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Not a Good Day to Die: Operation Anaconda
Not a Good Day to Die
Imagine that life came with an instruction manual in the form of a PDA-sized, all-in-one risk assessment software program and that would tell you everything that would ever go wrong and the best stocks to invest in, the best route to work to avoid traffic and a speeding ticket. Perhaps knowing where every patch of black ice would be useful if you had to drive through a blizzard; after all, we have to take some risks. Imagine that it would tell you everything you ever needed to know to make an informed decision about anything. This is what tactical intelligence strives to do for military operations. It keeps tactical decision makers informed of the situation by acting as their eyes and ears in unfamiliar territory. Intelligence is to military forces what a walking stick is to a blind man; or eyes to a deaf person. They’ll never have all the information, but they’ll have enough to function effectively.
“Not a Good Day to Die”, by Sean Naylor, tells the story of Operation Anaconda in which intelligence played a crucial role. Naylor objectively narrates the actual events of Operation Anaconda from January 2002 to its conclusion on March 18, 2008 with open condor. The language is easy to read and flows in a manner that is pleasingly to the mind’s ear in such a way that the pages seem to turn themselves. Written with vividly poetic imagery and audible onomatopoeia; I often nostalgically put this book down forgetting that I was no longer in the field myself.
When the intelligence cycle failed, consequences were disastrous, but when it succeeded, operations were able to come to fruition successfully with minimal losses. Whether it drove them forward to the objective or failed and drove them into the ground, intelligence was always a significant factor. For the student of intelligence and tactics, who knows what to look for, Operation Anaconda’s recounting by Naylor will provide numerous case studies of intelligence driving operations. The book is a valuable asset to those who may find themselves in similar situations or making decisions to affect those who are there in their stead because it’s neither hypothetical nor theoretical; it’s a historical record of real events with real people and it is said that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. The book includes several diagrams that allow for case studies and “What would you do?” mental war games.
Often times, when covering tactical evolutions, many combat correspondents lack the sufficient awareness of intelligence and its role in operations. Naylor however, though not a tactician, sprinkles it throughout “Not a Good Day to Die” like salt on a gourmet meal whose presence will go unnoticed unless it’s missing. Various types of intelligence and the different stages of the intelligence cycle are shown in action. Even the impact of mindsets on decision making is apparent. For example, Major General Warren Edwards talks about what he’d expected when Operation Anaconda started:
“There was some knowledge that this might be the last great stand, that bin Laden might be there, the senior leadership might be there. But the mindset was, we’re gonna push forward, we’re gonna strike ‘em with air, we’re gonna kill ‘em all up here in the valley. Not they’ree gonna flee outta there.” (Naylor, 20)
Having a mindset that limits one’s thought process can result in lives being needlessly lost as events unfold in to an unforeseen scenario; a valuable lesson for intelligence professionals to learn early in their careers.
Another lesson that can be learned from this book is that intelligence must be made readily available to those who need it. According to Naylor, “…no one at the Mountain headquarters, including Hagenbeck himself, had access to the most current intelligence about events in Afghanistan.” (Naylor, 13)
One will also learn that there is little value to unconfirmed intelligence as many of the Al Qaeda leadership were evacuating, “American surveillance planes spotted scores of intense heat sources—interpreted as campfires—in the snowy heights...” Bombing was recommended as it was unlikely that civilians would be at the location under the severe weather conditions. CENTCOM having no confirmation proposed that, “They could be shepherds.” (Naylor, 20) Whoever they were, they were able to make it across the border safely.
Even the political and strategic impact of tactical decisions is evident for the astute pupil reviewing the case above, and more explicitly so in the following except.
“When attacking the Shahikot, Dagger officers thought, it would be essential to have troops who could quickly distinguish between local civilians on the one hand and that Arabs, Uzbeks and other foreigners the Americans wanted to kill on the other. The alternative was to risk a slaughter of civilians, with a negative strategic impact that would outweigh any benefits gained. Rosengard worried aloud about sending a US conventional force into Shahikot, seizing the objective and then civilian survivors of the assault telling CNN: ‘These Americans came in and killed my sister and my bother and all these Afghans.’” (Naylor, 45)
While the simple solution in both cases would have been to just kill everyone, America generally holds herself to a higher standard when the public is likely to find out what really happened and the leadership will be held responsible for their decisions.
There are numerous instances of intelligence needs unfulfilled, incomplete analysis and various shortcomings that hindered operations in Operation Anaconda. “Not a Good Day to Die” exposes many of these failures providing lessons for the next generation of intelligence professionals. While officially deemed a failure as many of the Al Qaeda leadership escaped, there were varying opinions of the degree of success or failure in Operation Anaconda; The author quips, “Interestingly, estimates of enemy dead in the Shahikot tended to rise the further the officer making the estimate was from the battle.” (Naylor, 375) Naylor concludes by pointing out that, “…the US failure to fight a successful battle of encirclement in the Shahikot meant several hundred experienced Al Qaeda fighters—Arabs, Uzbeks, and Chechens—escaped to Pakistan. (Naylor, 376)
While Operation Anaconda could have been considerably worse, it also could have had a more desirable outcome. Experience is the best teacher; unfortunately she gives the test before the lesson. However for those who are proactive, the mistakes of others are equally effective and this book will aid them in their quest.
Naylor, Sean. 2005. Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda. New York: Berkley Caliber Books.
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A candid narraration of Operation Anaconda from January 2002 to its conclusion on March 18, 2008. Vividly poetic; the pages seem to turn themselves.