When the Goldfish meets the Anaconda: A Modern Fable on Unconventional Leadership

By: Colonel Imre Porkoláb

I have wondered many times whether external reality exists independently from how the observer sees it. What, in other words, is reality? A few years ago, in the Italian town of Monza, keeping a goldfish in a bowl was banned. The explanation was that it was cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides, because the fish would have only a distorted view of reality. But how do we know that we have a true, undistorted view of reality? Might not we ourselves be inside some kind of big goldfish bowl, so that our vision is distorted by an enormous lens? Even looking through a curved bowl, the goldfish would still be able to formulate scientific laws based on its own observations, and these might even enable it to make predictions about the future of the objects outside the bowl. Like the goldfish, many of the military leaders who participated in Operation Anaconda had a distorted view of reality.

Gathering information about Operation Anaconda, which took place in March 2002 and was the first major battle of the Afghanistan war after Tora Bora, is not hard by any means. The internet is full of firsthand accounts of what had happened and the lessons ostensibly learned from the operation. Rather than offer any judgmental assessments of anyone in particular, my intent in this article is to map out the dynamics of the many decision-making layers during a complex military operation, using Anaconda as a case study.

Some important lessons have yet to be learned from this epic battle in Afghanistan. In this article, I contend that a different kind of leadership development is needed if we want to prepare our leaders for future conflicts, especially asymmetric ones. Certain situations require different approaches, and an unconventional leadership style is best suited for asymmetric conflicts. I also maintain that the key to success on a battlefield, especially in an asymmetric environment like Afghanistan in 2002, has very little to do with the electronic gadgetry and technology of modern warfare, and much more to do with the mind-set of leaders and the decisions they make, as well as how the subordinates execute these decisions.

The Participants

In early January 2002, there were about 50 U.S. personnel living in and operating out of a safe house in the city of Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan. It was an interesting gathering: without any official documents or directive to guide them, this group managed to reorganize the U.S. force structure occupying outposts in the frontier areas all across Afghanistan.1 The people involved in these early days were members of Advanced Force Operations (AFO), which was a highly unusual concept organization in itself.2 AFO is a term used by the U.S. Department of Defense to describe a task force made up of SOF personnel whose job is to precede the main force into the area of operations and carry out whatever preparation work is needed. This may include, among other things, reconnaissance and surveillance, reception, staging, onward movement, integration of forces, terminal guidance, and, possibly, direct action. In Afghanistan, Special Forces and the CIA seemed to be sharing information and cooperating with each other in an unprecedented manner. The AFO and Special Forces tactical operations centers (TOCs) were also colocated in Gardez;3 they all seemed to agree that sharing a common operating picture would help everyone in the fight. It was understood by this group that for Operation Anaconda, the CIA and AFO were essentially working as one organization.4

At the beginning of the operation, teams were gathering intelligence in order to develop the situation, including all the open-source information that was available to them.5 Soon they identified a potential target, Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose greatest battlefield victories had occurred near a high valley called Shah-i-Khot.6 This place was little known to the Americans, but they read some declassified reporting on the battle of Shah-i-Khot, together with reports on lessons learned. Based on open-source intelligence, they learned that Haqqani was hiding in the mountains above the valley with a considerable number of al Qaeda fighters, and was preparing to fight an asymmetric guerrilla war against the U.S. forces.

As their training directed, the Special Forces personnel had established ties with the local tribal leaders, but intelligence was still scarce and the teams decided to spread across the frontier and further develop their network. Local knowledge, as always, seemed to be invaluable, and they were soon convinced that Shah-i-Khot was where the enemy was hiding. At this time, the difficulty was to confirm the enemy's presence without being detected, and thus prepare the ground for a larger operation. The AFO commander, whose team would carry out this task, was strongly against using helicopters because they would make it impossible to do a sub-rosa infiltration; more importantly, he was looking for creative options to obtain the necessary information. For what looked like an impossible reconnaissance mission, he needed more specially trained men on very short notice. Getting permission from the commander was not easy, however, and this reveals some aspects of the C2 relationships during the entire operation.

