Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Complicating this seemingly straightforward proposition were several factors. First, weather and terrain posed larger than anticipated impediments. Second, intelligence regarding the enemy proved wildly inaccurate. Rather than an estimated 150 to 250 enemy fighters in the valley, actual enemy strength turned out to be two or three times that. Worse, rather than beaten, the enemy was well armed and full of fight. Third, the force assembled for Anaconda was a hodgepodge, made up of bits and pieces from different units, different services, and different countries thrown together without regard for whether the result constituted a workable whole. Fourth, and ultimately decisively, whether through inattention, stupidity, or ornery parochialism, those charged with signing off on Anaconda disregarded the most fundamental precepts of unity of command.
It was left to General Hagenbeck, division commander sans division, to deal with the consequences. In mid-February 2002, Hagenbeck had shifted his demi-headquarters from K2 to Bagram. Lieutenant General Mikolashek, back in Kuwait, charged Hagenbeck with planning and executing Anaconda. For that purpose, General Franks, back in Tampa, gave Hagenbeck control of all forces in Afghanistan
unconventional assets grouped together under the heading of Task Force 11. From Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, air force Lieutenant General T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley would coordinate air support. New to his job, Moseley paid little attention to developments brewing in Afghanistan. That he and Mikolashek reputedly did not care for one another may have exacerbated the problem. Back at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, meanwhile, Major General Dell Dailey, commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, directed the actions of “black” units to include TF 11. CIA operatives, still active in the field and reporting up their own independent chain, collaborated with the military at times and on terms of their choosing. Whatever the benefits of this lash-up, tight coordination did not number among them. It was shades of Mogadishu all over again.
The forces provided to Hagenbeck for Anaconda made for an odd mix. In January, the Marines occupying Rhino had departed, their place taken by parts of the 3rd Brigade of the army’s 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” The brigade arrived with two of its three infantry battalions and none of its standard complement of field artillery. Given an ostensibly negligible threat and a persisting preoccupation with “footprint,” Franks and Rumsfeld deemed it unnecessary to provide the brigade with any significant fire support. Upon appeal, the CENTCOM commander grudgingly approved the deployment of eight AH-64 attack helicopters to compensate for the lack of heavy weapons. Hagenbeck also had a single battalion from his own division. The 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry had initially deployed to K2 as a security force but was now reassembling at Bagram. Together, these various units formed Task Force Rakkasan, commanded by Colonel Frank Wiercinski.
Rakkasan had an indigenous counterpart, which the Americans styled Task Force Hammer. This imposing name referred to an armed rabble recruited by an army special forces team, sustained by CIA operatives with plenty of cash to distribute and led by Zia Lodin, son of a reputedly influential Pushtun tribal chief. A mélange of small clandestine units, some contributed by allies, but including U.S. Navy SEALs, completed Hagenbeck’s order of battle. To describe the overall product as slapdash would be kind.
Sending infantry into combat without field artillery is like having unprotected sex with a stranger—you had better be lucky. Luck was not with General Hagenbeck or the troops under his command when Operation Anaconda kicked off at night on March 2.
Almost everything that could go wrong did. Traveling by truck over primitive, nearly impassible roads, TF Hammer made exceedingly slow progress toward its assigned objective. An orbiting U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship mistakenly engaged the advancing convoy, killing one American and three Afghans and wounding others. Hammer retreated, regrouped, then resumed its advance, only to encounter enemy mortar fire. With that, the task force halted and waited for the lavish application of American airpower that had been promised but now was slow to materialize. Soon thereafter, Zia’s Afghans withdrew without even actually entering the Shah-i-kot. Half of Hagenbeck’s plan had fallen apart.
Worse was to come. By his own admission, going into the operation Hagenbeck had assumed that “enemy resistance had all but collapsed” in Afghanistan.
As CH-47 Chinook helicopters began delivering elements of TF Rakkasan to landing zones near their assigned blocking positions, the Americans discovered otherwise. The choppers encountered intense fire that damaged one Chinook and put holes in every Apache committed to the fight. An ugly firefight at very close quarters ensued, with the Americans pinned down by small arms and mortar fire. Dozens were wounded. With artillery unavailable and helicopter gunships forced out of the battle, Rakkasan had to rely on fixed-wing air support, which again was slow in coming. Nightfall brought some respite and the welcome return of AC-130 gunships.
On March 3, the situation stabilized as units consolidated, casualties were evacuated, and reinforcements arrived. The night of March 3–4 brought more bad news, however. A CH-47 belonging to TF 160 was shot down while inserting a SEAL team high on a ridgeline called Takur Ghar. A second CH-47 carrying a quick reaction force of army rangers suffered a similar fate. Seven Americans were killed in action. Only after an intense seventeen-hour firefight were these forces finally extracted.
By this time, however, the realization that Anaconda had encountered unexpectedly stiff resistance had roused the various headquarters charged with supporting the U.S. troops fighting for their lives. A massive surge of air support from bombers of all types ensued. By March 6, the infantry fight had effectively ended. Even as elements of TF Rakkasan held their positions, air attacks now superseded action on the ground. Over the next several days, the Shah-i-kot Valley “saw the greatest number of precision munitions dropped into the smallest geographic space in the history of air warfare.”
