Operation Anaconda was mounted on 1 March 2002 by U. S. Army forces and Afghan allies, with the objective of ousting al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from their refuge in Paktia Province. The allied troops succeeded in killing between 350 and 550 of the enemy, with the loss of 11 lives among their own ranks.
Operation Anaconda took place some 100 miles south of Kabul in the mountainous region near Gardez, in Paktia Province. The U. S. forces involved in the operation numbered about 1,200, and they were aided by local Afghans and backed by helicopter support. Allied intelligence indicated that a mixed force of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had gathered in the area, preparing to mount attacks against the Afghan Interim Government. However, after a week of intensive action, about half of the estimated enemy force had been killed and a few taken prisoner, with eleven allied troops killed and seventy wounded.
The battle took place in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. Afghan forces, aided by special forces, targeted al- Qaeda positions in hopes of flushing them toward the exits from the valley where U. S. troops were waiting. However, after two days of fierce combat, the al-Qaeda fighters were still in their positions, and on 2 March 2002, two U. S. Chinook helicopters were attacked as they prepared to set down at one of the battle positions; they were forced to take off again, leaving behind a rear gunner who had fallen from the aircraft as it made an evasive maneuver. U. S. commanders at the Bagram air base granted permission for a rescue team to be landed, and six U. S. Rangers were sent in to search for the missing U. S. Navy Seal. Some three hours later, two more Chinooks set off to insert more troops into the battle position, code-named Ginger, and to pull out the rescue team. One of the Chinooks was downed by heavy machine-gun fire and crash-landed near the site of the first incident, and the troops on board came under heavy al-Qaeda fire. The United States used AC-130 gunships to provide cover, but the enemy pressure was such that a rescue attempt was impossible in the daylight, and it was not until mid- night that the troops could be evacuated, including the first team of U. S. Rangers that had been landed to effect the rescue of the U. S. Navy Seal. The United States had seven men killed and eleven wounded in the operation, including the Seal, who was killed by his pursuers.
Fighting was intense for some time, with Taliban and al-Qaeda forces making hit-and-run attacks on the U. S. and Afghan tribal force of some 1,500 that had laid siege to their caves and bunkers. The opposition forces were using guerrilla tactics and darting back into the caves after each attack, using their knowledge of the area to full effect. The rebel forces were well armed with rockets, mortars, and heavy machine guns, but ammunition soon began to run low, enabling the besieging forces to get within 300 feet of the caves; at that point, side arms became the order of the day. The caves had originally been developed as defensive positions against the Soviet troops in the 1980s, and the Coalition forces were intent on making them unsuitable for future military use by blocking the entrances, using shoulder- launched rockets.
It was evident that the Coalition forces were engaging hardened fighters intent on fighting to the death from their complex of caves and bunkers. At one point, the opposition forces were being rein- forced with fighters who had traveled to the caves through the mountain passes, but Afghan forces then formed an outer ring around the area to stop the infiltration. Meanwhile, U. S. and other Afghan forces closed in on the al-Qaeda positions that were being defended by non-Afghan professional soldiers; few, if any, Taliban fighters were present.
It was thought that some of the top al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders might have been in the complex, which would have explained, in part, the ferocity of the al-Qaeda fighters. Intelligence reports seemed to support this assumption, as hundreds of sympathizers had been detected streaming toward the front line from within Pakistan. And yet again, the situation on the ground had been complicated by in- fighting among the local warlords, which allowed al-Qaeda to mass in the area. This, together with misinformation, accounted for the fact that the U. S. forces expected to face about 200 fighters whereas the real total was closer to 900. The battle ended on 13 March when U. S., Canadian, and Afghan forces stormed the caves and bunkers, which were then blown up to prevent their reuse. The aftermath of Operation Anaconda was a mopping-up operation, particularly around Khost and Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province.
Although Anaconda can be classified as a major success, the nature of the terrain meant that many of the surviving enemy were able to filter across the border into northern Pakistan. The operation was difficult for U. S. forces because much of the fighting was at altitudes where the air was thin, breathing was difficult, and most of the supporting helicopters reached their operational limit. Action on the ground was hampered by the nature of the terrain, the enemy’s knowledge of the country, and the need to avoid civilian casualties. Consequently, patience had to be exercised before engaging targets, and careful exploration of the area was essential due to the presence of caves that could be used as refuges and the possibility of encountering booby traps. The threat posed by the survivors of Operation Anaconda was illustrated on 20 March when U. S. and other Coalition troops at Khost came under attack from al-Qaeda forces. The attackers used rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns in an attack that lasted several hours. An AC- 130 gunship was called up to bolster the defenses. This attack had been preceded on 17 March by a U. S. assault on a convoy of four vehicles leaving Shah-i-Kot for what was known to be a location of fleeing al-Qaeda fighters, resulting in a number of them being killed and one taken prisoner.
Operation Anaconda was considered a success even though the initial battle plan didn’t survive first contact with the enemy. Ground operations supported by air power won the battle. There were several lessons learned from this operation. Among them was that air power’s effectiveness could have been enhanced if circumstances had permitted systematic airstrikes against enemy forces and positions in the Shah-i-Kot Valley in the days and hours before US Army forces were deployed.
Lack of coordination between US, coalition, and Afghan forces hampered smooth operations and, in one instance, resulted in deaths due to friendly fire. Even within the US forces, there was no single overall commander. Special Operations Forces had its own separate chain of command, and had differing priorities, as well as authority to request and receive support from a variety of the same assets that also supported Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Mountain operations, such as the AC-130s. These competing command structures utilizing the same assets in the same operating area led to confusion and frustration during the execution phase of the operation. CJTF Mountain did not have tactical control (TACON) or any control at all of these organizations, which reported directly to the CENTCOM Commander.
Despite the operation’s flaws, ultimately the enemy did what the US forces wanted them to, which was stand and fight rather than withdraw. This decision cost the enemy heavy casualties, as it had at Tora Bora.