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Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, by Sean Naylor

Berkeley Books, 2004. 425 pages. . . ISBN:0-425-19069-7.

Operation Anaconda was the largest battle fought by American conventional forces in Afghanistan. It took place in a remote valley at very high altitude where the thin air hampered helicopter operations and the lack of oxygen sometimes wore down the men. It took place largely out of the sight of TV cameras, partly due to security and partly due to the forbidding environment, which was pretty far from the hotels with room service from which most reporting on this war has been done. But Sean Naylor, a correspondent from the Army Times, was there as an embedded reporter and witnessed the battle. Now he has produced Not a Good Day to Die, a fascinating and disturbing account of one of the hardest fights American soldiers have faced in living memory. Naylor claims in the introduction to his book that the Army at first gave only grudging cooperation with his efforts to research the battle. Reading the book, one can easily understand why.

In January of 2002 American intelligence became aware of a sizable concentration of Al Qaeda fighters in the Shahikot valley in Southeastern Afghanistan. Planning began for an operation to strike at the Al Qaeda troops. But the tribes in this part of Afghanistan were considerably less friendly to America than the Northern Alliance that had played such a vital part in defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, the lack of reliable Afghan fighters in that part of the country was partly to blame for the failure to trap the Al Qaeda forces in Tora Bora. Thus the decision was made to use American infantry for the first time against the terrorists.

But the number of troops committed to the operation was kept very small. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld personally had to approve every request for reinforcements, and he frequently turned them down. Partly this was out of fear that sending a large force would make the US look like a Soviet style occupier, and partly it was out of the belief that Afghan forces would be able to take the valley if supported by Special Forces and smart bombs. The plan that developed was for a hammer and anvil. Some 300-400 Afghans with Special Forces would make the main effort, while troops from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions would be landed behind the enemy to set up blocking positions. The Afghans, though untrained and poorly disciplined, were thought to be good enough since the American planners assumed that the Al Qaeda forces would try to flee. That they might stand and fight apparently never entered anyone’s mind.

Because of Rumsfeld’s stringent limitations on US troops, the Americans could take only a limited number of soldiers with no artillery, only half a dozen Apache attack helicopters, and not enough transport helicopters to deploy the small force they had quickly. In addition, due to concern about collateral damage, the Apaches were not to engage any target without the personal approval of General Tommy Franks from his command post in Florida.

Command of Operation Anaconda was a combination of muddle and micromanagement. The force selected for the operation was a motley collection of about a dozen different task forces that planners referred to as “ad hocracy.” Most of the troops were from the 101st Airborne Division, but for complex reasons of Pentagon bureaucracy the overall planning and direction of the mission was under the commander of the 10th Mountain Division, ________ Hagenbeck . There was also a hodgepodge of different special operations task forces over which Hagenbeck had no control, and which did not themselves all report to the same commander. At one point an Air Force General with no experience of ground warfare was attempting to direct Navy SEALS in a desperate firefight from a headquarters hundreds of miles away.

As it turned out, the Al Qaeda force in the Shahikot was much larger than US commanders had originally thought. A daring infiltration by Delta Force and SEAL operators disclosed the location

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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