Pre-Anaconda Operation in Afghanistan

Red Shrek

War Hero
Posted: Sat Mar 12, 2005 10:55 pm Post subject: Pre-Anaconda Assault, in Shahikot Valley


I found this story in a recent Navy Times publication. I did a quick search of "mako 31" and "shahikot valley" and didn't find anything so i hope it hasn't been posted before. It's long and it talks about some of the prep that went into Operation Anaconda. I'd read about the SEAL unit that lost PO Neil Roberts and the Razor 01 team that went in and was shot down trying to help them out (later resulting in the death of PJ Jason Cunningham, if my momory serves me correctly.) Anyway i thought it was cool enought to find and post here so that the rest of you can enjoy, like i said before it's long but for those of you who live for DELTA and ST6 stuff you probably won't be dissipointed, and for the rest of you I'll think you'll be entertained by hearing about it from a historical standpoint like myself. The article in the paper had some pictures from the event that detailed the "the finger" and DShK but i couldn't find them. Enjoy..... SG

Surprise attack: SEALs helped clear the way for Anaconda assault
Book excerpt from ‘Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda’

By Sean Naylor
Times staff writer

By late February 2002, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan had focused their search for remaining Al Qaida forces on the Shahikot Valley. They were to attack from the west March 2, using a hammer consisting of Afghan allies stiffened with a spine of U.S. Special Forces troops. The plan was to drive enemy troops into an “anvil” formed by Task Force Rakkasan, commanded by Col. Frank Wiercinski and comprised of infantry from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions, who were to make an air assault into the valley at dawn on CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Command of Operation Anaconda rested with 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) commander Maj. Gen. Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, whose headquarters was at Bagram, an airbase about 30 miles north of Kabul and 100 miles north of the Shahikot. But neither Hagenbeck nor any other U.S. commander in Bagram had a firm idea of how many enemy fighters were in the valley, or how they were positioned. Delta Force Lt. Col. Pete Blaber headed up a small organization called Advance Force Operations (AFO), tasked with conducting high-risk reconnaissance missions in the search for senior Al Qaida and Taliban leaders. Blaber’s small force was made up of commandos from some of the U.S. military’s most highly classified “special mission units,” including Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6. Based in a compound in Gardez, about 18 miles north of the Shahikot, the Delta lieutenant colonel (0-5) was convinced that a strong Al Qaida force was gathering in the valley. Ignoring the misgivings of some at his higher headquarters on Masirah Island off the coast of Oman, he sent three small teams — totaling 13 men — to reconnoiter the valley in advance of the attacking forces.

Two of the teams — code-named India and Juliet — were drawn from Delta Force’s B Squadron. The third — code-named Mako 31 — was made up of five men (including an Air Force combat controller) from a SEAL Team 6 reconnaissance unit. Mako 31’s leader was a lanky, gregarious senior enlisted SEAL called Mike, better known to all as “Goody.” The mission of the three teams was to penetrate Al Qaida’s lines of defense undetected by moving overland across jagged mountain ridges, and then to establish observation posts (OPs) on the mountainsides from which they would be able to monitor the entire valley. India and Juliet were assigned positions on the valley’s eastern ridge. Mako 31 picked a spot on “The Finger,” a ridgeline that poked into the valley from the south.

As the teams prepared to depart the safe house, Blaber held a last face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk with Goody, whom he regarded as “a true warrior and a great guy.”

“Goody, the success or failure of your mission will predicate the success or failure of the entire operation,” the AFO commander said. “You have to make it to that OP before H-Hour.” Neither man could have known how true Blaber’s words were to prove, but Goody was determined not to let his new boss down. “Sir, I’ll make it to my OP come hell or high water,” Goody replied. “If we’re hurting on time, I’ll drop our rucks. If we’re still having problems, I’ll keep dropping gear until five naked guys with guns are standing on the OP at H-Hour.”

