- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

Military officers are privately criticizing U.S. tactics in the battle of Gardez, saying war commanders should have used air strikes for days or weeks before sending ground forces against 800 enemy troops in Afghanistan.
"The way we lost those seven guys was a repeat of Somalia," said a senior Air Force officer, comparing Monday's clash south of the city of Gardez to the 1993 Mogadishu mission.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, yesterday sternly rejected any such comparison.
The Air Force officer said some Pentagon civilians also are upset with the tactics used in the assault near Gardez in Paktia province. Some informally have discussed firing commanders, but others say any dismissals would send the wrong message to U.S. allies as well as to supporters of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Seven U.S. combatants were killed in gunbattles Monday after their MH-47 Chinook helicopters were inserted into mountanous terrain fiercely defended by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The Air Force source said one chopper on a rescue mission lacked adequate fire support from the air.
Military officers contended yesterday in interviews that there was no need to insert ground forces so early in Operation Anaconda, the first combined U.S. air and ground assault in the war in Afghanistan.
Instead, they said, jet aircraft with precision-guided bombs and the howitzers on AC-130 gunships for weeks should have pummeled caves and compounds where the enemy is hiding. During that period, the critics say, special-operations troops should have been used to find targets for direct aerial bombardment but not to directly attack the well-armed enemy forces.
Only after days or weeks of softening enemy positions and putting fighters on the run should significant numbers of U.S. ground troops have been inserted, they said.
Gen. Tommy Franks, running the war as head of U.S. Central Command, changed tactics for the 5-day-old battle in a mountain region called Shah-e-Kot, southeast of Gardez.
In the mid-December battle of Tora Bora, Gen. Franks employed days of air strikes to hit enemy troops while relying on local, untrained Afghans as ground forces. As a result, the enemy was routed from Tora Bora, north of Gardez. But hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters escaped because no sizable force was on the ground to stop them.
In what analysts said was a correction of the Tora Bora tactics, Gen. Franks sent in relatively large numbers of American ground troops at the outset of Operation Anaconda and was using U.S.-trained Afghans to block escape routes and do the fighting.
Critics said the blocking technique was correct but that the rush to put in ground forces was not.
"They didn't learn the right lessons from Tora Bora," said one officer. "If you know where somebody is, why not encircle that group and then bomb … them and then let the Special Forces and CIA use their ability to direct fire? Make it so painful they have to try to run."
The officer added: "The question is why did Franks and the military abandon what had been spectacularly successful since day one. Bomb them until they're dead or on the run. The only change should be, put up roadblocks so they don't escape."
This source said the "Army mafia" a Pentagon term typically used to describe a branch's senior leaders had been pressing for larger participation by conventional forces. Some in the Army were haunted by the 1999 Kosovo operation, when they attempted but failed to deploy Apache attack helicopters in the southern Yugoslav province.
The Gardez fighting for the first time in Afghanistan featured significant numbers of conventional Army forces in the form of 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Division light infantry and Apache helicopters.
The Air Force officer said that when an MH-47 Chinook entered the battle zone to try to rescue a fallen Navy SEAL, the platoon-size unit lacked support from AC-130 gunships that would have suppressed the enemy. Six commandos from the Chinook died in a firefight. The Navy SEAL had been aboard the first Chinook to enter the area three hours earlier. The chopper was hit by enemy fire and quickly withdrew. The SEAL fell from the aircraft, was seized by al Qaeda fighters and executed.
"Franks made the same mistake Powell made in Somalia," said this officer.
It was a reference to 1993, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Democratic Rep. Les Aspin was defense secretary.
The local commander in Somalia wanted more armored weapons systems sent to Somalia to support Army Rangers, who were hunting a local warlord in Mogadishu. But the Pentagon denied the request.
Subsequently, 18 soldiers were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down during a raid. The pinned-down Rangers and Delta Force commandos waged a daylong battle without any air support from AC-130 gunships.
A subsequent Senate report said Mr. Powell could not persuade Mr. Aspin to send more armored weapons. He and other commanders expressed doubts about using AC-130 gunships in an urban environment, the report said.
Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday rejected any comparison between Somalia and Operation Anaconda.
"Other than very brave people being involved, this has nothing to do with Mogadishu," he told a Pentagon press conference. "And the individual who was killed, his body has been retrieved, and so too have the wounded. And I don't see any comparison."
At the same press conference, Gen. Franks said many landing zones were picked for the helicopter assaults and some enemy forces evaded detection.
"I think given the size of an area, perhaps 60 to 70 square miles, one is not going to have the precision of where those forces may be at any point in time," the general said.
Weeks ago, CIA-operated Predator drones and other intelligence assets spotted the enemy assembling in groups south of Gardez. Rather than attack quickly, Central Command let the terrorists gather, presenting a larger target, before mounting the assault on Friday. The battle is being directed by Army Maj. Gen. Buster Hagenbeck from Bagram air base, north of Gardez.


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