by Austin Bay
The point where headlines turn to history is hazy. Operation
Anaconda (March 3 to March 18), the War on Terror's first major offensive
involving U.S. conventional ground forces in battle against Al Qaeda, is
still in that haze.
That haze can make "first battles" tough to discuss cogently.
Immediate public worry, politics, presumptions and lack of information add
distorting smokes that take time, usually years, to disperse.
Recently, I talked with Col. Frank Wiercinski, commander of 3rd
Brigade, 101st Air Assault Division. Wiercinski, a West Point grad of 1979
and former Ranger company commander, led Task Force Rakkasan in Anaconda, a
force consisting of two battalions from his brigade (1-187 and 2-187
Infantry) and the 1-87 Infantry Battalion from 10th Mountain Division.
For the most part, we focused on the "nuts and bolts" military
details of waging a complex Himalayan war. (Anaconda was fought in the
mountainous Shahi Khot region southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan.) Here are
some of Wiercinski's more telling points. (The full interview can be found
Q: Describe your mission in Anaconda.
A: Initially, we were a secondary effort, a blocking position.
The Afghan National Army (with U.S. advisers) was the main effort, moving
into the area from the west. After H plus 10 minutes (on March 3), that
Q: You became the main effort?
A: Yes. We came in by helicopter, with a lot of mass firepower
and surprise, got right on top of them (Al Qaeda). ... We exploited that
success. ... We used CH-47 Chinooks (large helicopters) because of the
altitude, 8500 feet and up. We could also put in a lot of troops quickly
with them. ... Our first lift was from Kandahar to Bagram (near Kabul), like
moving from Richmond, Va., to New York City. Our air assault into Shahi Khot
from Bagram was like moving from NYC to Philadelphia, and into combat.
Q: You've been second-guessed by TV talking heads since you
didn't take field artillery.
A: I've thought about that over time. I don't know how we would
have lifted 105s (field guns). We had to watch what we were carrying at the
(high) altitude. It's trade-offs, getting in the right balance of infantry
and fire support. Going in, we had Apaches (attack helos) and (Air Force)
for (fire) support. ... When we saw (bad) weather coming in, we brought in
81mm and 120mm mortars. ... I could put the mortars in with the infantry
(i.e., Wiercinski didn't have to dilute his infantry force to provide
special defense for the mortars, as he would have for a field gun).
Q: How did you train troops for high altitude operations?
A: Maintain absolute fitness ... not only running, but road
marching with loads (full packs). ... We only had one case of altitude
sickness in 11 days of combat.
Q: What are Al Qaeda fighters like?
A: They are tenacious. They wanted to go toe to toe with the
U.S. Army and say something. They had weapons they'd been trained on, 82 mm
mortars, RPGS (rocket propelled grenades). I did not find them very good
marksmen, and they were not good at night. They don't have the command and
control (to fight at night) like we do. They could infiltrate and reinforce,
but not fight. ... Night is when we moved.
Q: How do fanatics convince themselves that American soldiers
won't slug it out when slugging is required?
A: AQ (Al Qaeda) made that error. ... They thought we didn't
have the stomach. ... People like bin Laden make bad assumptions based on
what they consider victories, then they do stupid things. AQ did stupid
things in Shahi Khot. ... The Soviets got their butts kicked in that valley.
They came to it from the west on the ground. AQ did not expect us to come to
their back door from the east.
Q: Some critics question Anaconda's success.
A: I quite honestly don't understand their definition of failure
or success. We went in with 1,411 soldiers (in TF Rakkasan), we brought
1,411 out. We killed hundreds of AQ. We proved to them they have no safe
harbor anywhere. They can't hide. We fought for 11 days at 9,000 feet, had
no cold weather injuries. We own Shahi Khot to this day. ... I don't
understand their definition of failure. I can't even guess.