With less than 36 hours to go before the TF Rakkasan helicopters flew into the valley, both Delta teams had made it to their OPs, but Mako 31 was still about 1,000 meters short …

Shortly after dawn on an overcast March 1, Goody sent two Mako 31 snipers up the Finger to scout the location the team had selected for their observation post. The two SEALs inched forward for 500 meters along the rocky ridgeline until they could put eyes on the exact spot Goody and Blaber had agreed on. As they poked their heads above the rocks to get a good look, they got the shock of their lives. Someone had beaten them to it. There, in the lee of a large, jagged outcrop, on the very patch of ground on which they intended to establish their observation post, sat a gray-green tent big enough to sleep several people. As the commandos digested this unexpected turn of events, their eyes fastened on an even more unsettling sight. About 15 meters up the rock-strewn slope, they discerned the outline of a tripod-mounted DShK (pronounced “Dishka”) 12.7mm heavy machine gun wrapped tightly in blue plastic. The discovery was momentous. The position dominated the southern end of the valley — that, after all, was why the AFO operators wanted to occupy it — and overlooked the 700-meter gap through which TF Rakkasan’s helicopters were to fly between the Finger and the eastern ridge. With an antiaircraft range of 1,000 meters, the DShK was ideally located to shoot down the infantry-packed Chinooks due to fly into the valley in less than 24 hours. It would be Frank Wiercinski’s worst nightmare come to horrifying life.

The loss of even one Chinook full of Rakkasans would be a disaster from which Operation Anaconda might not recover. Troops would have to be dispatched from their previously assigned missions to secure the downed helicopter, all while enemy fire poured down on them from the mountainsides.

Any reserves flown in would have to brave the same gauntlet of fire that had precipitated their arrival in the first place. But the DShK was positioned to deal an even more devastating blow to the operation. Wiercinski planned to bring his forward command post, containing himself, his command sergeant major, his aviation commander, his reserve battalion commander and his air liaison officer, into the valley on two Black Hawks and land just a few hundred meters farther north along and a little farther down the Finger from the DShK. At such close range it would be hard for the Al Qaida gunner to miss. As he emptied his weapon into the two American helicopters, even he would not have dreamed that the Black Hawks cartwheeling to the ground were carrying to their deaths not only the commander of the entire air assault force but also the commanders of his aviation task force and his only reserve, as well as his senior NCO and the officer responsible for coordinating close air support for the troops who survived the initial air assault. In the opening minutes of Anaconda a single heavy machine gunner would have dealt the operation a shattering blow.

At 10:02 a.m., India Team relayed a message from Mako 31 to the safe house stating the bare facts of their discovery: an unmanned DShK and a tent sitting on the observation post. This was a lesson for anyone who thought the U.S. military’s billions of dollars’ worth of spy satellites and surveillance aircraft obviated the need for ground reconnaissance. Despite the boasts at Bagram that “every national asset” was being focused on the valley, none of the satellites or spy planes — not even the Mi-17 helicopter the CIA had flown over the Shahikot the previous day with an operative filming the valley floor — had revealed either the tent or the weapon that could have spelled defeat for the Americans in the battle’s opening moments. Maj. Lou Bello, a 10th Mountain fires planner, compared searching for a single DShK on a mountainside from the air to “looking for a needle in a haystack.” In the giant haystack that was the Shahikot Valley, Mako 31 had found a needle and it was pointing straight at the heart of Operation Anaconda.

The SEAL snipers used a Nikon Coolpix digital camera equipped with an eight-power telephoto lens to snap a few photos of the DShK and the tent. They marked the position’s coordinates with a Global Positioning System receiver, then slipped away as low clouds and a sudden snowstorm appeared to cover their withdrawal. Once the weather cleared, they returned for a second look and were rewarded with an extended sighting of two fighters manning the position.

One was a short, dark-haired, and bearded man with Mongol features — possibly an Uighur Chinese. The other, clearly in charge of the DShK, was a tall, clean-shaven Caucasian with reddish-brown hair — most likely an Uzbek fighter from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al Qaida’s loyal allies in Central Asia. They were well equipped for the elements. A blue five-gallon gas can just outside and a pipe protruding from the roof indicated that their tent was heated. The shorter fighter wore a pale tunic, a sleeveless jacket, and what appeared to be a wool hat. The taller man wore a thick red Gore-Tex jacket, a Polartec fleece jacket tied around his waist, Russian-style camouflage pants, and Adidas sneakers. Each fighter appeared fit and healthy.

