What Went Wrong?

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As in every battle in every war, the plan for Operation Anaconda was perfect - until the fighting started, as it did early last Saturday. CBS News Contributor Dodge Billingsley filed this frontline report.
Operation Anaconda is the largest tactical operation of the war against terrorism here in Afghanistan to date. It began weeks ago as special forces operators imbedded with Commander Zia's Anti Taliban Forces began moving near the town of Gardez in the Paktia region near the Pakistani border.

The plan was to move steadily toward the Pakistan border with the special forces soldiers and Afghani elements under commander Zia. It was hoped that once confronted the Anti Taliban forces would go forward and talk to the Taliban forces and convince them to surrender.

Stragglers, and those refusing to surrender would retreat towards Pakistan but be cut off by elements of the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions, who would set up blocking forces to collect any hostiles moving their directions.

Civilian casualties were also considered as the area is populated. Elements of the 96th Civil Affairs were also deployed. Elements of the Military Police and various interrogators are also involved as it was hoped that there would be a significant number of detainees.

Back at the base in Bagram, Task Force Bagram set the wheels in motion. At 4:30 a.m. local time on Saturday morning, six Chinook 47s loaded with soldiers from the 10th and 101st lifted off for two landing zones. The 101st landed without incident and secured their objectives.

However, the 10th came to the southern LZ and landed in a hornet's nest of enemy activity. There were casualties almost immediately but they were able to hold the position. Taliban and al Qaeda forces controlled the high ground around the LZ and were able to drop mortars onto the LZ from their positions.

Apache gunships provided cover but three were hit and rendered inoperable. There were no deaths among the casualties at the southern LZ, including one Apache pilot who was injured when an RPG glanced off his windshield.

Special forces snipers set up positions in the hills looking for enemy targets but most of the fire raining down on elements of the 10th Mountain in the southern LZ came from dug in fortifications hidden from view.

A second airlift of troops scheduled for mid morning to reinforce the first wave was cancelled at least twice as the LZ remained too hot to drop troops.

Air Force assets were brought in to crush suspected enemy positions using a vast array of weapons including thermobaric bombs. This is the first time that these weapons have been used by U.S. forces in any combat situation, but a similar munition has been in use by the Russians fighting in Chechnya since the war began there in 1994.

Finally, at 4:30 local time two CH-47s from the 18th Aviation Brigade loaded with additional troops from the 10th Mountain, medical supplies and ammunition took off from Bagram Airbase to relieve their comrades fighting it out in the southern LZ.

Before leaving, an officer for the group gathered the troops together and made it clear: "If it is a question of whether or not to shoot--there is no question. There are no friendlies where we are heading."

They were not able to land, but remained in the area, stopped at a midway refueling point for fuel, returned again to the LZ, even getting within a hundred feet before, pulling away to return to Bagram -- the LZ was still to hot to resupply.

Meanwhile, the 10th Mountain element in the southern LZ continued to take casualties. Troops dug in for six hours under mortar fire. The wounded were put in their sleeping bags and basically buried to protect them from enemy fire and plummeting temperatures which reached well below freezing.

Another attempt was made during the night and was successful, bringing out Charlie Company of the 1st of the 187th. They sustained numerous casualties but were able to be extracted successfully after over twenty hours on the battlefield.

The lone U.S. KIA (Killed In Action) was a special forces soldier from the 3rd Group operating with Afghani Anti Taliban Forces when their group was struck by mortar fire. He was killed on Saturday morning in the early hours of the battle.

As of Sunday morning, the task force elements from both LZs are regrouping to continue the operation to root out enemy elements in the area of operation. There is a decision to hold fast and continue the fight. The feeling here is that they want to finish this thing -- there is no interest in letting go and having to fight again at another time.

I made another attempt to reach the battlefield today (Sunday) with elements of the 101st and 10th Mountain at 1:30pm local time. Again, we were turned away 10 minutes to the LZ -- it was too hot with mortar rounds on the LZ.

The soldiers on my CH-47 helicopter cussed and looked dejected. They have been planning for this for days, but also for their whole military career. Now they were heading back to Bagram base to wait for another flight. There will be some sack time before the next sortie.
  • chris oregan

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