On March 10, now augmented by several vintage Soviet armored vehicles, a reconstituted TF Hammer finally entered the Shah-i-kot, where it encountered little of note. By now, enemy forces had either died fighting or successfully made their escape. For its part, TF Rakkasan had already begun to exfiltrate its units and was clear of the valley by March 12. Anaconda ended soon thereafter.
The Pentagon did its best to portray Anaconda as a victory. General Franks pronounced it “an unqualified and absolute success.”
In reality, it was anything but. The operation did not net any significant HVT. It did not end the Afghanistan War. Abysmally planned and inadequately resourced—shortcomings destined to recur throughout the post-9/11 phase of America’s War for the Greater Middle East—the operation had at very considerable cost cleared a piece of nondescript terrain, which U.S. forces promptly abandoned.
With few exceptions, the Americans participating in Operation Anaconda performed their duties with stoic heroism. Yet in comparison with the extraordinarily light casualties sustained since the Afghanistan War began the previous October, U.S. troops suffered grievous losses. Sadly, these offered but a foretaste of what awaited: In the years to come, well over two thousand Americans were to die in Afghanistan, with another twenty thousand wounded.
To be sure, as they had in every conflict since at least the Korean War, U.S. forces inflicted more casualties than they had sustained. How many more was difficult to say. Just as the Americans had entered the Shah-i-kot not knowing how many enemy soldiers they were to face, they departed not knowing how many they had killed or how many had escaped to fight another day. All they had were estimates, which were in any event beside the point: Casualty ratios do not necessarily correlate with victory.
To anyone willing to assess its implications, Tora Bora and Anaconda warned that the Afghanistan War was far from over. Succumbing to its fixation with Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration chose to pretend otherwise. Consigned to the back burner, Afghanistan became yet another phony war, a conflict that the United States had ignited but failed to extinguish and then left to simmer.
Why did the George W. Bush administration choose to invade Iraq in 2003? For our purposes, drilling down on this question is essential for two reasons. First, doing so situates the Third Gulf War of 2003–2011 within the larger context of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Second, appreciating what Bush actually meant to achieve in Iraq reveals in full the magnitude of the failure that the United States sustained there.
Of course, many answers to that question already exist. The official one offered by the Bush administration itself and seconded by many of the war’s most ardent supporters cited the putative threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet in reality, this was a cover story. As Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged, WMD offered “the one issue that everyone could agree on,” implying the existence of other, more germane motives.
When the claims of this smoking gun/mushroom cloud school turned out to lack substance, its adherents insisted that good intentions should count more than mere veracity.
Rumsfeld subsequently dismissed the emphasis on WMD as “a public relations error.”
Carping on erroneous or falsified intelligence reports amounted to pointlessly rehashing issues that the ongoing march of events had rendered moot. More or less simultaneously, Bush loyalists reverted to a ready-made fallback position. Liberating oppressed Iraqis now became the advertised war aim. Pressed by a reporter to explain what had happened to the mushroom cloud hypothesis, White House press secretary Scott McClellan neatly summarized the administration’s revised position. “We’re not going to relitigate the reasons why we went into Iraq,” he huffed. That was little history; what beckoned was Big History, in the form of “spreading freedom in the broader Middle East.”
Rejecting the official line, critics of Bush’s War advanced a number of alternatives. When Iraq’s WMDs turned out not to exist and liberating the oppressed proved unexpectedly arduous, these alternatives gained added credibility. Among the explanations floated were these: The United States invaded Iraq to “get the oil,” funnel money to the military-industrial complex, provide an excuse for defunding the welfare state, remove a threat to Israel, or allow President Bush the psychic satisfaction of completing a job—deposing Saddam Hussein—his daddy had left unfinished.
Unlike the explanations offered by Bush and his minions, these alternatives had one pronounced advantage: None were self-evidently false. Indeed, each likely contained at least a morsel of truth. Yet neither separately nor in combination do they suffice, for this simple reason: They understate the magnitude of the administration’s actual ambitions.
In reality, the Bush administration invaded Iraq in order to validate three precedent-setting and mutually reinforcing propositions. First, the United States was intent on establishing the efficacy of preventive war. Second, it was going to assert the prerogative, permitted to no other country, of removing regimes that Washington deemed odious. And finally, it was seeking to reverse the practice of exempting the Islamic world from neoliberal standards, demonstrating that what Condoleezza Rice called “the paradigm of progress”—democracy, limited government, market economics, and respect for human (and especially women’s) rights—was as applicable to the Greater Middle East as to the rest of the world.
Here in concrete and specific terms was a strategy to “change the way they live.”
As a venue to begin implementing this strategy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, situated in the very core of the Greater Middle East, appeared uniquely attractive. After all, Saddam had made his country an international pariah—few outside of Saddam’s own circle of toadies and dependents were going to mourn his forcible removal from the scene. The Iraqi army was not likely to pose significant opposition, having amply demonstrated its incompetence, even before taking into account the effects of periodic U.S. bombing along with a decade of crippling sanctions. That the Iraqi people were largely secular, upwardly mobile, and united in their yearning for liberation—a fanciful image nursed within the upper reaches of the Bush administration—figured as a bonus. In other words, what made it imperative to invade Iraq was not the danger it posed but the opportunity it presented.
Channeling administration thinking, the journalist Max Boot breezily summarized the argument in an October 2001 essay. “Once Afghanistan has been dealt with, the U.S. should turn its attention to Iraq,” he wrote.