The SEALs clicked off a few more photos and crept back to the mission support site, about 200 meters northwest of the DShK. From there, Goody sent several photos and a report back to Blaber using a Toshiba Libretto mini-laptop hooked via a USB port to the satellite radio. The SEALs had only seen two enemy fighters, but they reckoned as many as five might be occupying the position. Mako 31’s leader also had an urgent question for Blaber, prompted by the machine gunner’s European features: “Are there Brits up here?” He wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to get in a firefight with the British army’s vaunted Special Air Service. “It was so fantastical seeing this guy with no beard and red hair and Gore-Tex [and] BDU pants, they had a hard time believing that’s what the enemy was,” recalled an operator. Blaber assured Goody there were no Brits in the area, then he forwarded the photos to Jimmy, a Delta Force major in Bagram who was Blaber’s deputy. Jimmy in turn sent the photos to Hagenbeck and to Masirah. Blaber followed up with a call to Hagenbeck. The AFO commander underlined his view that the fighters seen by Mako 31 and Juliet were proof the enemy was in the mountains, not the valley floor where the Rakkasans expected to find them. But despite the enemy presence, Blaber told the Mountain commander that with the three AFO teams occupying dominant terrain, “we are in a position to control the valley.”

“Good job,” Hagenbeck replied.

Using point-to-point digital messages similar to e-mail sent via satellite, Blaber and Goody discussed what to do about the DShK position. It clearly had to be eliminated before H-Hour. Goody asked Blaber what he thought Goody should do. Blaber typed a response that turned the question around, asking Goody what he thought he should do. “I think we ought to wait until H minus two [hours],” Goody wrote. “At H minus two I start moving; I engage at H minus one, and then follow up with AC-130. I understand that you have to make the decision on this and I’ll support any decision you make.”

Blaber sent him a two-word reply: “Good hunting.”

Just after midnight, Goody and the other four men of Mako 31 left the hollow they had used as a hide site and crept toward the enemy observation post. Goody moved ahead of the others, scouting a site where they could drop their rucks about 500 meters from the enemy position. The explosive ordnance disposal expert assigned to Mako 31 and Andy, the team’s Air Force combat controller, remained with the rucks to minimize the chances of the enemy overhearing them as they arranged AC-130 and P-3 coverage of their assault of the tent position. Trying hard to keep to the long shadows cast by a full moon, the three SEAL Team 6 snipers advanced toward a small ridgeline on the other side of which sat the tent. They could hear the low drone of the AC-130 overhead.

Once they reached the ridgeline, their plan was to wait until H minus one (i.e., 5:30 a.m., an hour before H-Hour) and then assault the tent, coordinating their attack with the AC-130. Not long after they had found cover behind some rocks on the reverse slope of the ridge from the tent, an enemy fighter appeared on the ridgeline like a ghostly apparition in the moonlight. He looked around, then turned and retraced his steps without noticing the nearby SEALs. Goody and his men settled down to wait. But at 4 a.m. the same fighter appeared, again walking up from the tent (which the SEALs could not see from their vantage point) and gazing west. Perhaps he was looking for the approaching TF Hammer convoy, word of which was undoubtedly circulating on the enemy’s radios and cell phones by now, or perhaps he was merely seeking some privacy to relieve himself. Either way, it was a fateful decision. Glancing up, the enemy fighter caught sight of the SEALs before they had time to duck behind the rocks. Yelling a warning, he sprinted back to the tent, his body’s “fight or flight” mechanism pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream.

For the SEALs, it was now or never. Goody gave the order to attack. The commandos charged over the ridgeline and down toward the tent 20 meters away. From inside the tent an Al Qaida fighter fired off an entire magazine in the general direction of the Americans, who could see the Kalashnikov’s muzzle flash between the tent flaps. The SEALs dropped to their knees to return fire. A SEAL fired a single round into the tent from his M4 before the rifle jammed. Goody fired next, but he, too, only got off a single round before his rifle jammed. The two SEALs worked frantically in the frigid night air to clear their weapons as the third sniper kept the enemy at bay. Five Al Qaida fighters poured from the tent as the SEALs cleared the jams and began picking them off. The first guerrilla sprinted straight at them. In a split second a commando put the red dot of his laser sight in the middle of the fighter’s chest and squeezed the trigger. Several bullets slammed into the fighter’s body and sent him tumbling lifelessly to the frozen earth. The next man out of the tent broke right but got no more than a couple of steps before he was felled by another SEAL fusillade. A third tent occupant tried to escape over the backside of the ridge, only for the SEALs to put their long hours of marksmanship training to good use yet again.

