Operation Anaconda took place in early March 2002 in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains southeast of Zormat, Afghanistan.This operation was the first large-scale battle in the United States War in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. And it was also the first operation in Afghanistan to involve a large number of U.S. conventional forces other than aircraft participating in a direct combat role.
During the period of March 2 – March 16, 2002, the U.S. airlifted 1700 troops and 1,000 pro-government Afghan militia to take on between 300 and 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to obtain control of the valley. The valley was the scene of heavy fighting between the Russians and mujahadeen during the war in the 1980s.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda forces operated from the high ridges of the steep mountains and utilized a vast array of caves. There they used accurate and heavy fire from mortars and machine guns against the coalition forces. The U.S. and coalition air forces hit the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters with a vast array of air strikes. By the time the battle was over, the U.S. estimated that they killed over 500 Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
In February, a Special Forces intel analyst noticed a pattern that massing in the Lower Shahikot Valley, then, initial plans were to attack the Taliban using Afghan security forces and US Special Operations. However, the Commander of the Operation, MG Franklin L. Hagenbeck decided to use conventional troops.
The coalition troops consisted of elements of Task Force Dagger: ODAs from the 5th SFG, B company, 2nd Battalion, 160th SOAR and Combat Tactical Air Controllers. AMF (Afghan Militia Forces): Commander Zia (Task Force Hammer), Kamil Khan and Zakim Khan (Task Force Anvil). Task Force Rakkasan: 3rd Brigade,101st Airborne Division, 1st and 2nd battalion 187th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. Task Force Commando: 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Task Force 64: 1 Squadron, Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Task Force K-Bar: ODAs from the 3rd SFG. Task Force Bowie: AFO (made up of a 45-man reconnaissance unit Delta Force and augmented by selected DEVGRU operators recce specialists). Task Force Sword/11: Mako 30, 31 and 21, Task Force Blue/DEVGRU.
The plan was for the Special Forces men and Afghans to sweep into the valley and the conventional infantry battalions to block their avenues of escape. Any fleeing al-Qaeda or Taliban forces that got away from the conventional units would then hit the outer ring of SF and Afghan troops.
Things went awry from the start. First, the enemy didn’t run as was expected but decided to stand and slug it out, content with the caves and high ridgelines that they were in good shape to defend. They also had much better weapons, (mortars and machine guns) than previously thought. The Americans had spent a lot of time on the proper treatment of civilians for what they perceived to be a heavily populated target area. It turned out that virtually no civilians were left in the valley. They had almost all left, having been paid by the Taliban.
The Afghan forces were met with heavy accurate mortar fire. Another Afghan column led by SF Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman was misidentified by an AC-130 gunship and taken under fire. Harriman was killed and several Afghans were wounded. Australian SAS troops were positioned in the mountains and ridgelines to pinpoint enemy positions and call in fire tp support the advance.
The 10th Mountain Division met heavy fire from the dug-in enemy as they had the valleys below zeroed in due to their intimate knowledge of the terrain. The 101st troops were facing the same kind of battle. The advance slowed to a crawl as the fighting got intense.
The next day Special Operations troops inserting by CH-47D Chinooks came under heavy fire by machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. One Chinook crashed although only one man, a Navy SEAL was killed. A quick reaction force of about 30 SOF troops came under heavy fire and were pinned down. But the Australians, operating high above the valley on the ridgelines, called in devastating AC-130 gunship support as well as AH-64 Apaches.
By the night of March 4, the U.S. sent in helicopters racing in under covering fire from dozens of strike fighters and attack helicopters to extract the Special Operations forces and their dead and wounded. After that, the 10th Mountain troops were extracted. In all, there were 7 U.S. troops killed, there were 40 wounded, of which 18 were treated and returned to duty.
The next few days saw the U.S. commit fresh ground troops, both American and Afghan and the clashes were much smaller in scope than the previous few days. The Taliban fought in smaller numbers and were effectively using what one Special Operations operator called “spider holes”, which were well-camouflaged shallow caves that could hide a few fighters and were nearly impervious to the bombs dropped by American aircraft. A couple of Taliban fighters could slow the advance of an entire company in some locations.
The Afghan troops under General Zia resumed their advance on March 6, with coalition aircraft providing a lot of close air support. According to a Pentagon briefing, the coalition dropped 450 bombs on the enemy between March 2-5, of which 350 were “smart munitions”. Eventually, the bombing took its toll on the Taliban and they began to run low on ammunition.
On March 7, sandstorms slowed the Allied advance but near dark, 15 old T-55 tanks and BMP-1 APCs under Northern Alliance commander Gul Haider entered the fray. The tanks kept the Taliban snipers in their caves. By March 10, the Taliban numbers in the area dwindled down to about 200 total. The Americans began withdrawing their troops back to Bagram air base.
After the battle, General Tommy Franks called Operation Anaconda an “unqualified success.” Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh called it a “debacle”. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There were issues right from the beginning but in the end, the coalition forces pushed the Taliban out and killed nearly 1000 of their fighters.
It was during the battle that the record for the longest kill by a sniper was set by Canadian Army sniper Corporal Rob Furlong of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry until surpassed in 2009. Using a McMillan TAC-50 .50-caliber rifle, Furlong killed a Taliban fighter armed with an RPK machine gun at a confirmed distance of 2,430 meters (1.51 miles). His record has since been broken but it was an incredible feat of marksmanship.