AFO at that time was reporting to Task Force 11. AFO was only a small part of TF 11, whose main body at that time was located at Bagram Air Base.7 The deputy commanding general in charge of TF 11 at the time, an Air Force brigadier, was an exceptionally experienced special operations pilot, but not an exceptionally experienced special operations ground commander.8 He must have been a good bureaucrat, though, because he believed that an accomplished leader can effectively lead just about any type of organization.9 To assist him, he had a staff of more than 100 personnel in Bagram and a massive TOC a thousand miles away in the Persian Gulf.10 From the very beginning, the AFO commander seemed to be constantly at odds with the TF 11 deputy commander over the best way to proceed with operations against the Taliban, with the latter favoring a mass attack with Rangers and air assault troops, and the AFO leader favoring precision assaults with Tier 1 AFO teams.

Conventional wisdom says that any organization that exceeds 100 personnel is by nature a bureaucratic one. The TOC was such an organization, run by standard armed forces protocol, with access to sophisticated technology and SEALs and the Rangers. As Sean Naylor described it in his book about Operation Anaconda, some internal friction was also present in the command.11 The TF 11 commander's12 concept of operations was to keep the direct action force based at Bagram intact, waiting for intelligence on high-value targets; once a location was pinpointed, the "door-kickers" would launch a raid to kill or capture the target.13 Some staff personnel, in contrast, thought that dividing the main force and pushing units out to safe houses in the vicinity, where the action was most likely to happen, would bring about greater mission effectiveness. The flight time from Bagram was too long to take advantage of time-sensitive targets, so it seems it would have been wise to do at least some forward deployment.

The most important task the AFO leader had on hand was to get the best people specifically suited for the particular mission he faced. To get command approval, he flew to Bagram for a video-teleconference with the deputy commander, who was located in Masirah, and the commanding general, who was in his office in North Carolina and frankly doubted the presence of a large pocket of al Qaeda fighters in the Shah-i-Khot Valley.14 From an operational perspective, this information just did not make sense to the general, but it seems that there was a personal component to the disagreement as well.15 "Their personalities are oil and water—they don't mix," said a JSOC officer who knew both men.16 The AFO leader, who had a record of standing by and representing his men during missions, obviously already had a reputation for independent thinking, and this time around, he was again in close coordination with the CIA and just about every other force in the area. It seems that the independent role the AFO had been awarded greatly troubled some of the higher leadership, including the TF 11 commander. Nevertheless, the JSOC commander agreed to provide two thirds of the additional personnel the AFO leader had asked for. The AFO could carry on being innovative, adaptive, and audacious.

The new reconnaissance specialists arrived within 48 hours of the AFO's request, all of them with recent operational experience in Afghanistan. Their main tasks were to find the enemy and to recon routes to the general area of the Shah-i-Khot Valley. They decided to test ground routes of infiltration and do environmental reconnaissance for testing the perimeter of the valley, without actually entering it. The teams approached the mission with an open mind, experimented with different options, and came up with their own ideas. The AFO leader didn't tell them how to do their jobs but instead provided a conducive environment for them to work in. The AFO leader also wanted to gain time to develop the situation.17 Within a week, he had a fairly good idea of the ground around the valley. The AFO had learned how to navigate the terrain, and the extremely harsh weather was also in their favor.

By mid-February, the 10th Mountain Division assumed the lead for planning an operation into the valley, named Operation Anaconda. To better exercise command and control of the operation, 10th Mountain headquarters moved down from Uzbekistan to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. This move, accomplished between 13–20 February 2002, disrupted planning. The general in charge of the 10th Mountain Division commanded three battalions of U.S. conventional infantry, and also assumed operational command of all American forces in Afghanistan, with just one exception: TF 11. This meant that the AFO had no official C2 link to the 10th Mountain Division command. massive databases to ensure mission effectiveness for the main body—the Moreover, these new command relationships drastically changed the way the locally established military forces were expected to operate. After operating for the previous five months as a geographically dispersed, SOF-centric force with decentralized planning for most ground operations at the JSOTF level, they were now told to work as a geographically concentrated, large conventional ground force, on operations that required detailed functional component planning. These major operational changes had to be accomplished within a relatively brief period, which meant the forces did not have much time to adjust from their accustomed conduct to the way that Operation Anaconda would be executed.

