Carried out on 2 March 2002, Operation Anaconda (OA) was the largest and most significant combat operation in Afghanistan within the War on Terrorism concept. It was initiated after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as a response to the acts of terrorism aimed both at the American government and the country’s citizens. The operation was led by Major General F.L. Hagenbeck, commander of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, who managed the efforts aimed at cleaning out the remainder of al-Qaeda fighters and their allies from the Taliban in the Shah-i-Knot Valley (Geibel, 2002). Two thousand coalition troops, including more than 1100 Americans and Special Operations Forces (SOF) from other countries. The goal of successful command and control is implementing a plan that will sufficiently enough reduce the impact of uncertainty and chaos while destroying enemies. This paper aims to show how the seven principles of mission command could be applied to OA.
The mission command doctrine has been formulated in ADP 6-0 aimed at differentiating the command-and-control tactics, procedures, and techniques. Successful mission command is achieved by following such principles as “competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance” (p. 7). For example, good levels of competence were illustrated in the commanders’ acknowledgment that heavy saturation bombing and rapid air attacks on the enemy would ruin the element of surprise, causing fighters to flee before the beginning of the ground assault (Kugler, 2007). Therefore, air forces’ main job was narrowed to airlift supplies and strike a limited number of targets on the first day of the operation. Besides, aircrafts were made to orbit the battlefield during the operation in event they become necessary (Kugler, 2007).
However, there was an example in which the principle of competence was not met – General Hagenbeck did not inform General Franks that the power to command given to him was not enough. Specifically, Task Force 1, remained outside his authority nor did he have command over the air component forces, which led to the bifurcation of the command structure and strained operations (Kugler, 2007). Hagenbeck should have assessed his capacity to lead the operation and asked for the extension of his scope of command prior to engaging in battle since a competent commander would have done so.
Competence is closely related to the principle of mutual trust, which is shared confidence that must be present throughout the whole chain of command. While subordinates tend to gain the trust of their commanders by showing competence, commanders gain the trust of their subordinates by demonstrating competence in combat environments (Kugler, 2007). The trust exhibited by the forces in OA led to the Afghan alliance that fought alongside American Soldiers getting demoralized and retreating; however, American soldiers withstood the pressure and continued the battle because of the stronger sense of trust between them.
Shared understanding presented more significant challenges during OA as its participants had to demonstrate collaboration not only between different military components and special operation groups but between countries and government agencies (Kugler, 2007). In the initial planning stages, some conflict occurred between General Franks, General Hagenbeck, and General Mikolashek – even though they shared information, the leadership ego overtook because each was in charge of their generalship. Besides, the generals had no power over the Special Operation Forces, which hindered the flow of effectively disseminated information between battle components. The shared understanding was reached when the generals agreed that command and control in OA would become more effective under General Franks’ conventional generalship, including SOF as an element of support.
Another example of failure in shared understanding is illustrated by the friendly fire incident involving a convoy of Americans and Afghans and an American AC-130 “Spectre” gunship Task Force Hammer, which included both American and Afghan personnel, got mistaken for the enemy personnel and coming under fire from a US AC-130 (Kugler, 2007). The task force had an understanding that the AC-130 would gain support from the gunship and that their teammates would ensure their security during the mission, while the AC-130 officers failed to understand the position of the Task Force Hammer and fired (Kugler, 2007). The incident resulted in two Afghan and one US troops killed, with one SOF soldier and twelve Afghans wounded (Kugler, 2007).
The principle of the commander’s intent during OA was specific and clear, with the focus placed on eliminating the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s presence from Shahikot. Notably, the commander’s intent should not repeat why the mission takes place but rather represent a concise general purpose of the mission’s purpose, especially since no mission goes as planned and there will be hard decisions. The commander’s intent should be the foundation on which the Soldiers involved in the operation will base their decisions. Mission orders closely relate to the commander’s intent as they brief the “why, who, what, where, and when” of the mission without specifying how. It has been noted that the most effective decisions during OA were made at three to four deployments, after which complacency with mission orders tended to limit innovative and smart solutions (Lamb & Munsing, 2011). Facing decisive action is a common military service issue, which leads to the exploration of discipline initiative and risk acceptance as the final two principles.
Within OA, the initiative is disciplined because the decision-making is linked to the operational paradox, which is controlled within the limitations imposed by the commander’s intent. An example of the disciplined initiative was shown by Master Chief Britt Slabinski, whose primary mission was to take a SEAL team up a snowy mountain to establish a point for observing the movement of the enemy (Lange, 2019). During their ascend by the helicopter, the vehicle got hit by an RPG, and Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts Fell on the top of the mountain that was controlled by the enemy. Slabinski took the initiative and changed the primary mission into a rescue mission after Petty Officer Roberts, which succeeded after fourteen hours of intense battle.
In the mentioned example, the principle of risk acceptance is visible as Slabinski acknowledged the possibility of danger, physical and mental injury, and risk of death when making a decision to shift the focus of the operations. However, mission commanders are trained to analyze risks under pressure and make decisions on how to mitigate them. Moreover, despite mitigation processes, some risks remain, with everyone, from the highest commanders to Soldiers, understanding and accepting the risks within the operational environment. From Slabinski’s perspective, there were risks of returning to the area where the enemy was, but it was worth it to save the teammate and complete the mission. To some extent, it could be noted that the Master Chief’s ego overtook him so that he could be seen as a hero; however, the fact that the mission was ultimately successful signifies that analysis was done by weighing on the risks and opportunities.
To conclude, Operation Anaconda is a case study from which one can learn about how to handle immeasurable circumstances and contingencies. Mission command has evolved as a result of command and control following a structured and thought-out philosophy involving seven principles. Even though there was criticism regarding the success of American and coalition forces during OA, the successes of the operation outweighed the limitations as war always comes with risks and unforeseen circumstances.
Geibel, A. (2002). Operation Anaconda, Shah-i-Khot Valley, Afghanistan, 20021. Military Review, May-June 2002, 72-77.
Kugler, R. (2007). Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan: A case study of adaptation in battle.
Lamb, C., & Munsing, E. (2011). Secret weapon. Institute for National Strategic Studies.
Lange, K. (2019). Medal of honor Monday: Navy Master Chief Britt Slabinski.