Operation Anaconda is the code name for an operation in early March 2002 in which the United States military, along with allied Afghan military forces, attempted to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains southeast of Zormat. This operation was the first large-scale battle in the United States war in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. This was the first operation in the Afghanistan theater to involve a large number of U.S. conventional (i.e. non-Special Operations Forces) forces participating in direct combat activities.
Between March 2 and March 16, 2002, 1,700 airlifted U.S. troops and 1,000 pro-government Afghan militia battled over 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and obtained control of the valley. The Taliban and al-Qaida forces entrenched themselves in caves and ridges in the mountainous terrain, and fired on U.S. forces attempting to secure the area with mortars and heavy machine guns. Afghan Taliban commander Maulavi Saifur Rehman Mansoor later led Taliban reinforcements to join the battle. U.S. forces had estimated the strength of the rebels in the Shahi-Kot Valley at 150 to 200, but later information suggested the actual strength was of 500 to 1,000 fighters. The U.S. forces estimated that they had killed at least 500 fighters over the duration of the battle.
In early 2002 increasing signals and human intelligence indicated a strong presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the Shahi-Kot Valley. Approximately 150-200 fighters were believed to be wintering and possibly preparing for a spring offensive in the valley. The signal intelligence also raised the possibility that high-value targets (HVTs) were present in the valley. These HVTs were believed to be Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar, the leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban, respectively. In late January and February plans were drawn up to assault the Shahi-Kot Valley using Afghan military forces (AMF) advised and assisted by U.S. special operators. Major General Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenback was put in command of the operation. The plan called for an attack on the valley, along with units positioned in the mountains to the east to prevent escape into Pakistan. It was decided to use U.S. conventional infantry. The forces used, consisting of the 3rd Brigade ("Rakkasans") of the 101st Airborne Division, led by Colonel Frank Wiercinski, and 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment (1-87) of the 10th Mountain Division, led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul LaCamera, to secure these blocking positions. In keeping with established strategy in Afghanistan, fire support was to be provided by United States Air Force units, rather than artillery. Further air support was provided by US Navy units and French Air Force Mirage 2000Ds. The amount of conventional assets allowed in Afghanistan was limited by CENTCOM and civilian defense leadership. The final plan foresaw two major forces: TF Hammer and TF Anvil. TF Hammer consisted of AMF and special operators as the primary effort to assault the Shahi-Kot Valley. TF Anvil consisted of TF Rakkasan and the 1-87 to set up blocking positions and prevent enemy forces from escaping. Special operations teams from the Advanced Force Operations (AFO) detachment led by Lieutenant Colonel Pete Blaber were to provide on-location reconnaissance in the Shahi-Kot Valley for the operation.
The operation was composed of elements of the United States 10th Mountain Division, 101st Airborne Division, the US Special Forces groups TF 11, TF Bowie, and TF Dagger, British Royal Marines, Canada's 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and Joint Task Force 2, the Afghan National Army, the German KSK, the Norwegian FSK and elements of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, the New Zealand Special Air Service and Danish special forces Jægerkorpset.
On October 17 2007 Dutch media revealed that Dutch special forces (Korps Commando Troepen) were also involved in Operation Anaconda. However, this was in direct contravention with the Dutch government assurance to the Dutch parliament that Dutch special forces were not involved and would remain within the limits of their given mandate, i.e. Taskforce K-bar/ISAF stabilization of Kandahar.
Around midnight, the units of TF Hammer load into their vehicles and leave their base in Gardez at for the Shahi-Kot Valley. TF Hammer consists of a large force Afghan militia led by Zia Lodin and the Special Forces A-team Texas 14/ODA 594. The road is in poor condition and difficulties ensue. After several soldiers are injured after their jinga trucks overturn, the commanders order the trucks to use their headlights, destroying any element of surprise. As TF Hammer continued, it suffered from a lack of unit cohesion because of the transportation difficulties. A convoy led by Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman of the Third Special Forces Group splits off from the main TF Hammer force to reach the assigned observation point. Grim 31, an AC-130 aircraft providing fire support and reconnaissance for the assault, spots Harriman's convoy and, due to a failure in its inertial navigation system, believes it is in a position away from friendly forces (this was due to a problem with the "glint" panels which should have identified the convoy as American). Grim 31 engages the column, resulting in the death of Harriman and wounding several Afghan militia and U.S. special forces
The main body of TF Hammer reached its pre-assault point around 0615 hours and waited for the expected "55 minute" aerial bombardment of enemy positions. Miscommunication between Texas 14 and higher command meant the bombardment was not that extensive and consisted of six bombs. This was due to a bomb getting stuck in the launch bay of the B-1B that was on its bomb run. The next aircraft in line waited for the B-1B to receive permission to jettison the bomb and go round again. During this time, both bombers plus the additional two F-15E planes claim to have received a "knock off" call directing them to cease the bombardment. One of the F-15E pilots later acknowledged that this may have been a communication directing Grim-31 to cease fire. This lack of air support demoralized the Afghans and frustrated the special forces. The Afghan fighters, in trucks, were devastated by mortar fire registered in advance to strike fixed points on the road. The Afghans suffered forty or more deaths and injuries. At this point it became clear that Al Qaeda fighters had been expecting an attack. TF Hammer's attack stalled short of entering the valley, due to unexpected heavy small arms and mortar fire, combined with the lack of expected close air support. These assets were tasked instead to the TF Anvil troops.
