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Operation Anaconda Briefing in Afghanistan

Aired March 6, 2002 - 05:35   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go live now to Bagram Air Base, the command center for Operation Anaconda -- let's listen in to the briefing.


MAJ. GEN. F.L. HAGENBECK, U.S. ARMY: Now, due to the size of the enemy concentration and the difficulty of the terrain and the weather there at Surkhan Kil (ph), in fact, you may know the village is about 2,500 meters, and the mountains to the east lies at over 3,500 meters, in excess of 2 miles. And if you get the mountains to my rear, that gives you an indication of the type of terrain that all of our forces are fighting are like.

We began to plan about three weeks ago a large complex, multi- national operation, and we attempted to make all the component parts as simple as possible and bring them all together in one battle plan. And we conducted a hammer and anvil operation at the outset. It was very accurately portrayed in General Frank's recent press conference.

The Afghan forces, led by General Zia (ph) and supported by U.S. forces, they moved into Gardez in the northeast to attack behind Surkhan Kil (ph). This was the hammer. The anvil consisted of Afghan forces, under General Kamal Kanzapra (ph) and General Zakeen Khan (ph), as well as two U.S. infantry battalions, on the first day.

The Afghan forces sealed the escape routes around the town, while two battalions from Colonel Frank Rasinki's (ph) task force Rakkasan of the 101st Airborne Division. They consisted of two battalions that morning, 187 Infantry from the Tenth Mountain Division, and the 1st Battalion -- correction -- 2nd Battalion, 187 Infantry Rakkasans also from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Those two elements conducted a dawn air assault into the south and the northeast of the area and effectively sealed off the extraneous (ph) routes. And I'll take questions about that later if you'd like.

We also had a lot of help from a wide range of coalition partners, in particular Special Operations forces from a number of member nations, and they conducted the reconnaissance missions, both before the air assault went in and during the current operation. On D-Day, we had an excess of 1,000 Afghan forces on the battlefield and about as many coalition forces.

We went into Saturday morning, which was D-Day, as General Zia (ph) began his move, and as I mentioned, we conducted a dawn air assault with multiple landing zones. And within two hours, we had secured and routed the enemy at every landing point, except one.

We had secured the high ground near those landing zones all but for the southern most landing zone. That was occupied by a platoon of the 187 Infantry from the 10th Mountain Division and coincidentally the battalion command post under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Lacamera (ph). Shortly after they got off the helicopters, they began to receive fire from both the ridge line and from their rear from the village of Marzak (ph). After a painstaking and positive identification process, we determined that there were no combatants in the town of Marzak (ph), so we targeted the village to relieve the intense pressure that was on the 187 Infantry.

Also that morning shortly after the air assault, General Zia's (ph) forces came under intense mortar fire. It killed three Afghanis, wounded somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen of them, and one of our Special Forces, as you know, one of our soldiers was killed as well, as two others wounded.

Based on what the situation looked like in the morning with the reaction of the al Qaeda, we had a firm foothold. They knew we were coming. It was daylight, and I decided at that point our second or follow-on air assault would be executed just after dusk that night.

What we did was concurrently that night, I reinforced success (ph) in the north with elements from the 2nd of the 187 Infantry out of Fort Campbell, and at that point, simultaneously extracted that platoon that had come under intense fire. That platoon, when they came back here, had 19 WIAs. When it began, there were 9 WIAs, but as we pulled in the helicopter that night, it continued to take small- arms fire, and it resulted in a number of other WIAs. None of those men were hit have life threatening injuries. In fact, only half of them within 24 hours returned to duty.

On D plus two, just after midnight local time here in Afghanistan, we inserted a Special Forces team in the south. Unfortunately that helicopter insertion team took fire upon landing and was forced to pull out. And I can give you details and questions, but the essence of it was they took several RPG rounds, rocket- propelled grenades, and we had -- it turned out a crewmember that was knocked off the back of that helicopter as it lifted off.

That helicopter, the pilot was able to fly that plane for about seven kilometers north, close to our positions. He landed it. A second helicopter landed beside it, extracted everybody on that, and a squad from our infantrymen in the hills came down and secured that helicopter for the evening.

When that team got on the second helicopter for extraction, they did a quick headcount and realized that one of their members was missing. And concurrently, they contacted us. They went to a refuel station, got folks off, and as we would expect, insisted on going back into that landing zone to find their missing comrade. And I will tell you very candidly that when that happened and we were able to put some platforms in the air that could image that, that individual had been captured by three al Qaeda members, and we knew exactly where they were when the insertion went on.

Unfortunately, the result of that ended in an 18-hour gunfight, in which we had seven of our men killed, eight of them that were wounded. We brought them, all of the bodies out, all of the wounded, and their buddies under cover of darkness the next night, and we killed somewhere on the magnitude of 40 to 50 al Qaeda. That's the best that we could count under nighttime conditions.

The battle continues. General Zia (ph) and his forces are back in the fight, as are the other Afghan generals down south from here. I will tell you that in the last 24 hours, we have killed lots, lots of al Qaeda and Taliban. I won't give you precise numbers, but we have got confirmed kills in the hundreds as we speak to include mortars, heavy weapons, caches. We truly have the momentum at this point.

We own the dominant terrain in the area, and we have continued to clear numerous caves and have had a number of contacts with the enemy. I am pleased to report that we have not had any friendly forces in those provincial units I mentioned from the 101st and the 10th Mountain who have been reinforced, we have not lost anybody killed through this action. We have had a number of wounded in action on the magnitude of 48. Again, over half of them have been returned to duty at this time.

