A Full Report on Operation Anaconda -- America's First Battle of the 21st Century. A Complete After Action Interview with COL Weircinski
by Austin Bay
June 27, 2002
I spoke with COL Frank Wiercinski for nearly two hours. My Creators Syndicate column (week of June 24) could only hit the briefest highlights. My thanks to StrategyPage for giving us space for the complete interview.
COL Frank Wiercinski Bio
Note that I had to prune some useful and colorful military terminology from my column. I didn't do that here. Given limited editorial space, I also had to limit the granularity of COL Wiercinski's descriptions. StrategyPage's cyberspace allows for more details, and there are plenty.
Military Terminology defined
D-Day was March 3, 2002. Officially the battle lasted from March 3 to March 18. TF Rakkasan was in the fight for 11 days, from March 3 to March 14. BAY: Describe your mission in Anaconda. WIERCINSKI: Initially we were a secondary effort, a blocking position. The Afghanis, Afghan National Army, was the main effort, moving into the area from the west. After H+10 minutes that changed. BAY: You became the main effort right after you arrived? WIERCINSKI: Yes. It changed. We were assigned blocking positions on the east side, on the mountain passes that line the east side of the area, a big fishhook on the east down to the south. We came in by air assault, with a lot of mass firepower and surprise, got right on top of them (the Al Qaeda fighters). You know to exploit success. We exploited that success. BAY: Let's get some background before we get into the battle. How did you task organize for Anaconda? WIERCINSKI: I organized for Anaconda based on mission (requirements) and what lift I had. We were to establish blocking positions, that meant get infantry on the ground. Initially I had 2/187 (infantry battalion from 101st) and 1/87 from 10th Mountain Division. We had two companies from each battalion. We had 1/187 in task force (Rakkasan) reserve as QRF, with two companies plus. 1/187 got put in at D plus 1. BAY: And you decided to use CH-47s for the operation? WIERCINSKI: We used Chinooks because of the altitude. The lowest HLZ was 8500 feet, 8500 feet and up. We could also put in a lot of troops quickly with them. I landed in UH 60 but at 9000 feet. Our load for a UH-60 at that altitude was 5 or 6 people. A CH-47 was the helicopter of choice because you couldn't overstack it. We'd just put in brand new 714 engines. Very powerful. Incredibly powerful. Great altitude performance. We could put in a lot quickly. We had up to 35 troops with full combat loading. You could have put more in it would but that would have been a dangerous situation, I mean, adding risk to the operation. We needed a to get on the HLZ fast and with a lot of troops. We were balancing safety risk assessment with combat capability. I want to make this clear about the distances. I don't think a lot of people get that, the distances involved in Afghanistan. That's a big factor. Our first lift was from Kandahar to FOB at Bagram. That's like moving from Richmond, Virginia to New York City. Our air assault into Shahi Khot from Bagram was like moving from NYC to Philadelphia, and then going straight into combat. Bagram's around 5,000 feet, I think, so we had to account for the increase in altitude as well as the distance. There are also some mountain ridges, 10K to 11K in altitude, and then getting into landing zones at 8.5K feet. We made 14 combat air assaults into Shahi Khot valley over the next two days, that's air assaulting forces and resupplies. Then of course, we had extraction for casualties, personnel. BAY:You've been second guessed by a number of people, the tv talking heads, since you didn't take in field artillery. WIERCINSKI: We had to watch what we were carrying. Had to. Had to be careful about altitude, getting there with the right balance of infantry and fire support on ground. Initially going in, we went in with Apaches and CAS. I felt comfortable (in terms of fire support available to the operation). We brought in 60 mm mortars with us. When we saw weather coming in and knew were going to lose Apaches and close air support, I knew we needed more indirect fire support on the ground. So we brought 81s and 120s. We brought in four 120s I believe. We operated the 81s and 120s as a mortar battery. BAY: Wouldn't an artillery battery or a couple of guns have required troops to defend it? WIERCINSKI: That's a very good question. A lot of people do ask that, why not an artillery battery. I've thought about that over time, I don't know where I would have put it, how I would have lifted it (in), and I don't know how I would have secured it. We thought about that. I would have had to use infantry to secure it (the artillery). They (the artillery pieces) would have been nice to have but would have added another dimension (to lift and support requirements). I could put the mortars in with the infantry. I could bring in 120s and 81s internally loaded on Chinooks and I could move them with me. We ended up putting the mortar battery in an AQ compound we overran on D-DAY. It was a walled compound and I could walk the 120s in there, right next to infantry on a high slope. It had great observation and it was centrally located. We could hit 360 degrees, hit whatever we could see. BAY: How many rounds per mortar did you bring in? WIERCINSKI: We brought in well over 100 per mortar. Shot 120s and 81s and we never ran out of ammunition. We had to shut down air resupply because Ch47s, for 36 to 48 hours, because of the bad weather in the mountain passes they wouldn't let them fly. That's why balancing water and ammunition was critical, especially in those initial phases. It's trade-offs, getting in the right balance of infantry and fire support. BAY: You can't have everything. WIERCINSKI: We had to load to hold out during the weather break. BAY: What did Al Qaeda do during the bad weather? WIERCINSKI: Al Qaeda went