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Posted on Jan 25, 2007 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Interview with Sean Naylor

By Armchair General

ARMCHAIR GENERAL: How did you come to be in Afghanistan and get involved in Operation Anaconda?

SEAN NAYLOR: I was fortunate enough to be embedded with the 3d Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) when the brigade – nicknamed “the Rakkasans” – deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in mid-January 2001. The planning for Anaconda began shortly after we arrived in-country, but was kept very quiet. However, in late February one of the Army public affairs officers told me and a handful of the other embedded journalists that there was a major operation in the offing, and to be prepared to fly from Kandahar on an hour’s notice. We were given no other hints about what was to come, other than the advice to be prepared for a high-altitude, cold-weather environment, and to “pack light.” We left Kandahar February 25 on a C-130 Hercules along with the brigade commander, Col. Frank Wiercinski.

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ACG: Why was Operation Anaconda significant?

NAYLOR: Anaconda was the United States’ first battle of the 21st century, it was the largest battle fought by the U.S. military since the 1991 Gulf war, and it was the last, best chance to deal a crushing blow to Al Qaida’s fielded forces in the Afghan theater. The operation also revealed significant weaknesses in the U.S. military’s operational approach, and therefore represents an opportunity to learn some important lessons.

ACG: Explain the size, general composition and goals of the opposing forces, Allied and Taliban.

NAYLOR: The Allied force was composed of a hodge-podge of U.S. conventional and special operations task forces, some allied (Australian, New Zealand and European) special ops teams, and a 300-strong force of friendly Afghan militiamen. The main conventional force was Task Force Rakkasan, which included elements of two infantry battalions (one from the 101st, the other from 10th Mountain Division) and a composite aviation battalion, for a total force of about 1,400 soldiers. There was a special operations task force — Task Force Dagger — which included several Special Forces A-teams that were advising the Afghan militia, and another, highly classified, special operations organization called Task Force 11, which undertook some of the most daring and dangerous missions associated with Anaconda (missions that are covered in detail in my book).

The enemy force was not so much a Taliban force as an Al Qaida force, largely composed of Arab fighters and Uzbek guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which held what might be termed Al Qaida’s Central Asian franchise. The number of enemy fighters in and around the valley was probably close to 1,000 (much more than the 150-250 expected by the U.S. planners).

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ACG: What is the terrain like in the Anaconda Area of Operations?

NAYLOR: Anaconda was fought in the Shahikot valley, south of the town of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. The floor of the valley is at about 8,500 feet, and the mountains that form the eastern ridgeline reach over 10,400 feet high in places. There is a lot of “microterrain” – small ridgelines, streambeds and rock faces — that did not show up on the maps that the U.S. troops were using. The mountains were pock-marked with natural and man-made caves, and offered a defender a clear view of almost all ground approaches, and had been used by guerrilla warriors for generations as a result.

ACG: Describe the opening moves of Anaconda.

NAYLOR: The plan for the opening phase had been for a convoy of Afghan militiamen and U.S. Special Forces soldiers to drive from Gardez into the valley from the west, pausing at the mouth of the Shahikot. At dawn, the first wave of the air assault would land in the south and southeast of the valley, sealing off the passes. The enemy was expected to deliberate and then try to escape through the northeastern passes that led toward Pakistan. At that point a second air assault wave would land, slamming the door shut and forcing the Al Qaida fighters to surrender or fight. But, the convoy from Gardez never made it to the valley. It was halted by heavy fire from the vast hump-backed mountain nicknamed “the Whale” that formed the Shahikot’s western edge. A small element from the convoy was also attacked by an AC-130 gunship in a case of friendly fire that tragically killed one of the Special Forces soldiers.

That first lift of Task Force Rakkasan troops found themselves in a much tougher fight than they had expected. The operation was planned on the assumptions that the enemy was only 150 to 250 strong, arrayed on the villages on the valley floor, and armed with nothing more than machine guns. What the young infantrymen found when they landed was that the enemy numbered in the several hundreds, was dug into fighting positions in the high ground pouring fire down on the Americans from weapons that included an artillery battery, recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and numerous mortars.

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