At H-Hour (0630 hours) the first "chalk" or wave of Rakkasans and Mountain troops landed via helicopter along the eastern and northern edges of the valley to await the fleeing fighters at their assigned blocking positions However the 101st and 10th Mountain troops came under fire almost immediately after landing on their way to their objectives, and remained pinned down by heavy mortar fire and locked in a fierce firefight throughout the day. Instead of 150-200 fighters in the valley as expected, the area contained 500-1,000 enemies dug in on the high ground around the valley. The troops of 1-87 in the southern landing zones (LZs) faced the heaviest fighting and were forced to make a strongpoint in the "Halfpipe." In this engagement, Staff Sergeant Andrzej Ropel, a Polish immigrant who was at the time not a citizen of the United States, and Specialist William Geraci a native of Cleveland, Ohio; who was recently assigned to 1-87 from the Divisions Long Range Surveillance Detachment, (LRSD) led the squad under fire to a ridgeline above the "Halfpipe". Ropel was able to kill the enemy observer calling mortar fire into the "Halfpipe", and he and his squad provided 1-87 reconnaissance of the surrounding terrain. Ropel was later awarded the Bronze Star with a valor device for his actions. The expectation of very limited enemy indirect fire capability meant that only a single 120mm mortar was brought in the first wave. The primary fire support for the troops was the Apaches of the 3-101's Aviation Battalion [Eagle Attack] from the 159th Aviation Brigade. These Apaches performed well, destroying enemy positions harassing the U.S. and Afghan troops and surviving very serious battle damage without the loss of an aircraft or its crew. Most of these light infantrymen in the southern LZs were airlifted out that night under cover of darkness after suffering 28 wounded and none killed. At least 100 Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants were reported killed during the days of fighting.
Throughout the day, the Special Forces recce teams that had infiltrated into the area the previous day called in airstrikes from B-1, B-52, F-15, and F-16 aircraft, inflicting heavy casualties on hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The Australian Special Air Service Regiment also provided in-depth operational intelligence, and Signalman Martin "Jock" Wallace of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) was awarded the Australian Medal for Gallantry, staying with the US company inside their only cover of a dry creek bed, along with another SASR liaison officer for twelve hours until evacuated.
In the late evening of March 3, Lieutenant Colonel Blaber received notice from Brigadier General Gregory Trebon, commander of TF 11, that two SEAL teams commanded by Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder were to arrive in Gardez for immediate insertion into the Shahi-Kot Valley. The two SEAL teams, Mako 30 and Mako 21, planned to establish an observation point on the peak of Takur Ghar, which commanded the Shahi-Kot valley. Due to time constraints, a helicopter insertion would be needed for the teams to reach the peak before dawn. While the AFO forces suggested an insertion at a point 1300 meters east of the peak, the SEALs eventually decided upon an insertion to the peak itself.
The two teams were picked up by Razor 03 and Razor 04, two MH-47 Chinook helicopters at 11:23 PM on March 3. However, the Razor 03 Chinook experienced engine difficulties, and two new MH-47s were dispatched to replace the original helicopters. This delay meant that the SEALs could not be inserted into the LZ east of the peak until 2:30 AM on March 4, which did not allow enough time to reach the peak before daylight. In the fractured command situation at the time, Blaber was not notified that the SEALs were planning to insert at the peak in order to fulfill the order to infil Mako 30 and 21 that night. Nail 22, an AC-130 gunship reconnitored the peak and saw no enemy activity prior to the landing, but was called away to support other troops before Razor 03 and 04 arrived at the LZ. At around 0245 hours, Razor 03 landed at the LZ and was struck in the left side electrical compartment by an RPG. The stricken helicopter took off, but Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts fell out of the open ramp. Razor 03 attempted to return and retrieve him, but the damage prevented proper control and the helicopter was forced to crash-land in the valley below approximately 4 miles away. Razor 04 returned to the peak to attempt to rescue Roberts, offloading Mako 30. The team came under immediate fire, and Air Force combat controller Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman was believed killed and two SEALs wounded. Mako 30 was forced off the peak due to its losses and requested the assistance of the Ranger quick-reaction force located at Bagram Air Base, led by Captain Nate Self.
