By J. David Galland
After 16 days of a grim and demanding hunt for al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Operation Snipe ended last week - not with a bang, but a whimper. This undertaking by our British brothers-in-arms, the Royal Marines, failed to kill a single al Qaeda fighter.
Still, Operation Snipe was one of the most arduous operations ever undertaken by the British Royal Marines from the 45 Commando Battle Group, based in the fishing town of Arbroath, Scotland. They spent more than two weeks on foot patrolling at altitudes in excess of 11,000 feet with the mission to clear al Qaeda forces out of the Chumara Valley in the mountains south of Kabul.
The area of operations was a mine-scattered no-man's land. It was a maneuver zone where one wrong step can fill the air with mulched body parts, and litter the ground with screaming remnants of men. The operation was one hell of a challenging task and one that Maj. Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck and his 10th Mountain Division soldiers, which apparently did not "do" mountains, had earlier proved themselves incapable of carrying out.
Sustained infantry operations at high altitudes demand the best and the toughest soldiers who are available. The British Marines came in, relieved the exhausted "not-so-mountainous" mountain division troops following Operation Anaconda, and the force of 1,700 Marines moved out smartly.
Two weeks passed devoid of contact with al-Qaeda forces. This led the Brits to conclude that they were pushing and canalizing their prey deeper into their target area. This makes a dangerous enemy force even more of a vicious threat, not unlike compressing a spring that is straining to release. Without question, this is a very dicey infantry maneuver that can go deadly in the absence of stealth, precise coordination, and on-time support.
British Brig. Gen. Roger Lane is a long-time, no nonsense, rugged commando who was the honcho of the pursuing coalition force. When it i ndeed appeared that his Marines had backed their quarry into the Chumara Valley, Lane contacted Hagenbeck, now the commander of coalition forces, requesting the use of American soldiers from the 101st Airmobile Division to serve as a blocking force.
In my estimation, this is exactly what Lane ought to have done: The Brits would push the retreating al-Qaeda right into a kill zone of 101st troopers. And who better to count on than the "Screaming Eagles," one of the most illustrious American fighting units of all time?
However, Lane soon got a jarring response from the American commander that he was not expecting. Hagenbeck turned down Lane's request to use the American soldiers for a blocking force, and refused to send American soldiers to assist the British Marines at all.
Hagenbeck's refusal in all likelihood allowed the Al-Qaeda fighters to escape out the other end of the valley into Pakistan, while the Brits continued through the minefields on foot. My sources tell me that this incident apparently escalated a level of pre-existing acrimony between the two commanders.
One source in the unit said, "Either we got bad intelligence and the enemy were not in the valley, or they just slipped away in the absence of a blocking force.
Why are two senior commanders at odds on the conduct of military operations that are supposed to be working toward a common goal?
It is no secret that the American forces are under pressure from Washington to avoid casualties. America is not prepared to welcome home the weekly toll of three to four hundred young men in aluminum boxes. So, too, the Brits have shown they fear the impact of combat fatalities on public opinion at home.
In any event, a clearer picture of both Operation Anaconda and Operation Snipe is emerging and it does not bode well for the ongoing campaign to root out al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the harsh countryside.
Operation Anaconda in early March resulted in eight U. S. soldiers dead and thirty-two injured. Hagenbeck declared afterwards that hundreds of the enemy had been killed, but a careful post-action analysis revealed this to be grossly inaccurate. The reality of Operation Anaconda was that less than twenty of the enemy had been killed.
It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than Hagenbeck's assertion was a feeble attempt to draw attention away from the shortcomings of his unit, and the lack of success in its massive search-and-destroy mission known as Anaconda. It further appears as though Hagenbeck is vulnerable to accusations that he and his staff cooked the books on the enemy body count. Didn't we learn the harsh lesson of that self-deception from our Vietnam experience?
As we know, a number of defense experts and news media organizations - including DefenseWatch - challenged Hagenbeck's inflated figures shortly after Operation Anaconda ended (see "Our Soldiers Deserve Better Leadership," DefenseWatch, March 20, 2002).
So did Brig. Gen. Lane. On May 6, Lane told reporters that Anaconda was "far from being a military triumph, and it is now clear that Anaconda allowed significant numbers of guerrillas to flee across into Pakistan." It appears that Lane hoped to distance himself from Hagenbeck and his exaggerated claim of battlefield successes. Unfortunately, the rift between two senior allied generals soon came back to haunt Lane, who has been under pressure from London to ensure that British casualties are kept to a minimum. The weight of London's political pressure on Lane has hamstrung the Royal Marines, who have been forced to wait in large bases (much like American tactics in Vietnam) rather than to keep vigilant with permanent tactical positions in the mountains.
A member of the commando unit enunciated the unit's frustration to me. "The Marines want to take an area and dominate it with aggressive patrollin g, ambushes, and proactive operations," he said. "But we have been told, 'We don't want casualties'."
The tensions on the ground reflect indecision in both Washington and London. Both governments appear to be unsure about the next move in the maneuver box against terrorism.
Such inconsistent national leadership and loss of direction comes at a time at which Pentagon sources are reporting a build-up of al-Qaeda forces across the border in Pakistan. Pakistan has been intransigent and has refused to allow "hot-pursuit" of al-Qaeda into their country unless the foreign units were a;ready operating in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. This maneuver restriction preventing pursuit across borders is yet another ghastly reminiscence of the Vietnam quagmire.
Last weekend, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon went on record in support of the British Marines, their mission and their commander. Hoon made it clear that he had the fullest confidence in Lane and said, "He is doing a tremendous job in very difficult conditions and he deserves - and gets - our complete support."
But what a difference a day makes! After senior U.S. military leaders reportedly asserted that "Lane is a man out of his depth and he should be sacked," on Monday, their London counterparts accused Lane of mishandling operations, of losing the confidence of his men, and infuriating British and U.S. officials. They then announced that Lane is being replaced as part of a "normal" rotation schedule.
Let's hope Lane's replacement, Brig. Gen. Jim Dutton, is a little better on his feet when it comes to the "Dance of the Perfumed Princes."
In the end, what we will probably learn from the Hagenbeck-Lane affair that they sacked the wrong general.
J. David Galland, Deputy Editor of DefenseWatch, is a retired veteran of over thirty years of service in military intelligence who resides in Germany.