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How to Measure Operation Anaconda's Results? - 2002-03-20

The biggest U.S. led military ground operation of the war in Afghanistan is over and top defense officials are calling it a resounding success. But what constitutes success from the military's standpoint?

Ask an average person how he or she would define the success of a military operation, they would probably gauge it first and foremost in terms of the number of enemy killed.

But body counts as a measure of success pose a problem for the Pentagon, especially in the wake of Operation Anaconda, the more than two week long engagement in a nearly 200 square kilometer section of mountainous eastern Afghanistan against an estimated force of several hundred al-Qaida and foreign Taleban fighters.

Air Force Brigadier General John Rosa, a spokesman for the military's Joint Staff, said: "We're not counting bodies from up here."

General Rosa was following the lead of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is on record as opposing the practice of body counts. His distaste dates back to the Vietnam era, where enemy casualty statistics proved misleading as field commanders regularly falsified numbers to impress the Pentagon.

"I guess I'm so old I watched the Vietnam War, and the body counting and didn't, never found it impressive," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "I know what I know, and I know what I don't know. And how can I stand up here when I know I don't know how many people were killed? I don't. And I don't think anyone does."

But Pentagon officials are quick to point out the absence of a formal body count does not mean they do believe Operation Anaconda was somehow a failure.

They say the sweep by more than 2,000 U.S., Afghan and other coalition forces through the valleys and over the mountains south of Gardez has effectively denied surviving al-Qaida and Taleban forces use of that remote area with its many caves as a base of operations.

They say coalition forces have captured arms and ammunition. They have also recovered documents of intelligence value and captured some 30 suspected al-Qaida and Taleban who are now being interrogated for information that may help in future operations both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But some Afghan commanders are claiming hundreds of al-Qaida managed to flee the allied offensive despite efforts to cut their avenues of escape.

Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke disputes that notion. "Given the nature of the terrain and the porousness of the border, are ones and two probably melting into the countryside or slipping over the border? Possibly, but we have not seen significant numbers," she said. "We have certainly not seen those sorts of [large] numbers fleeing."

Afghan commanders are also disputing the contention of U.S. field officers that hundreds of al-Qaida and Taleban were believed killed in Operation Anaconda, an estimate based on pre-bombing attack aerial surveillance as well as gun-camera film.

Journalists who toured the battlefield have also questioned the estimated high death toll, reporting they only saw a few bodies.

But again, the Pentagon is defending the estimates of high enemy casualties, even though they concede there may be little hard evidence.

Defense officials say many dead may be bottled up inside caves bombed by coalition aircraft. They say others may have been quickly buried in unmarked graves by their al-Qaida and Taleban comrades.

But they also point to the devastating impact of U.S. high explosives. One Pentagon spokesman says if a bomb containing more than 200 kilograms of explosives is dropped on a group of 30 to 40 al-Qaida, few human remains are left. This official notes when suicide terrorist hijackers crashed a commandeered jetliner into the Pentagon, of the more than 180 people killed, only a little over half of their bodies were ever recovered.