I don't know when this battle is going to end. I will tell you how I think it has progressed when you ask me your questions now. But I would just tell you that we have done this in a very coordinated fashion with our coalition friends, the joint forces throughout the United States military. We have worked closely with our Afghan allies. We have had Afghan liaison officers with all our elements to ensure that we do not engage any non-combatants if at all possible. And at this moment, I am not aware of any time that that has occurred.

I would just remind everyone what we all know is that the al Qaeda is not a reflection of Islam or the people of this country.

So the results so far speak for themselves. Several hundred of al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are no longer with us to terrorize our citizens or those citizens throughout the world.

The last phase of this operation is going to be humanitarian and civilian affairs. It has already begun in part of this area, and as we clear up and kill the remaining enemy in the area, we will expand that effort.

I'll just mention two quick vignettes of some heroism of our young soldiers, and this is really the story that's here. The first one I would tell you that when that platoon from the 187 Infantry was pinned on the landing zone in the south, there was fighting that went on until the early evening hours. So they were there for 11 or 12 hours, pinned from crossfire, couldn't move very well. Because there was intermingling of the enemy in those forces, we could not bring close air support in. The enemy closed several times to within 50 meters of our soldiers, and we were able to kill them. There was one soldier that I hope you get a chance to meet here, not this afternoon, in the days ahead, who was lying in the snow. His buddies were pinned down by mortar fire. He was able to shoot at the mortar position, did not have a good angle, but it was enough to cause that mortar man to withdraw back into a cave, and throughout the rest of the day, that mortar was never effective against his buddies. We extracted him that evening. His core body temperature was 90 degrees, and he went out kicking and screaming. He did not want to leave the battlefield, and when we got him back here to the hospital, he was insistent on going back. And as I said, I hope you get a chance to meet him.

The other vignette I would mention among many, many has to do with the Apache helicopters that are supporting us out of the 101st Airborne Division. A young company commander, Captain Bill Ryan (ph), and his guys were absolutely magnificent that day. As I mentioned, because the fighting was intermingled and close combat, the close air support we could not bring in, certainly, early in the battle and later on in the south.

And so these magnificent machines flew close air support for us all day long, and they ended up -- all of them, as you know, took shots. Two of them took rocket-propelled grenades, one hit right in the nose cone. That company commander took small-arms rounds through the Kevlar plexi-glass, it broke, cut his face. They continued to fly. They continued to refuel and get back in the fight, and they really made a difference for us. And I'm telling you any other helicopter in the world would have crashed. In fact, we brought them back, the couple that were damaged, we got back into the fight, and we are in tremendous shape with those Apache helicopters now.

But beyond the machines, the real story right there is about these young pilots that went in harm's way, and all they wanted to do was get more fuel and ammunitions and take care of their buddies on the ground.

I'll be prepared to answer any questions on anything I have talked about or anything that I can address that you may be interested in at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the general selects you, please announce your name and organization.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Associated Press. You say that platoon that was down for 11 or 12 hours, that was from the 10th Mountain?

HAGENBECK: Yes, it was.

QUESTION: That included Lieutenant Colonel Lacamara (ph)?

HAGENBECK: Yes, it did. Lieutenant Colonel Lacamara (ph), it was his command post, and he was under fire as well.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

HAGENBECK: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: To what extent, if any, do you think there might be more pockets like this one?

HAGENBECK: Here is what I will tell you, if I could take a moment to characterize this battle. I think at the outset that the intelligence read that we had on the battlefield was just about right; 150 to 200 bad guys in the hills. We came in on the dawn attack. We saw what turned out to be some of the bad guys sitting on the tops of some roofs in the village drinking tea, and we landed and got our helicopters out without sustaining any damage on that air assault. They were able to respond, but they were only able to pin down that one platoon.

All the way through the first three days of this battle, we have had them boxed in. What has happened since then, to our great advantage, is that we have intelligence, both from a variety of sources to include those on the ground and some detainees that we have got, that the local fundamentalists have called a jihad against the Americans and their coalition partners. And they have been funneling, infiltrating fighters into this area. And our estimation is that in the last 24 to 48 hours, the number of enemy that we fought over time has somewhere -- is somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 to 700 enemy, and conservatively speaking right now, I am convinced from the evidence that I have seen that we have killed at least half of those enemy forces.

QUESTION: General, Brian Palmer for CNN.


QUESTION: We were told that one of those Afghan units that was supposed to show up in the initial phase of the attack did not show up. Could you give us some background on that?

HAGENBECK: Well, actually, it did show up. What happened was General Zia's (ph) forces, with some members of our 5th Special Forces Group, were moving to the battlefield. They were to arrive just prior to our air assault. Along the way, as you know, we have had a lot of rain here over those days. A number of their trucks got stuck in quagmires, because they were going off road to get here.

PHILLIPS: After three days of an intense firefight and coming under heavy enemy fire, Major General Hagenbeck there wrapping up -- giving an update on Operation Anaconda, talking about the success of coalition operations after a dawn air assault on enemy forces in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The general also addressing the fatalities, talking about the Special Forces unit that came into southern Afghanistan, lost one of its soldiers, apparently had fallen out of the Chinook helicopter as it was coming into the hot zone.

Also addressing the 18-hour gunfight, where 7 other U.S. soldiers lost their lives, but addressing the success of a 24 hour -- the last 24 hours, making the point that the U.S. soldiers have killed -- quote -- "lots and lots of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters." The general also pointing out the heroism of the young soldiers that got pinned in that landing zone in southern Afghanistan, talking about the enemy coming as close as 50 meters to U.S. soldiers. However, the U.S. soldiers stayed to the fight, continued to take down dozens of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

We are going to continue to update you on Operation Anaconda as we get more information.




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