The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot
Was Operation Anaconda an 'absolute success' – or a 'big mistake'?
Operation Anaconda was ‘an unqualified and absolute success’, said US General Tommy Franks on 18 March 2002, as the US offensive against al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Kot region of Gardez in east Afghanistan finally came to an end (1).
But on the same day, UK newspapers reported that 1700 British marines were flying out to east Afghanistan at ‘America’s request’, because, ‘despite months of intensive bombing from the air, and weeks of fighting on the ground, the war [there] is far from over’ (2).
Since it kicked off at the start of March 2002, Operation Anaconda has been a minefield of contradictory statements and unanswered questions. Was it an ‘absolute success’ (3), or a ‘big mistake’ (4)? Did it wipe out the last ‘pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban resistance’ (5), or did al-Qaeda fighters ‘escape’ to fight again (6)? Did America’s first combined ground-and-air offensive of the war kill 800 of the enemy (7), or about 20 (8)? One US commentator says, ‘We don’t know, the Afghans don’t know – and the US military doesn’t seem to know’.
Operation Anaconda began on 1 March 2002 as a battle against ‘the last remaining’ al-Qaeda and Taliban forces holed up in the Shah-i-Kot mountains – with US commanders talking about ‘wrapping up the operation…in little more than 24 hours’ (9). Four days later, on 4 March 2002, the operation made big news when eight US soldiers were killed. One soldier died after falling from a helicopter that was fired upon by rocket-propelled grenades – another seven died after being forced to make a ‘controlled crash landing’ and engaging in an hour-long gunfight with al-Qaeda forces (10).
From the outset, Operation Anaconda raised more questions than answers. Was the US military prepared for this new battle in Shah-i-Kot – or was it taken by surprise? According to a military analyst writing in the New York Times, the whole thing caught Washington-based military officials unawares: ‘For many in Washington, the biggest surprise is that such a large and important battle could emerge with so little warning.’
Another commentator wanted to know how two of the ‘most wanted groups’ in the world could wander around a warzone and set up shop near a fairly busy part of Afghanistan: ‘The apparent convergence of so many Taliban and al-Qaeda men, at a time when the USA had begun an all-out effort to smash the two groups, posed what could be the greatest conundrum of the war: how was it possible for such a large number of fugitives…to gather less than 20 miles from Gardez, a busy provincial capital, without attracting an earlier pursuit by American and Afghan forces?’ (11)
But other reports rejected the ‘taken by surprise argument’ and claimed that the US military was fully prepared for the battle of Shah-i-Kot, had been training for months, and was just waiting for the right moment to strike. ‘US intelligence had been tracking the regrouping of up to 1000 enemy fighters for months’, said one report, ‘and carefully planned an assault that involved surrounding the region in an effort to cut off escape routes’ (12). A US military spokesman said that America ‘knew [al-Qaeda] was regrouping’, and indeed let them regroup, until it was the ‘right time to hit them’.
An Afghan commander working with the Americans on Operation Anaconda put a different spin on it – claiming that he and others had warned US commanders about the al-Qaeda presence in Shah-i-Kot three months ago, but had been ignored. According to the New York Times: ‘Abdul Hassankhel, a veteran of the Muslim guerrilla war against occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s [said] that American forces in the area had sealed themselves off from Afghan commanders who could have directed their attention to the [Shah-i-Kot] district by early December. “We tried to talk to them, but the Americans paid no attention”, he said. “They never speak to us”.’ (13)
Surprise or not, five days into Operation Anaconda the US military reassured us that it was ‘on top’ in east Afghanistan, and that the battle ‘should be won in a couple of days’ time’ (14). ‘We’ve got confirmed kills in the hundreds’, said major-general Frank Hagenbeck. ‘We truly have the momentum at this point’ (15). So why, just the following day, did the Washington Times claim that some of America’s top military brass were privately calling for heads to roll over Shah-i-Kot, and for some of the commanders involved to be sacked?
‘Military officers are privately criticising US tactics in the battle of Gardez’, reported the Washington Times on 7 March, ‘saying war commanders should have used air strikes for days or weeks before sending ground forces against 800 enemy troops in Afghanistan’ (16). Apparently, ‘some [Pentagon leaders] informally have discussed firing commanders, but others say any dismissals would send the wrong message to US allies as well as to supporters of Osama bin Laden’ (17).
As military commanders on the ground claimed to be ‘on top’ of the battle, a senior Air Force commander in Washington said, ‘The way we lost those seven guys was a repeat of Somalia’ (18) – conjuring up images of 1993’s disastrous Battle of Mogadishu when 18 soldiers were killed, otherwise known in US military circles as ‘our other Vietnam’ (19).