In spite of this, the AFO commander immediately sent a liaison up to the 10th Mountain TOC. This move made a lot of sense, since by that time it was apparent that the AFO personnel had been developing the situation for the 10th Mountain Division's assault. The AFO leader made sure that all missioncritical information was shared with the division command.

The Plan

Operation Anaconda officially started with a meeting at a Special Forces safe house in Kabul, where all participating unit leaders came together to pool their knowledge and ideas, and ensure a shared vision of the operation.18 At this meeting, the 101st Airborne Infantry representative (part of the 10th Mountain planning group) argued that the key to the success of the operation was an air assault by helicopters. This was no surprise, given that in the mid- 1960s, the 101st pioneered the air assault concept, at the time a revolutionary military tactic. The air-mobile infantry training and the logic of the infantry major was flawless—this was his professional reality. The Special Forces leaders in the room, however, were strongly against the concept, especially the AFO leader, who knew firsthand about the terrain and had studied the enemy in depth. He assumed that the enemy also expected an air assault and was likely prepared to counter it. The AFO leader wanted more time to prove his point, but the military decision-making process took over and the planning continued based on partial information.

From a military perspective, it must have been very weird to see the Special Forces operators dressed in their scarves and chitlari hats, with long, unkempt beards and hair. Their appearance made a lot of sense in the frontier areas, but was very unorthodox in Bagram. In spite of the early difficulties, the AFO personnel developed a solid relationship with the 10th Mountain Division staff, based on mutual respect. They both understood that they needed to work closely together if they were going to fight this battle side by side in the Shah-i-Khot Valley. Word of this relationship got back to the TF 11 commanding general, however, and it made him furious.19 The AFO leader was told by a staff officer at TF 11 that he might be relieved of command of AFO, and this information understandably unsettled him.20 Nevertheless, because of his commitment to the mission and his men, he decided not to change policy and carried on cooperating with the 10th Mountain Division command. As a result, AFO personnel were sent in to be the eyes and ears of the assault force during the operation.21

On 27 February 2002, three teams of AFO began infiltrating the area, with three objectives: to occupy strategic positions on the tops of the mountains, to confirm the presence of the enemy, and to check that the helicopter landing zones (LZs) were clear for the 10th Mountain Division to land and destroy the enemy (mainly with smart bombs launched from aircraft overhead). The operational commander was planning to carry out a hammer-and-anvil maneuver, with the Special Forces in Gardez (together with local Afghan forces) as the hammer and the 10th Mountain as the anvil, flying in their CH-47s to land in the eastern part of the valley and destroy the fleeing enemy. 10th Mountain command's plan was based on three key assumptions. The first assumption was that the enemy forces in the Shah-i-Khot Valley consisted of only several hundred personnel. The second was that enemy forces might be warned of the coming attack by the local population, or even by agents within the friendly Afghan forces, so full details of the operation were not shared with the participating Afghan units. Finally, the 10th Mountain plan was designed around the assumption that the enemy would flee the area through the mountain passes ahead of the friendly Afghan troops, where U.S. and coalition forces would be waiting to catch them. Based on previous experience, the 10th Mountain commander and his staff were more worried that the enemy forces would escape, as they had repeatedly done, than they were about encountering stiff enemy resistance.22 Both presumptions, about enemy strength and likely course of action, later proved to be incorrect, while the withholding of information from the Afghan forces caused disruptions during the operation.

To achieve tactical surprise, the 10th Mountain commander insisted that the pre-infiltration airstrikes begin as late as possible. There was also concern that heavy strikes on caves would destroy documents that could otherwise be exploited to facilitate the capture of other terrorists. For both of these reasons, the 10th Mountain planners decided on a compromise plan that called for fewer than 20 targets to be hit, beginning about 30 minutes before the helicopters landed.

