The military action that cost Connecticut native John Chapman his life was called Operation Anaconda and was one of the most ambitious undertaken in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars. In the early winter of 2002, the CIA and special operations forces received intelligence that hundreds of al-Qaida forces had holed up in the Shah-i-Kot Valley in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. U.S. operations in Afghanistan began in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Early on, the U.S. relied primarily on Afghan ground forces supported by the airstrikes of the U.S. and their Western allies, as well as small numbers of special operations soldiers.
The strategy worked well in some respects. Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital and largest city, fell to U.S.-supported Northern Alliance forces in mid-November 2001, sooner than anticipated. But the limits of the strategy were made clear in spectacular fashion that December when Osama bin Laden eluded Northern Alliance soldiers and survived a U.S. bombing campaign at the Battle of Tora Bora, escaping to tribal regions of Pakistan.
Some of the al-Qaida forces who had escaped Tora Bora made their way to the Shah-i-Kot Valley, and there was speculation that high-level members of al-Qaida could be there, even bin Laden himself. (Ultimately, it appears bin Laden was not in Shah-i-Kot, but some reports indicate al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have been there and been wounded during Operation Anaconda before escaping.)
Allied Afghan forces would enter the valley from one end, while about 1,400 U.S. troops would be helicoptered into the opposite end, cutting off the enemy’s retreat, surrounding and then figuratively strangling the al-Qaida militants like an anaconda strangles its prey.
But the operation was beset with problems. “The plan was based on a set of false premises,” says Sean Naylor, author of Not A Good Day to Die, a detailed history of the operation. Naylor witnessed parts of Operation Anaconda firsthand while embedded with the 101st Airborne Division troops who fought in the battle. He says, “[You had] a failure to distinguish on the part of U.S. commanders and planners between the Taliban and al-Qaida. What the enemy was for them in the Shah-i-Kot Valley was al-Qaida, who was more highly committed than the Taliban. They underestimated the size of the enemy force. They failed to anticipate that the al-Qaida forces would be occupying the high ground rather than the valley floor and they underestimated the al-Qaida fighters’ willingness to fight.”
Instead of desperate enemies ready to flee or surrender, U.S. forces encountered well-supplied, highly trained and dedicated al-Qaida members, many with combat experience, who had chosen the Shah-i-Kot — which translates as “Place of the King” — for good reason. For the last 2,000 years the valley had been the refuge of last resort for Afghan warriors. Some of history’s greatest armies had met defeat there, including Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., the British in the 1800s and the Soviet Army in 1980.
The valley’s mean altitude is 9,000 feet. At that height even elite soldiers quickly grew tired. Additionally, it was bitterly cold and there were several feet of snow on the ground. “The Shah-i-Kot Valley is one of the nastiest pieces of terrain on the face of the Earth. We were asking our soldiers to go into excruciatingly difficult terrain in just unimaginable weather,” Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, who led the operation, later recounted.
Near the start of the offensive in the early morning hours of March 2, Afghan allies and members of the special forces with them were attacked by a U.S. aircraft that mistook them for enemy troops. The friendly-fire incident killed Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman and wounded several Afghans and other U.S. soldiers. This incident unnerved the Afghan forces, and when a U.S. aerial bombardment that morning ended up being much smaller than anticipated, they lost more faith in their U.S. allies. When resistance within the valley proved more stiff than anticipated, the Afghan forces withdrew from the fight.
Instead of serving in a support role,
U.S. forces were now in the lead, and escape routes from the valley were less protected. This unexpected turn of events, paired with tense resistance from an enemy that had secured the high ground, meant more precise air support was necessary for success in the operation. It was at this point that Mako 30, Chapman’s team, and another SEAL Team 6 reconnaissance outfit were ordered into the valley.
This was long before SEAL Team 6 became a household name in 2011 after members of the unit killed bin Laden. In 2002, no one would dispute that the unit was elite, but its specialty was maritime-related operations, and members of Team 6 were not trained as extensively in ground operations as their counterparts in the Army’s Delta Force. “Team 6, which is part of Joint Special Operations Command back then, was no doubt composed of very brave men who had a huge belief in their own abilities. But like the rest of Joint Special Operations Command, like the rest of the U.S. Special Operations in general, at that point in the war they were not nearly as combat experienced as today’s special operators,” Naylor says. “Nor did Joint Special Operations Command have the institutional knowledge that it does today that has come from running hundreds and hundreds of missions around the world over the past 15 years.”
Mako 30’s attempt to set up an observation point at Takur Ghar proved unsuccessful, and the events that unfolded there were largely deemed to be a costly distraction. After the Takur Ghar incident, Operation Anaconda wore on for another two weeks, but the fighting was less eventful. In all, Chapman and several other U.S. servicemen lost their lives during the operation — seven fatalities, including Chapman’s, occurred during the Takur Ghar incident — and 72 additional U.S. troops were injured. U.S. commanders claimed the operation was a success and that hundreds of al-Qaida members had been killed. Naylor is skeptical and believes U.S. forces squandered their “last best opportunity to destroy al-Qaida’s fielded forces before they withdrew across the border to a safe haven in Pakistan.” He adds, “The goal of the operation was to destroy the al-Qaida forces. I returned to the battlefield at the end of the operation and I saw really no evidence of any significant number of al-Qaida casualties. I saw a lot of evidence of very heavy bombing, but I didn’t see any bodies. I didn’t see any body parts. I didn’t see any massive bloodstains. I didn’t see an awful lot of [discarded] medical gear, bandages and so forth. I’m sure that there were quite a few al-Qaida forces killed there, but by no means could you argue that most al-Qaida forces were killed there. That’s my judgment. Some of the senior officers involved in the operation have disagreed with me on that.”