As the battle that should have been over in ‘little more than 24 hours’ raged into its fifth day, American and Afghan allies started playing a blame game over the failure to pin down the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces at Shah-i-Kot. Afghan commanders – who are being paid, trained and armed by the US military to fight alongside it in east Afghanistan – claimed that the eight US soldiers died because of the US military’s ‘lack of planning’ and ‘forethought’. According to Said Mohammed Isshaq, the Afghan security chief in Gardez, ‘[The Americans] made a big mistake…. They went ahead without making trenches, without reinforcing their positions. And then they were cut off. They retreated really badly’ (20).
Another Afghan commander went further, suggesting that the US military was incapable of waging a ground war in this part of the world and should pack up and leave: ‘[The Americans] were not trained for the kind of fighting we do in the mountains and, in these conditions, their kind of fighting is useless. They were weakening our morale. It was better for them to go.’ (21)
Gul Mohammed, an Afghan soldier, questioned the American tactic of moving ground forces so close to al-Qaeda positions (within firing range) before giving directions to soldiers on what to do next. ‘Why did they do that?’, he asked, accusing Americans of making themselves and their Afghan allies an ‘easy target’. ‘They’re intelligent. They’re trained. They’re not idiots… There was no need to gather near the enemy’s place.’ (22)
US soldiers were having none of it, instead pinning the blame on the Afghans – as captured in the Los Angeles Times headline ‘Back at base, US troops say Afghans failed them’. One anonymous US soldier had a pop at General Zia Lodin, the commander of the allied Afghan troops: ‘He punked out on us. I don’t know how much we paid him, but I’ll shoot him myself.’ (23)
But for all US soldiers’ complaints about ‘untrustworthy’ Afghans and threats of shooting them, the US military continued to depend on Afghan forces – particularly for hand-to-hand combat in dangerous territory around Shah-i-Kot. ‘The Americans are relying heavily on Afghan militia to do much of the ground fighting’, said one report. ‘But to hold together this unlikely coalition of fractious allies, the Americans…must persuade the rival forces to focus on a common enemy instead of one another.’ (24)
According to another report, the US forces in Shah-i-Kot became so desperate that they even had to fall back on asking Afghan warlord Bacha Khan for help – the former governor of the Paktia province who was removed by Afghanistan’s interim government at the end of 2001 after he allegedly ‘tricked US commanders into bombing a convoy of tribal leaders travelling to his inauguration in December by telling the Americans that the vehicles carried Taliban leaders’ (25).
The blame game heated up on 12 March 2002, when it was reported that ‘hundreds of American troops were pulled out of the ground battle with al-Qaeda forces because they failed to adapt to the guerrilla tactics required for fighting in the mountains’ (26). The Americans described the withdrawal as a ‘tactical reappraisal of their battleplan’, while Afghans said it was because US soldiers ‘were unable to advance through the unfamiliar mountains to track down al-Qaeda and Taliban foes’ (27) – the latest contradictory claims in a battle that was becoming more confusing by the day.
Despite the difficulties, as the Shah-i-Kot battle entered its second week, US commanders started to claim victory – claiming that about 800 al-Qaeda and Taliban forces had been killed in the aerial bombardments and ground attacks. Major-general Frank Hagenbeck, leading the US forces in east Afghanistan, said ‘hundreds’ were ‘confirmed killed’, while defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he didn’t want to get into the ‘numbers game’, but that ‘certainly hundreds’ of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces had been killed by Operation Anaconda (28).
But, as the New York Times pointed out, there was great uncertainty about the numbers killed: ‘The death toll…seems to go up and down like the fluctuations of a troubled currency: 100, 500, 200, 800, 300.’ And there was the additional problem that, once US troops and Western journalists finally got into the deserted Shah-i-Kot on 14 March 2002, there was no evidence that hundreds had been killed.
‘There were no dead al-Qaeda fighters’, reported a USA Today journalist from inside east Afghanistan. ‘There were no fresh graves…. Just one macabre reminder stuck out: dried blood on a patch of dirt here in the village.’ (29) One US soldier said after searching the valleys and hills around Shah-i-Kot, ‘We have been in this valley for three days and all we have seen is ourselves and our Afghan soldiers’ (30).
According to the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘As a force of 700 United States and Canadian troops continued to search the battle zone, the American officer heading the operation said on Saturday that fewer than 20 bodies had been found on the ridge above the Shah-i-Kot Valley…. Another mystery has been the whereabouts of fighters who may have survived the 3250 bombs dropped on the battle zone…. American soldiers returning from the battlefield 175 kilometres away said that only about 10 fighters had been seen since the fighting ended.’ (31).
Another report claimed that – far from being killed or bombed into leaving – some of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces had just moved on from Shah-i-Kot as Operation Anaconda got under way in a relatively relaxed fashion: ‘[Local Afghans] said the Taliban had more or less come and gone as they pleased, [even] visiting villagers in nearby towns.’
So what did happen to the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Shah-i-Kot? One report claimed that ‘the absence of…any sign of the enemy, dead or alive, raised suspicions that many fighters had escaped before the offensive had begun [on 1 March]’ (32). So those 3250 bombs might have been dropped on largely uninhabited territory that may have been vacated by the enemy two weeks previously? That wouldn’t be a first for the Americans, who spent much of January bombing caves in the Zhawar Kili region of southern Afghanistan, even though most al-Qaeda members had left, in an attempt to ‘destroy al-Qaeda’s infrastructure’ (33).