The plan did not make a lot of sense to the Special Forces personnel. It was too complex, and it relied too much on the use of helicopters, which were highly vulnerable in this type of terrain, something that had become clear during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 20 years previous. It was apparent at the launch of the mission that all participants—AFO, Special Forces, and 10th Mountain Division—had quite a lot of concerns regarding the plan. Then, as Operation Anaconda unfolded, they all seemed to focus narrowly on their own roles, even as the plan itself unraveled.

Operation Anaconda

The majority of the AFO teams successfully infiltrated on the night of 28 February 2002, but one team in particular made little progress. This team finally encountered an enemy position on the very location where it was supposed to set up an observation post (OP), so its members decided to take out the enemy before they moved onto location. Only later was it learned that none of the satellites or spy planes that scoped the area had detected any enemy activity or weapons in the mountains around Shah-i-Khot.23 This technological "all clear" further convinced the high-level leadership that it was unnecessary to risk AFO personnel in long-range infiltrations through the hazardous terrain, by reaffirming their initial assumption that there was very little enemy presence in the valley and the surrounding mountains. The infiltration teams sent situation reports that directly contradicted this information, so the situation became a classic "technology or boots-on-the-ground" debate. As it turned out, the enemy had done their homework, and their use of low-level camouflage techniques had paid off by deceiving the high-tech equipment.

By this time, the tension between AFO and TF 11 had intensified. The AFO team's decision to take out the enemy on the OP site was not supported by TF 11 command, which insisted that the team was not an assault team but reconnaissance only.24 The two commands' concept of C2 and leadership was also different. The AFO leader firmly believed that commanding a mission like this required a delicate balance between asking and telling, so he was relying mainly on his team (the boots on the ground) to recommend a course of action, and frequently asking the question, "What is your recommendation?"25 It is clear that for AFO, the main purpose of C2 was to share a reality, while for TF 11, it was to pass down orders. The AFO teams also sent pictures through the AFO leader up to TF 11, proving that the enemy had anti-aircraft capability and was dug into the mountain ready to fight, instead of fleeing towards the anvil that was waiting in the valley.26

The convoy of Special Forces personnel and their Afghan partners also fell behind schedule. For the Afghans, this convoy was yet another strange organization superimposed by Western military tactics. They were used to scattering around on the mountainside, not attacking in a strict formation. Convoy movement was also a tactic very rarely practiced by the Afghans, and there were vehicle rollovers along the bad roads that further demoralized the Afghan personnel. To make matters worse, the convoy fell victim to a friendly fire incident involving an AC-130, in which four U.S. and Afghan vehicles were destroyed.27 Many of the Afghans fled afterward, and the hammer was falling apart before it was even in place.

D-Day for Anaconda was originally set for 28 February. Due to bad weather, the 10th Mountain commander postponed the start to 2 March. Based on what they saw from the ground, the AFO teams at this point were indicating that the area was not suitable for helicopters to land. This information encountered a lot of resistance in the 10th Mountain Division command, whose staff officers had been putting the plan together for days and were very reluctant to alter it. Again, the military planning process proved inflexible, and once the ball started rolling, it was almost impossible to make adaptive changes, no matter what the operator on the ground was telling headquarters.

Before dawn on 2 March, F-15Es, B-1s, and B-52s began dropping JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions—smart bombs), conventional and thermobaric bombs on the small number of approved targets. Following the bombing raid, U.S. helicopters entered the valley. When the first wave of helicopters started touching down on the valley floor, they came under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. Several soldiers were wounded instantly, and the anvil itself was getting hammered. At this point, the 10th Mountain Division commander decided to call off the second wave of helicopters and immediately started to focus on evacuating the wounded and moving troops out of the killing zone.

