success was achieved despite several serious flaws that can be highlighted by applying mission command principles.
The tactical and technical competence of commanders, subordinates, and teams is an essential prerequisite for effective mission command. According to the Department of the Army (2019), the necessary professional competence is achieved through repetitive, realistic, and challenging training. When the initial hammer and anvil battle plan of Operation Anaconda failed, the U.S-led coalition forces managed to show their competence and perform tactical adaptation under fire (Kugler, 2007). In this regard, the competence of U.S. troops was crucial for rectifying the errors made during the operation planning.
Mutual trust is another crucial element of mission command, especially if the fighting force is international. It is essential for the subordinates to feel the commander’s trust in their competence (Department of the Army, 2019). However, the mission command of Operation Anaconda put arguably too much trust into the Afghan allies who withdrew under the fire instead of making an expected push (Kugler et al., 2009). Such an overestimation of the ally’s capabilities was another mistake that compromised the initial mission plan.
A shared understanding of the mission’s environment, problems, and goals is important for creating a cohesive fighting force. Such understanding requires collaboration between multiple people and organizations (Department of the Army, 2019). Operation Anaconda significantly lacked in this department — coordination and collaboration were underwhelming even between the U.S. units. For instance, Lieutenant General T. Michael Moseley, commander of the U.S. air forces in the area of operation, was unaware of Anaconda’s scope until February 25 (Lyle, 2009). As a result, when enemy forces appeared to be much stronger than anticipated, U.S. aircraft struggled to support troops on the ground.
Commander’s intent implies clarity — all subordinates must be informed about the desired end state of the mission and key tasks that have to be performed in order to achieve it. According to the Department of the Army (2019), a clear commander’s intent is crucial for maintaining the unity of effort. However, the command and control structure of Operation Anaconda contributed to confusion instead of conveying clarity. For instance, Major General Hagenbeck did not have control over critical units participating in the operation, such as Special Forces (Marzano, 2006). Essentially, Operation Anaconda was planned by two groups within the Combined Joint Task Force Mountain command. Even worse, each of them had limited knowledge about the other’s activities — the exact opposite of a well-crafted commander’s intent.
Mission orders serve as a means of communication that conveys instructions from superiors to subordinates. Essentially, mission orders contain information regarding the unit’s essential tasks (Department of the Army, 2019). During Operation Anaconda, critical mission orders were issued from Tampa by General Tommy Franks, Combatant Commander in charge of Central Command (CENTCOM). According to Marzano (2006), personnel in Afghanistan often faced difficulties in accessing CENTCOM between the three daily windows for the video-teleconferences. As a result, U.S. forces often had to rely on improvisation while the command was unavailable.
A well-trained modern soldier should prefer improvisation within the framework of the commander’s intent and mission orders to inaction. The principle of disciplined initiative actively encourages subordinates to take action without asking for further guidance rather than stick to the failed plan (Department of the Army, 2019). In regard to Operation Anaconda, the disciplined initiative allowed the U.S. ground troops to endure two weeks of intense combat instead of the anticipated 2-3 days (Kugler et al., 2009). In particular, the use of improvised close air support (CAS) helped to repel the constant al-Qaeda and Taliban attacks with relatively low casualties, despite the withdrawal of the Afghan allies.
The final mission command principle underscores the dangers associated with military service. In general, risks cannot be avoided entirely; therefore, commanders should analyze them and avoid excessive caution (Department of the Army, 2019). One can state that Operation Anaconda command’s risk eventually paid off, as the desired goal of blocking and eliminating terrorist forces was achieved. Moreover, the flaws of Operation Anaconda mission command allowed the U.S. troops to eliminate significantly more al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters than was expected.
Operation Anaconda ended successfully due to the competence and disciplined initiative of the U.S. troops, despite several flaws in terms of mission command principles. The mission was planned in an atmosphere of urgency, which led to overestimation of the Afghan allies’ competence, the lack of shared understanding among the U.S. units, and unclear commander’s intent. In addition, the troops in Afghanistan faced problems with receiving the relevant mission orders from the CENTCOM in Tampa. Overall, the example of Operation Anaconda shows that even successful missions must be critically analyzed since the line between victory and disaster can be dangerously thin.
Department of the Army. (2019). ADP 6-0. Mission command: Command and control of army forces. Web.
Geibel, A. (2002). Operation Anaconda, Shah-i-Khot Valley, Afghanistan, 2-10 March 2002. Military Review, 82(3), 72-77.
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.
Lyle, D. J. (2009). Operation Anaconda: Lessons learned, or lessons observed? [Master’s thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College]. Defense Technical Information Center.
Marzano, T. (2006). Criticisms associated with Operation Anaconda: Can long-Distance leadership be effective? Naval War College. Web.