to ground during bad weather. They had to. We did not. I personally thought their fire dropped off (during the bad weather), that's a personal opinion. They were reinforcing those first couple of days. GINGER was an Al Qaeda MSR. BAY: Al Qaeda had significant reserves in the area? WIERCINSKI: Al Qaeda had reserves, reinforcements from the south and east. Ginger Pass, Objective Ginger, the Takur Ghar area on OBJ Ginger, that area had been so built up over the last 20 years. The place had cache on cache of arms and ammunition. We hit it with a JDAM from a B-52 and secondary explosions went off for four to six hours. Smoke and flash. It was definitely an ammo hit. BAY: How did you train troops for high altitude operations? Special PT? Was altitude a problem once you deployed? WIERCINSKI: It's fitness, that part first, maintaining absolute fitness, aerobic, anaerobic, and strength training. Not only running but a lot of road marching with loads. We'd been at Kandahar at 3,000 feet, and, moved the Forward Operating Base at Bagram. We acclimatized for a bit. Then went into Shahi Khot with customized loads. Water ammunition, and army fleece, gortex and polypro to keep us warm when the great heat tab in the sky went down. Commo night vision and batteries, and food because you're burning a lot of calories. I was told we'd have 40 percent casualties for altitude sickness alone. I said no way. I think we had one altitude sickness case in 11 days of combat. And no cold weather injuries. I attribute all of that to training and leadership. At the junior non-com level. The altitude is part of your enemy. We said that. The junior non-coms kept telling the troops that. Altitude is your enemy, so's the weather. BAY: How reliable was the "airborne close fire support," which is what you were relying on. I know this is a tough, politically tangled question, but it deserves an answer. WIERCINSKI: Clearly we utilized CAS from Air Force and Navy platforms throughout the entire operation. From D-Day, we used it every day. And they were there. We had a CAP over us all the time. They hit SEAD targets for us before we got there. When we called for them they came. They weren't as responsive as I would have liked. It took time to clear all of the channels to get it (ie, close air support). We are so comfortable in this division with Apaches. Apache pilots are comfortable with ground maneuver commanders. I don't have any problem pushing Apaches down to platoon leaders and that's immediate, responsive, precise fires. I can put it down to the man who has his eyes on the target. He can give directions to the pilot. When I need CAS I need it close and I need it precise. BAY: What are Al Qaeda "main force" fighters like? They seem to be very tenacious, what are their combat skills? What are they good at? WIERCINSKI: They are tenacious. They wanted to go toe to toe with the US Army. They formed up there. They knew we could see them and come after them. They wanted to go face to face and say something. They were prepared. They had weapons systems they had been trained on, 82s, RPGS small arms. Aks, predominantly. And they are very good with 82 mm mortars. They're good with RPG tactics. I watched an Apache get hit with an RPG. I saw Apaches get hit with a lot of stuff, and take it. I did not find them to be very good as marksmen, and they were not good at night. We owned the night. BAY: Is that a function of a lack of night vision equipment? WIERCINSKI: They did not have the capability to fight at night, coordinate it. I don't think they have the thought processes to fight at night, the way to say that?, the command and control, the individual and unit training like we do, that experience. We train individuals and units to fight at night. Clearly they could infiltrate and make attempts to reinforce, but not fight at night. When we also got AC-130s out at night the Al Qaeada pretty much knew if they were moving they were dead (when AC-130s were up). At night our guys could resupply, reinforce, we could build up a position, we could rest. Rest, taking the chance to rest. That's important. If we had to fight day and night day and night that would have been extremely difficult for 11 days. Still, night is when we moved. Once the sun went down that's when we moved forces forward and got the high ground. The AQ feared our AH64s and AC-130s. Everything else they could dodge. They could see a fast mover coming, and go for cover. But our combination, precision weaponry (from air craft). fire and maneuver by infantry, and then Apaches and AC-130, all of that is precision stuff. Once those three things locked on you, you couldn't go anywhere. Al Qaeda learned that. BAY: Walk me through the operation, again your scheme of maneuver. First, what was happening with the Afghan National Army to the west. Then what happened to your brigade, particularly on D-Day. WIERCINSKI: The Afghan National Army. They are the main effort, under Commander Zia. They moved in from the west and got held up. 5th Special Forces Group was advising them. They caught fire short of the objective area. They could not go further. Now, that took fires away from us. We became to main effort, to exploit surprise and success. Like I said, we were on top of them. On D-Day we were taking casualties, down toward GINGER. AQ was shooting 82mm, RPGS, and AKs. The enemy was within 300 meters of 1/87. The 1/87 had trapped AQ on three sides. I estimate a company size of AQ. The 1/87th Infantry had two dozen casualties extracted by night. We utilized AC-130 and B52s on the town of Marjak, we were taking extremely heavy fires (from there). We brought in medevac under fire. Then we extracted the casualties. I reconsolidated 1/87 with the 2/187. We prepared for the 1/187 to come in and push south. The Soviets got their butts kicked in that valley. Everybody came into it from the west, on the ground, and tried to sweep it from west to east. They did not expect us to come