This dire situation was nonetheless an opportunity for the AFO. The enemy was engaged and therefore susceptible to targeting, a development the AFO operators used to their advantage by directing the fire of the supporting aircraft towards the enemy positions and causing serious damage among the insurgent fighters. The three AFO teams were engaged in a continuous cycle of describing targets, vectoring attack aircraft, and destroying the enemy. The exposed 10th Mountain troops were the unintentional bait that made it possible to detect and destroy the enemy outposts and formations.28

On the second day of the operation, the three American forces involved in Anaconda were dealing with three very different realities regarding the situation in the Shah-i-Khot Valley. The Special Forces and the Afghans were still stuck outside of the valley, frustrated with not being able to get in. The 10th Mountain Division forces were inside the valley being overwhelmed by enemy fire, while the 101st commander was telling the 10th Mountain Division commander to pull out immediately. The three AFO teams had the best situational awareness thanks to their bird's-eye view of the valley, and were pounding the enemy with the help of the Air Force.

The AFO leader, having eavesdropped on the conversation between the 101st commander and the operational commander, called the 10th Mountain Division commander to give his situational assessment. To the AFO commander, it was clear that the leaders' decisions high up the food chain were based on a false reality.29 The commanders were not fully aware of the situation on the ground, and their reality was based on the filtered information that came through PowerPoint staff briefs and Predator feeds. Remarkably, the general, after a brief discussion with his key staff, changed his mind based on this new information!30 He seems to have pushed aside his ego and, in a moment of total chaos, made the decision not to pull out but to carry on with the mission as it was planned. This decision forced the pinned-down 10th Mountain soldiers to innovate and adapt to the situation as well. At the same time, the AFO leader decided to move forward with the Special Forces and the Afghans, who had been gathered by then, to make another attempt at entering the Shahi- Khot Valley. The eventual reinsertion of the 400 Afghan fighters enabled the Americans to seal the valley.

To make the situation even more complex, on the evening of 3 March, the AFO commander received notice from the commander of TF 11 that two SEAL teams were to be inserted into the Shahi-Khot Valley on very short notice.31 The AFO leader objected to the order, replying that inserting anyone without sufficient preparation and rehearsal would result in failure. He was not heeded.

The two SEAL teams, Mako 30 and Mako 21, planned to establish an OP at either end of the valley. One team would move to the peak of Takur Ghar, which commanded the southern approach to the Shahi-Khot Valley. Due to time constraints, a helicopter insertion would be needed for the teams to reach the peak before dawn. The SEAL team commander requested authorization to shift the insertion by 24 hours, to the next evening, but was directed that insertion was critical to SOF providing support to the operation.32

Before the insertion, an AC-130 scanned the mountain for the helicopter LZ through its infrared sensors and radar. These sensors enable the gunship crew to make a visual or electronic identification in almost any conditions, but the individuals operating the equipment on this particular night did not know the operational context for their search, or what specifically they were looking for, so they pronounced the mountain secure.33 Even though the overhead imagery showed no signs of life on the peak of Takur Ghar, the commander of SEAL team Mako 30 gave the team final guidance, per SOP, that if any signs were seen, the mission would be aborted. Mako 30 was picked up by an MH-47 Chinook helicopter, at 23:23 on 3 March. Originally, an insertion point 1,300 meters (1,400 yards) east of the peak was identified. However, the Chinook experienced engine difficulties, and another MH-47 was dispatched to replace it. This delay meant that the SEALs could not be inserted into the LZ east of the peak until 02:30 on 4 March, which did not allow them enough time to reach the peak before daylight. Because of these unforeseen developments, the SEALs of Mako 30 were forced to land on the peak itself.