The quick reaction force (QRF) consisted of 19 Rangers, a Tactical Air Control Party (Tacp), and a three-man USAF special tactics team carried by two Chinooks, Razor 01 and Razor 02. Due to satellite communications difficulties, Razor 01 was mistakenly directed to the "hot" LZ on the peak at . As Air Force rules prohibited AC-130 aircraft from remaining in hostile airspace in daylight after the crash of an AC-130 in Khajfi in the Gulf War, the AC-130 support protecting Mako 30 was forced to leave before Razor 01 reached the LZ. Further communications difficulties meant that the pilot of the AC-130 was unaware that Razor 01 was incoming. At approximately 0610 hours, Razor 01 reached the landing zone. The aircraft immediately began taking fire, and the right door minigunner, Sergeant Phillip Svitak, was killed by small arms fire. A RPG then hit the helicopter, destroying the right engine and forcing it to crash land. As the Rangers and special tactics team exited the aircraft, Private First Class Matt Commons, posthumously promoted to Corporal, Sergeant Brad Crose, and Specialist Marc Anderson were killed. The surviving crew and quick-reaction force took cover in a hillock and a fierce firefight began. Razor 02, which had been diverted to Gardez as Razor 01 was landing on Takur Ghar, returned with the rest of the quick-reaction force and Lieutenant Commander Hyder at 0625 hours. With the help of the new arrivals and close air support, the force was able to consolidate its position on the peak. An enemy counterattack midday mortally wounded Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, a pararescueman. The wounded were refused medevac during the daylight hours, due to risk of another downed helicopter. Australian SASR soldiers had infiltrated the area prior to the first helicopter crash undetected as part of a long range reconnaissance mission when the Chinooks went down. They remained undetected in an observation post through the firefight and proved critical in co-ordinating multiple Coalition air strikes to prevent the al-Qaeda fighters from overrunning the downed aircraft, to devastating effect. This, plus the actions of the two SASR officers working with the 10th mountain, earned the commander of the Australian SASR force in Afghanistan the US Bronze Star for his unit's outstanding contribution to the war on terrorism.
At around 2000 hours, the quick-reaction force and Mako 30 were exfiltrated from the Takur Ghar peak. As a result of this action, both Technical Sergeant Chapman and Senior Airman Cunningham were awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest award for bravery. US and Afghan sources believe at least 200 Taliban and Al Qaida fighters were killed during the initial assault and subsequent rescue mission.
Note: A paper written by Col. Andrew Milani (Former commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) and Dr. Stephen D. Biddle entitled "Pitfalls of Technology: A Case Study of the battle of Takur Ghar" noted that the predator was on station 90 minutes after Roberts had fallen; the images that were shot before the Predator had arrived were shot by GRIM-32's Infrared Cameras. although this has not been confirmed by commanders.
The operation ran into problems from the outset. By mistake American Forces had landed in the middle of the valley, instead of the outside and were immediately caught in the Taliban’s kill zone. In the heavy fire fight that followed two Chinooks were shot down and a number of others were severely damaged. American forces eventually gained the upper hand and after inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban forces were able to push them out of the valley.
At the end of Operation Anaconda, the US and Afghan forces had succeeded at removing the majority of the Al-Qaida and Taliban presence from the Shahi-Kot Valley. The US forces suffered 80 casualties in the operation, with 8 killed and 72 wounded. Estimates of Al-Qaida and Taliban casualties range from 100 to 1,000, with U.S. commanders favoring the higher estimates and Afghan commanders favoring the lower estimates. An unknown number of fighters were able to escape the Shahi-Kot Valley into Pakistan. The numbers of dead enemy was much fewer than the average estimate; there were no graves or other in mass to indicated a large number of the enemy had been killed. The numbers remain in dispute.
In the wake of Operation Anaconda, relations between US and the and UK forces on the ground soured when Stars and Stripes, the magazine for American forces and their families, openly criticized the Royal Marines for returning "empty-handed" from their search for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters claiming that Britain's contribution to the campaign was "disappointing". Relations were further soured with reports from a number of publications that Osama bin Laden might had escaped due to a substantial delay from the original H-hour of the deployment of American Forces.
A five-man Canadian sniper team, recording the new distance record and more than 20 kills, were given Bronze Stars from the U.S military for their actions in the operation. Team members were MCpl Graham Ragsdale (Team Commander), MCpl Tim McMeekin, MCpl Arron Perry, Cpl Dennis Eason, and Cpl Rob Furlong. The previous record was set in 1967 by U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, using a Browning M2 .50-calibre BMG machine gun mounting a telescopic sight. The distance was 2250 metres (1.40 miles). Hathcock was one of several individuals who employed the Browning M2 machine gun in a sniping role. This success led to the adoption of the .50-calibre BMG cartridge as a viable anti-personnel and anti-equipment sniper round.