There was one last-ditch effort to explain the absence of the 800/600/300 alleged dead al-Qaeda and Taliban members. According to one Afghan commander, ‘Some of the bodies may be in the caves. It is difficult to tell because they are completely covered over’ (34). It is from these caves that the US military claimed al-Qaeda launched its attacks and where it retreated at night (that’s if al-Qaeda members hadn’t all left before Operation Anaconda even started). But on the caves question, too, there were contradictory claims.
‘As American officials continued to speak about a vast number of well-appointed caves that served as enemy fortresses’, said one report, ‘[Afghan] General Haider called this notion “propaganda” and said he knew of only five or six caverns, none very big’ (35). An Afghan soldier on the ground claimed that all the talk of caves was ‘overdone’ – claiming that ‘they’re small and are not army bases’.
We may never know the whole truth about the battle of Shah-i-Kot – but there are enough contradictory claims and clashing reports to suggest that it wasn’t the ‘unqualified and absolute success’ claimed by General Tommy Franks. Did the Americans plan the attack badly, leading to US casualties? Did they drop thousands of bombs on largely vacated enemy territory? Did they or didn’t they kill hundreds of enemy forces? And have the al-Qaeda and Taliban members now escaped from Shah-i-Kot – as leading Afghan and US commanders claim – ready to fight again in another part of eastern or southern Afghanistan?
The confused battle of Shah-i-Kot is like a murky snapshot of the USA’s confused ‘war on terrorism’ – a war with ever-shifting aims, where the US military seems to spend more time displaying its might by bombing from on high, instead of improving its intelligence and committing troops on the ground. If this operation was a ‘success’, what will failure look like?
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
America’s axis-tential crisis, by Brendan O’Neill
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) Afghanistan: US, Canadian troops reflect on fighting in Operation Anaconda, Radio Free Europe, 19 March 2002
(2) British troops face upbeat Afghan foe, Guardian, 19 March 2002
(3) Afghanistan: US, Canadian troops reflect on fighting in Operation Anaconda, Radio Free Europe, 19 March 2002
(4) Large US force battles al-Qaeda fighters, Washington Post, 4 March 2002
(5) Afghan snakes and ladders, Dawn, 21 March 2002
(6) Americans hunt in vain for men of al-Qaeda, The Times (London), 14 March 2002
(7) Details of victory are unclear but it is celebrated nonetheless, New York Times, 14 March 2002
(8) ‘Few bodies found’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2002
(9) Entering its sixth bloody day, the Afghan battle that would be over in 24 hours, Independent, 7 March 2002
(10) Eight Americans killed in US attack, Fox News, 4 March 2002
(11) US planes pound enemy as troops face tough fight, New York Times, 4 March 2002
(12) US allies in riskier kind of war, Christian Science Monitor, 5 March 2002
(13) US planes pound enemy as troops face tough fight, New York Times, 4 March 2002
(14) US army ‘on top’ in Afghanistan war, Guardian, 6 March 2002
(15) US army ‘on top’ in Afghanistan war, Guardian, 6 March 2002
(16) Military officers criticise rush to use ground troops, Washington Times, 7 March 2002
(17) Military officers criticise rush to use ground troops, Washington Times, 7 March 2002
(18) Military officers criticise rush to use ground troops, Washington Times, 7 March 2002
(19) See ‘It’s about the man next to you’, by Brendan O’Neill
(20) Large US force battles al-Qaeda fighters, Washington Post, 4 March 2002
(21) ‘Inadequate’ US troops pulled out of battleground, The Times (London), 12 March 2002
(22) Large US force battles al-Qaeda fighters, Washington Post, 4 March 2002
(23) Back at base, US troops sat Afghans failed them, Los Angeles Times, 11 March 2002
(24) Afghan power brokers deal beyond the gaze of the USA, Washington Post, 6 March 2002
(25) Large US force battles al-Qaeda fighters, Washington Post, 4 March 2002
(26) ‘Inadequate’ US troops pulled out of battleground, The Times (London), 12 March 2002
(27) ‘Inadequate’ US troops pulled out of battleground, The Times (London), 12 March 2002
(28) US army ‘on top’ in Afghanistan war, Guardian, 6 March 2002
(29) No bodies where battle began, USA Today, 14 March 2002
(30) No bodies where battle began, USA Today, 14 March 2002
(31) Few bodies found, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2002
(32) Americans hunt in vain for men of al-Qaeda, The Times (London), 14 march 2002
(33) See They seek him – where?, by Brendan O’Neill
(34) Al-Qaeda fighters evaded US siege, Afghans claim, Guardian, 15 March 2002
(35) Details of victory are unclear but it is celebrated nonetheless, New York Times, 14 March 2002
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