The SEALs leveled their rifles and emptied their magazines into the tent, then pulled back. Goody decided to let the AC-130 take care of any enemies left alive. Andy, the combat controller, had already alerted Grim 31, the AC-130H Spectre orbiting overhead. The aircraft reported seeing two bodies just outside the tent and a third, wounded, enemy fighter trying to crawl to safety. Grim 31 also spotted the two remaining enemy fighters, who had apparently escaped the firefight outside the tent unharmed and were now trying to outflank the SEALs. From a range of 75 meters — almost point blank for a machine gun — one of the Al Qaida survivors fired a long burst of 7.62mm bullets from a PK machine gun at the SEALs, who hadn’t noticed their maneuver. The rounds missed. It was to be the last opportunity the two Islamist fighters would have to kill in the name of Allah.

Grim 31 requested permission from the SEALs to engage the enemy fighters at “danger close” range, a step required of any aircraft crew about to attack a position in such close proximity to friendly forces that they might be hurt by the airstrike. The SEALs gave their okay. Within a couple of seconds the AC-130 poured 105mm rounds down upon the mountainside, killing both enemy fighters instantly. Then the Air Force gunners adjusted their fire and opened up on the tent and the wounded fighter outside. The explosions shredded the tent and sprayed its contents across the mountainside. When the echoes had faded away, five Al Qaida corpses were left cooling on the mountainside.

The sound of the AC-130 firing alerted every Al Qaida position around the valley. As they gazed upward, searching the night sky for the source of the attack, many fighters made a fatal error — they tilted their weapons skyward and fired blindly into the air, sending tracer rounds arcing into the darkness. Doing so revealed their positions to the three AFO teams, who quickly noted the location of each source of gunfire, to be passed to aircraft later that day as targets to be engaged.

The SEALs moved back to the Al Qaida observation post, which they intended to occupy themselves. What they found as they searched the debris confirmed how vital their mission had been. The DShK was in great condition, clean and well oiled with 2,000 rounds of ammunition arranged neatly within arm’s reach. The guerrillas had built a rough-and-ready traverse and elevation mechanism that, in the opinion of a special operations source, would have allowed the gunner to hit targets up to 3,000 meters away and to cover “easily” the routes to be taken by the helicopters that were shortly to enter the valley. It was fortunate that the SEALs had been able to take the guerrillas by surprise, because the Al Qaida fighters had been well armed. In addition to the DShK, the five tent mates were equipped with a Soviet-style SVD Dragunov sniper rifle, AK-series assault rifles, at least one RPG-7 launcher with several rounds, a PK machine gun, and several fragmentation grenades.

Scattered around were several documents handwritten in Cyrillic script and Arabic. The fact that most were in Cyrillic script — suggesting at least one or more of the fighters were Uzbeks or Chechens — with a few in Arabic, when coupled with the different ethnicities of the five fighters who had been killed, was the first indication that enemy commanders had divided at least some of their force in the valley into cross-cultural teams. (Blaber speculated that the enemy did this to prevent one ethnic group — Arabs, Uighurs, Uzbeks, or Chechens — from leaving the others in the lurch.) The documents included what appeared to be a range card for an artillery system, as well as a notebook that included sketches and instructions on how to build homemade bombs and blow up bridges, buildings, buses, and cars. But as one special operations account of the notebook’s contents later put it, “The one chapter it didn’t have was how to defend against Americans who infil over 11,000-foot peaks.”

About the author

“Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda” was scheduled to go on sale March 1. The book offers a deep, inside account of the battle-planning process as well as the combat itself, and reveals joint command-and-control failures that cost lives.
"Ignoring the misgivings of some at his higher headquarters on Masirah Island off the coast of Oman"

When I was in Oman there was talk of the Sultan 'giving' Masirah to the yanks in return for them building him a new airbase on mainland.

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