to their back door from the east. BAY: What did intel tell you prior to D-Day. WIERCINSKI: Intel gave us a most probable course of action, of enemy action. Most probably they were in those towns, Sherkankel, Babukel, Marzak, and in those towns with civilians. That's why ROE was restrictive when we went in. We believed we'd have to sort out the difference between good guys and bad guys. We figured that out quickly. The most dangerous enemy course of action intel presented was everybody in there were all bad guys, all through the hills, in the town, in the cave complexes by GINGER and around the AMY blocking position. We plan for most probable and most dangerous, wargame against both situations, most probable and most dangerous. That's a point everyone needs to remember. The enemy's got a vote, too. We have to improve this in our training. You have got to add flexibility, ingenuity, think and plan to be responsive enough to take on all options because when the enemy votes it ain't gonna go your way. We could have air assaulted into the valley further east. Intel said the would be in both places and I made a decision. I thought we landed in the best places we could. We were far enough away from the town they couldn't do diret fire. The HLZs were on flat enough terrain to get the troops out fast, but not so we'd have to climb immediately. My number one point, number one bullet most important thing to this operation was the identification of primary, alternate, and subsequent HLZs. We needed HLZs that allow us to get our maximum combat poser on the ground and get it back safely - that was my number one bullet in my intent. I knew if we could get everybody on the ground we would have the upper hand. The trick was getting the helicopters on the ground safely with soldiers close enough without it being an unsafe HLZ, or so far away that they would have had to fight 2000 meters straight up. BAY: When you, personally, hit the ground you came under fire. What happened? WIERCINSKI: Yes, we came under direct fire, but we had high ground. I think the enemy thought we were just another element, not a brigade headquarters. My C2 bird took hits. I told him to leave us. I had nine guys with me. Then the Al Qaeda tried mortars. But we were located on such an acute point it would have had to be a direct hit, with the mortars, to get us. Their fire kept getting closer and closer but we just stuck it out. At night we moved down the back of the slope to a small HLZ about 1000 ft down the slope. We got extracted after the casulaties from 10th Mountain Division went out. When the AQ swept over the top (of our old position) they thought they had a victory. An AC-130 took them out. BAY: You had your position plotted as a target. WIERCINSKI: That's one of the first things you do. BAY: Here's an opinion question, but it's one I've thought about, manage to come up with answers, but I'm always interested in a professional soldier's take on this issue. How do fanatics convince themselves that Americans aren't good soldiers and lack the guts and spirit to slug it out when slugging is required? The Imperial Japanese made this error. Al Qaeda has, too. WIERCINSKI: I think they made that error. I think they thought we didn't have the stomach for a big fight. Peop;e like Osama Bin Laden make bad assumptions based on what they consider victories. When they make those bad assumptions they do stupid things. The AQ did stupid things in Shahi Khot valley. Very early on I could tell there were no civilians in those three towns. There were no colors, no smoke, no animals, no hanging clothes, nothing to identify it as a populated area, with people living there. I looked down and asked "What's wrong with this picture?" There were no civilians in there. They had moved them out. Well, what did that do for us? It helped out ROE incredibly. We went in there with a good, tight ROE. We went in with an initial intent to screen people, but it was very obvious in the first 10 minutes there was nothing but bad guys there. The place did not have the look of anything else in Afghanistan. It had the look fo a battlefield. I thought, "This is going to be a fight." And I honestly think they didn't think we had the guts, the chutzpah, the aboility to get in there and duke it out with them. BAY: Some media critics have called Anaconda a failure. I'm not sure why, other than many critics don't know squat about military ops. WIERCINSKI: I've read some of those articles myself. I quite honestly don't understand their definition of failure or success, either. We went in with 1411 soldiers and killed hundreds of AQ We proved to them they have no safe harbor anywhere. They can't hide. We came in right on top o them. Of the 1411 soldiers brought in we brought out 1411. That's my task force. We fought for 11 days at 9000 feet, had no cold weather injuries, one case of altitude sickness. We owned Shahi Khot to this day. We haven't seen a single pocket of AQ or Taliban of that size since. We moved through out the country, touched every cache, every ratline, have not seen a single grouping of Al Qaeda that could do or plan anything (significant) since. I don't understand what the definition of failure is. I can't even guess. On other point. While on the ground I asked for more Apaches. No other Army could have done what happened. The Apaches we had took multiple hits. I had eight Apaches on D-Day, supporting us. I knew I needed more. 63 hours after I asked for them, Apaches from same battalion arrived in the fight, brought in from Fort Campbell, Tennessee. 3rd Battalion 101st Aviation Brigade. MG Hagenbeck concurred. MG Cody immediately concurred. CENTCOM, JCS, everybody immediately approved it since the commander on the ground wants this. 63 hours, 16 more birds in the battle. Look at what had to happen. The helicopter had to be broken down, loaded on Air Force C-17s, flown to Afghanistan, reassembled. That's the way it's supposed to work.
