Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ananconda

I read this article in the Financial Times this morning (www.ft.com). Since it is a subscription only article I just pasted the text below. This article is about the Sean Naylor book we had to read this summer, "Not A Good Day To Die." I found it interesting in how it relates to preponderance vs. technology vs. force employment.

In the weeks before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, I made a call to a retired general who had served in the first Gulf war seeking information about General Tommy Franks, the head of US Central Command who would run the upcoming campaign.

The retired officer was still well ­connected with his former colleagues, and I asked what the uniforms were saying about Gen Franks. “A lot of senior military in the Pentagon don’t have a lot of confidence in him,” he harrumphed. “If you look at Tora Bora and Anaconda, you have the same ­leaders making the decisions now [who] did in that debacle.”
The comment surprised me. Tora Bora, the mountain complex in eastern Afghanistan that served as a redoubt for al-Qaeda fighters, was emerging in the public mind as the battle where US forces, overly relying on their Afghan allies, let hundreds of al-Qaeda operators slip away, perhaps including Osama bin Laden himself. But Operation Anaconda, a large-scale battle in the nearby Shahikot Valley three months later, was supposed to be just the opposite: a successful engagement in which US troops killed hundreds of enemy fighters.
Sean Naylor’s impeccably reported new book on the battle, Not a Good Day to Die, will lie to rest any residual belief that Anaconda was anything but a horribly planned mess of an operation in which commanders sent US troops into a battle they had not been prepared for, against enemies they did not know existed, without the weapons they needed. In the end, eight Americans would die and hundreds of al-Qaeda operators, some of them senior leaders, would escape into Pakistan.

Mr Naylor, a reporter for the Army Times who was embedded with US troops during Anaconda, has produced a gem in the mould of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden’s account of an ill-fated US operation in Somalia. But, at a time when the Pentagon is in the midst of one of its most important rethinks of military policy in a generation – the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defence Review, due to be issued in a matter of months – the book should be required reading for another, more important reason.

Mr Naylor’s account is a cautionary tale for those, including Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, who believe that advanced weapons technologies can transform the US military into a smaller, lighter force using futuristic reconnaissance and communications equipment in place of heavy guns and boots on the ground. If Mr Naylor’s book illustrates one thing, it is that no amount of intelligence, satellite imagery and precision air strikes can take the place of a well-armed artillery unit when a battle begins to go wrong. It is a lesson that the Pentagon is still struggling to grasp in Iraq.

The chain of events that led to the failures in Anaconda started well before the battle was even conceived when Mr Rumsfeld ordered what Mr Naylor calls a “force cap” in Afghanistan, keeping the number of conventional troops in the country low. The rationale was that the army could, through modern technology, do more with less, a central tenet of Mr Rumsfeld’s transformational agenda. Senior commanders managed the Afghan campaign “under extraordinarily close supervision by Rumsfeld”, Mr Naylor writes, “who took it upon himself to ensure that not a single soldier was deployed to Afghanistan unless the defence secretary considered that soldier’s presence there absolutely necessary”.

The result was that battalions of the 101st Airborne, the first conventional army forces used in Afghanistan, were sent into Anaconda with almost no artillery – equipment that would have come in handy when it turned out that hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters, most of whom had not shown up on satellite imagery and spy plane reconnaissance, were waiting in the Shahikot with plenty of artillery of their own.

Under the doctrine advanced by Mr Rumsfeld, precision bombing from aircraft can make up for a lack of artillery. But soldiers found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to find available fighters and bombers. “For every air strike called in by [ground troops] that resulted in destroyed enemy position, there was a bombing run that couldn’t be arranged before the target had moved, that missed the target completely, or, in some cases, that hit right where it was supposed to, but failed to kill the enemy,” writes Mr Naylor.

Senior US commanders also displayed a disturbing over-reliance on intelligence gathered by satellites and spy planes – another favourite of Mr Rumsfeld’s. Not only would the soldiers who arrived in the valley find a landscape far more mountainous than the imagery led them to believe but they would also find about 1,000 enemy fighters when they had been told to expect 200 at most. Just as importantly, while the imagery suggested al-Qaeda fighters were housed in small valley villages, they were up in the mountains, the perfect position from which to rain down missiles on the US soldiers piling off Chinook helicopters.

In almost every respect, the doctrines and technologies pushed by Mr ­Rumsfeld’s transformationalists let down the men who fought in Anaconda. Communications gear failed, electronic intelligence misled planners, air support took hours to arrive, lightly armed men could not defend themselves. As Pentagon planners push on with Mr Rumsfeld’s revolution, they would do well to take to heart the ­lessons of an actual war.

The writer is the FT’s defence correspondent

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