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

Interview with Sean Naylor

By Armchair General

ACG: Describe the most decisive phase of Anaconda.

NAYLOR: The second and third days of the battle – March 3 and 4 – were the most decisive, as the U.S. troops adjusted to the realities on the ground and maneuvered against the enemy positions, while the AFO teams in the high ground were able to call in devastating air strikes against the Al Qaida positions. The enemy was never able to regain the initiative and, although hundreds of Al Qaida fighters escaped (the plan to trap them all in the valley failed) hundreds more were blown to pieces by Air Force bombs, the AC-130 Spectre gunships’ cannons, and the infantry’s mortars and automatic weapons. The battle lasted until March 18, but no American died after March 4.

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ACG: What is the most memorable single story of Anaconda?

NAYLOR: Of course, it is hard to pick just one story from the many dramatic episodes featured in the battle, but my favorite is the story of three commando teams who conducted what was perhaps the most successful and daring special operations missions in recent U.S. military history. The teams – totaling 13 men – were from Task Force 11’s Advance Force Operations (AFO) element, whose mission was to conduct the deep reconnaissance in the hunt for Al Qaida’s leaders. In the days prior to Anaconda’s D-Day, they crept into the Shahikot under the cover of darkness. Two teams, one from Delta Force, the other from SEAL Team 6, went in on foot. The third team, also from Delta Force, used all-terrain vehicles. The teams used all their skill and training to move through thigh-deep snow and across frozen mountain ridgelines – routes that they suspected correctly the enemy was unlikely to be monitoring, because they appeared impassable in the late Afghan winter. The team on the all-terrain vehicles even rode through a minefield. All three teams evaded detection to penetrate almost to the heart of the Al Qaida stronghold that was the Shahikot valley and establish hidden observation posts before D-Day that were to prove vital. There was a heart-stopping moment for the SEALs, who found an Al Qaida heavy machine gun nest located at the very spot they had selected for their observation post. Within a few hours U.S. helicopters were due to deposit hundreds of infantrymen on the valley floor in the largest U.S. air assault operation since Desert Storm. The machine gun was ideally situated to shoot down every helicopter flying into the valley. The SEALs destroyed it with the help of an Air Force special operations AC-130 Spectre gunship just hours before the wave of the air assault flew into the valley.

Once they were in the valley, all three teams established observation posts in the high ground around the valley. Hidden from the enemy, who never spotted the commandos, these spots meant the AFO teams had the best visibility of the battle of any of the allied troops, and the close air support missions the teams called in were key to holding the numerically superior enemy at bay on the first day of the battle, when the infantry on the valley floor were in danger of being overrun.

ACG: Please list three significant lessons learned from Anaconda.

NAYLOR: Lesson One: Think Twice Before You “Plug and Play.” In recent years the U.S. Army has been very taken with the concept of designing combat and combat support units that can be “plugged” into each other at short notice. For example, an infantry battalion from one brigade can be “plugged” into an armor brigade from another post just days before a battle. This looks great on a two-dimensional briefing slide, but in the real world the trust and confidence that commanders and staffs of different units gain from training and working with each other on a day-to-day basis cannot be manufactured overnight. One of the biggest problems for the U.S. forces in Anaconda was that at every echelon of command from platoon upwards, officers were working alongside and under commanders with whom they had no habitual relationship.

Lesson Two: The Eye In The Sky Is Not All-Seeing. The U.S. military has a love affair with overhead surveillance and reconnaissance systems, from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spy satellites. These are wonderful technologies, but they do not obviate the need to put human eyes on the ground, and to develop human intelligence sources. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the opening phase of Operation Anaconda. Despite what one officer described as the focusing of “every national asset” on that small valley in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. planners misread the enemy’s strength, disposition and likely course of action. The Shahikot had been scanned by Predator UAVs, spy planes and satellites, and even a Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopter that the CIA flew over the valley a couple of days before the operation. Yet, none of these high-tech systems spotted the Al Qaida machine gun nest that the SEALs happened upon. That position could have sent every troop-laden helicopter entering the Shahikot careening to the valley floor in a ball of flame, and it took daring men on the ground to find it and remove it as a threat.

Lesson Three: Combat-Focused Training Saves Lives. When the chips were down in the first 24 hours of the fight, the beleaguered U.S. infantry on the valley floor responded with courage and skill that came naturally to them because they had been put through intensive training in the months prior to their deployment to Afghanistan. Again and again, soldiers told me, “the training kicked in.”

ACG: You’ve been in Afghanistan again with the Special Forces. Have we learned from Anaconda or are we making the same general mistakes?

NAYLOR: To judge from the receptive audiences I have encountered at military staff colleges and professional development seminars when I am invited to brief the lessons learned from Anaconda, I believe the military has taken many of them to heart. But some traits, such as the tendency to place too much faith in high-tech solutions, may be with us forever.

ACG: You have been on the ground, with the soldiers who are doing the fighting. The war in Iraq takes up most of the headline news. The public rarely rears about Afghanistan these days. Has the situation improved since Operation Anaconda? Are we winning in Afghanistan?

NAYLOR: I spent another month in Afghanistan. Every commander with whom I spoke, including those in the nascent Afghan National Army, told me: “We are winning.” The key to victory will be to maintain the pressure being placed on the Taliban in their sanctuaries in the Pashtun heartland of southern and eastern Afghanistan. That requires building up the Afghan security forces and not pulling U.S. troops out until and unless the Afghans can handle the Taliban on their own.

ACG: What is your impression of the American soldiers waging war today in Afghanistan?

NAYLOR: My impression of the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan is the same impression I always have of our troops when I live among them – they represent the absolute best of our country. Those I met in Afghanistan were highly motivated and unwilling to settle for anything less than victory.

This interview was conducted for Armchair General magazine by Col., ret. John Antal.

naylor2.jpgSean Naylor is an investigative reporter for the Army Times Publishing Company who focuses on special operations and joint operations. A graduate of Boston University, Naylor joined Army Times in 1990 and has covered U.S. military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. While an undergraduate, Naylor spent the summer of 1987 in Pakistan and Afghanistan, covering the mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union. Born in Canada and raised in Britain and Ireland, Naylor became a U.S. citizen in 2000. He is also the co-author, with Thomas Donnelly, of “Clash of Chariots – The Great Tank Battles,” published by Berkley Books in 1996.

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