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Here's a very brief bio on COL Wiercinski: West Point 1979, an infantry officer with airborne, ranger, and air assault badges. He commanded an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division and a company in 3rd Ranger Battalion. He participated in Operation Just Cause (Panama) with the Rangers. He served as G-3 for the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He is a Command and General Staff School and Army War College graduate.
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I realize some readers, especially new visitors to StrategyPage, may still be puzzled by some of the terms and descriptions. Here's a quick guide to some essential terms and acronyms: Air Assault - infantry arriving in battle on helicopters supported by attack helicopters. The 101st is an air assault division. It is still sometimes called the 101st Airborne Division, since historically the 101st as a parachute and glider infantry division. Apaches - AH-64 attack helicopters AQ - literally A-Q. Looks like this is troop jargon for Al Qaeda.OPERATION ANACONDA took place in the mountainous Shahi Khot region southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Shahi Khot valley and the mountains surrounding it (of which the mountain Takur Ghar was one of the most prominent) were also called Objective Remington on some operational maps. CAP - Combat Air Patrol. Combat aircraft flying above you to protect you. CAS - Close Air Support. The bombs and gunfire US Air Force and US Navy planes provide to US ground troops. CH-47 - The Chinook heavy helicopter. A large, robust, twin-rotor transport helicopter. D-Day, H-Hour -D-Day is the day the operation starts. H-Hour is the operations "zero hour" - when it begins. FOB - Forward Operating Base. Pronounced "F-O-B." GINGER - Let's list them all. AMY, BESS, CINDY, DIANE, EVE, GINGER, and HEATHER, in alphabetical order the code names given to the blocking positions on the east side of the battle area. (Note there is now position beginning with F. I asked COL Wiercinski about that and he replied "I could never figure that one out.") HLZ - Helicopter Landing Zone. Where the transport helicopters drop off troops in a combat operation. K - short hand for a 1000. 10K means ten thousand (feet, meters. Etc.). QRF - Quick reaction force. COL Wiercinski said the 1-187th Infantry Battalion (1st Battalion of the 187th Infantry) was the QRF in reserve on D-Day. Mortars - COL Wiercinski discusses four type of mortars, the US 60 mm light mortar, the US medium 81 mm mortar, and the US heavy 120 mm mortar. The "82 millimeters" he refers to are ex-Soviet, or Russian and Chinese medium mortars. MSR - Main Supply Route. The MSR COL Wiercinski mentions was an MSR for Al Qaeda, from caches further south and Pakistan. ROE - Rules of Engagement. An "ROE" tells the troops what kind of weapons they can use and how they can use them in specific operational situations. TF Rakkasan's initial ROE required the troops to make restrict their fire on the three villages in its immediate area (unless they were fired upon) in order to limit the possibility of civilian casualties. SEAD - Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. In this case, US air power attacked the HLZs to suppress Al Qaeda machine guns and anti-aircraft missiles that might have fired at US helicopters. Team - Battalions are composed of companies (usually three). A task organized company is called a "team." The battalions operated with two company teams. TF - Task Force. TF Rakkasan, which COL Wiercinski commanded, was "task organized" for a specific combat mission. TF Rakkasan was a "brigade task force." It had three "battalion task forces" under its control. UH-60 - Blackhawk medium transport helicopter. COL Wiercinski arrived in a C2 (command and control) version of the UH-60 105s - US light field artillery weapon, Fires a 105mm round.
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