by Austin Bay
June 26, 2002
The point where headlines turn to history is hazy. OperationAnaconda (March 3 to March 18), the War on Terror's first major offensiveinvolving U.S. conventional ground forces in battle against Al Qaeda, isstill in that haze.
That haze can make "first battles" tough to discuss cogently.Immediate public worry, politics, presumptions and lack of information adddistorting smokes that take time, usually years, to disperse.
Recently, I talked with Col. Frank Wiercinski, commander of 3rdBrigade, 101st Air Assault Division. Wiercinski, a West Point grad of 1979and former Ranger company commander, led Task Force Rakkasan in Anaconda, aforce consisting of two battalions from his brigade (1-187 and 2-187Infantry) and the 1-87 Infantry Battalion from 10th Mountain Division.
For the most part, we focused on the "nuts and bolts" militarydetails of waging a complex Himalayan war. (Anaconda was fought in themountainous Shahi Khot region southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan.) Here aresome of Wiercinski's more telling points. (The full interview can be foundat StrategyPage.com.)
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, movinginto the area from the west. After H plus 10 minutes (on March 3), thatchanged.
Q: You became the main effort?
A: Yes. We came in by helicopter, with a lot of mass firepowerand surprise, got right on top of them (Al Qaeda). ... We exploited thatsuccess. ... We used CH-47 Chinooks (large helicopters) because of thealtitude, 8500 feet and up. We could also put in a lot of troops quicklywith them. ... Our first lift was from Kandahar to Bagram (near Kabul), likemoving from Richmond, Va., to New York City. Our air assault into Shahi Khotfrom Bagram was like moving from NYC to Philadelphia, and into combat.
Q: You've been second-guessed by TV talking heads since youdidn't take field artillery.
A: I've thought about that over time. I don't know how we wouldhave 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 infantryand fire support. Going in, we had Apaches (attack helos) and (Air Force)for (fire) support. ... When we saw (bad) weather coming in, we brought in81mm and 120mm mortars. ... I could put the mortars in with the infantry(i.e., Wiercinski didn't have to dilute his infantry force to providespecial 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 roadmarching with loads (full packs). ... We only had one case of altitudesickness in 11 days of combat.
Q: What are Al Qaeda fighters like?
A: They are tenacious. They wanted to go toe to toe with theU.S. Army and say something. They had weapons they'd been trained on, 82 mmmortars, RPGS (rocket propelled grenades). I did not find them very goodmarksmen, and they were not good at night. They don't have the command andcontrol (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 soldierswon't slug it out when slugging is required?
A: AQ (Al Qaeda) made that error. ... They thought we didn'thave the stomach. ... People like bin Laden make bad assumptions based onwhat they consider victories, then they do stupid things. AQ did stupidthings 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 totheir back door from the east.
Q: Some critics question Anaconda's success.
A: I quite honestly don't understand their definition of failureor success. We went in with 1,411 soldiers (in TF Rakkasan), we brought1,411 out. We killed hundreds of AQ. We proved to them they have no safeharbor anywhere. They can't hide. We fought for 11 days at 9,000 feet, hadno cold weather injuries. We own Shahi Khot to this day. ... I don'tunderstand their definition of failure. I can't even guess.