Sean Naylor’s book Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (Berkley Publishing Group, 2005) brought to light an operation shrouded in controversy, mismanagement and friendly fire. His latest series of articles on Somalia carry similar weight, and his forthcoming book on Special Operations Command promises to be just as enlightening.
BTW: What is the biggest take-away lesson from Anaconda?
Sean Naylor: There are several lessons to be learned from Operation Anaconda, but arguably the most significant was the lesson that it can be a mistake to believe that overhead technologies – from helicopters to AC-130 gunship optics to spy planes and satellites – can reveal everything that needs to be known about a battlefield. On multiple occasions during Operation Anaconda, these systems were found wanting, with tragic results.
SN: This is a hard question to answer because one rarely sees changes in doctrine or tactics, technique and procedures attributed to the lessons learned from one particular battle. Operation Anaconda is no different in this regard. However, I think the value of human intelligence and having human eyes on a target has been taken to heart, particularly in the special operations community.
Did you know what you were witnessing when this (the wreck) was going on?
SN: I had some sense, but far from a complete picture, in part because the Task Force 11 (Joint Special Operations Command) role was kept hidden even from the handful of embedded journalists.
Does Anaconda accurately reflect the difficulties of operating in Afghanistan?
SN: Well, it was one battle more than eight years ago, so I wouldn’t say that every operation is going to mimic what happened in Anaconda. However, certain challenges will always pertain to similar operations: the difficulty of commanding a brigade-size force composed of multiple task forces from different parts of the military, rather than one complete brigade combat team; the difficulty of fighting with less combat power (artillery and helicopters) than you have trained with; the challenge of fighting in burdensome body armor at 8,500 feet against a lightly equipped enemy.
How was Not a Good Day to Die received by the military?
SN:For the most part, very well. We sold out of the book when I did a book signing at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA; I was invited to talk about the book and Anaconda at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the book was made required reading at the Army’s Command and General Staff College. The chief of naval operations and the Air Force chief of staff also put the book on their recommended reading lists. When I did book signings at installations that were home to some of the units that fought in the battle, such as Fort Campball, KY, the first folks in line were often Anaconda veterans.
What did you learn from writing the book?
SN: Well, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the military and particularly special operations, even though I’d already had almost 12 years experience covering the military at the time of the battle. I also learned that most military personnel want their stories told – not necessarily their individual story, but the story of the actions that their units participated in. I was very impressed with the amount of time so many personnel spent with me in order to allow me to get the story right.
Has access to the info been tough for the Somalia articles? What’s been the biggest hurdle (or hurdles) in reporting the articles?
SN: Yes. U.S. Special Operations Command declined to help, as did the CIA. So the biggest hurdle was just finding sources who could tell me authoritatively what’s been going on.
What’s been the take-away message there? What does this say about operating in the Horn of Africa?
SN: It may be too soon to declare that we know what the “take-away message” is, as clearly operations are still ongoing in the Horn. But equally clearly, it’s obvious that there are challenges to working with local allies – both governmental and non-governmental; that special operations forces provide a vital resource for the United States in this sort of environment; and that the tight working relationship between the military (and especially Joint Special Operations Command) and the CIA facilitates much of what goes right for the United States’ campaign in the Horn.
What made you want to take such a thorough look at ops in Somalia?
SN: I’d heard a few anecdotes from sources about special ops missions in the Horn and I wanted to make sure as a reporter that I was shining a light on some of the missions being conducted away from the two major combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
What pertinence does this info have on the current Somalia situation?
SN: Well, a quick glance at the headlines will tell you that there are still operations being conducted by the United States and its regional allies in Somalia. The challenges that the United States faced in the region in the years immediately following 9/11 for the most part still pertain to operations there today.
What have you learned through your Somalia investigation?
SN: The value – to me – of having trusted sources.
How many more articles in the series?
SN: The sixth and final article in the series will appear in Army Times on Monday Dec. 5 (which is the issue dated Dec. 12). It will also be published on armytimes.com. Then I’ll be on extended leave to write a book for St. Martin’s Press about Joint Special Operations Command its role since 9/11. If anyone has anything they’d like to share on that topic, they can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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