At approximately 03:00, the Chinook attempted to land atop the mountain. As they approached, the pilots and SEALs observed tracks in the snow and other signs of recent human activity. As they discussed a possible mission abort, two RPGs slammed into the helicopter, shutting down one of its engines, the electric system, and the hydraulic systems, and causing one team member to fall out of the open ramp. The disabled helicopter was forced to crash-land in the valley below, approximately four miles away. AFO teams from their OP could see the incident, and sent out a stream of reporting as events unfolded. A Predator drone was also flying overhead, sending indistinct images back to the commanders in Bagram and Masirah.34

The situation was very similar to what happened when the 10th Mountain Division's first wave of assault began. Every piece of the puzzle presented its own version of reality to those monitoring the situation. In the TOCs at Bagram and Masirah, the commanders were watching the Predator feed, which was a blurry image streamed by an aircraft flying at an altitude of nearly 6,000 meters (17,000 feet) with a narrow field of view.35 The AFO leader was listening to the traffic on his radio net, while the SEAL and 10th Mountain personnel in the valley were seeing each other on the ground. Together they had the full picture, but this picture was not shared among them, so each group focused on the piece it saw. They all had different vested interests in the situation as well. The SEALs were of course dedicated to rescuing their teammate who had fallen from the chopper.

The Ranger Quick Reaction Force (QRF) located at Bagram Air Base was called in to help search for the fallen SEAL, who was now alone on the mountaintop. Meanwhile, Mako 30 regrouped and was ferried by nearby units to a CH-47 to go back to Takur Ghar and find their fallen comrade. The AC-130 that had earlier scanned the LZ was then directed to attack the large groupings of enemy combatants currently exposed on top of the mountain, one to three minutes before the Mako 30 was scheduled to arrive.

To make a difficult situation worse, at this point someone at the Masirah headquarters 1,100 miles away decided to switch to a new radio frequency, and began directing all the forces and aircraft involved in the rescue of the fallen SEAL atop Takur Ghar.36 Although the change may have been meant to enhance direct control of the rescue operation, it had the critical effect of severely limiting communications between the different teams participating in the battle. The AC-130 commander continued to use the sat-com channel to communicate, not knowing that he had been switched over from command headquarters to a TF 11 staff officer, and this again created a lot of confusion.37 As the CH-47 with the SEALs onboard neared its destination, the AC-130 radioed on the new satellite frequency for confirmation to fire on the enemy surrounding the fallen SEAL. The crew were unable to get a clear answer from the officer they reached, and also were unable to connect with the AFO teams. As a result, the AC-130 crew never received permission to fire on the mountaintop. The CH-47 nevertheless successfully landed the team on the ground amidst heavy machine gun and rocket fire. The Mako 30 team charged the enemy position, but had no radio contact with the AC-130 to call for support.

Finally they were able to establish communications via a line-of-sight radio that the AFO had positioned on Takur Ghar, taking advantage of the AFO's knowledge of enemy movements in real time. Air Force rules, however, prohibited AC-130 aircraft from remaining in hostile airspace in daylight (after the crash of an AC-130 in Khafji in the Gulf War), so the AC-130 support protecting Mako 30 was forced to leave before the Ranger team onboard Razor 01 reached the LZ.

At 03:45, TF 11 alerted the Ranger QRF, but the two QRF Chinooks were not equipped with functioning satellite radios to maintain communication with the HQ in Bagram or, even more critically, with the AFO team leader. The pilot of Razor 01 was not told about the enemy's anti-aircraft location on top of the mountain, nor did the Rangers have any idea what their specific mission was.38 The QRF was to establish communication for further instructions when Razor 02 reached Gardez, 10 minutes from the mountain. As events unfolded, the Ranger QRF flew into the same enemy trap that the SEALs had flown into, because no one had been able to communicate the reality of the situation. At approximately 06:10, the Chinook approached the landing zone. The aircraft immediately began taking fire, and the right door mini-gunner was killed. An RPG then hit the helicopter, destroying the right engine and forcing it to crash-land.

After landing on the unsecured mountaintop, the rescue mission itself turned into a near disaster. As the Rangers and special tactics team members left the aircraft, three were immediately killed. The survivors took cover as a fierce firefight began. The Rangers fought a desperate battle for hours, until one of the AFO teams was able to help them by relaying enemy positions over the radio, while simultaneously providing targeting guidance to the attack aircraft flying above.39 In the meantime, Razor 02, which had been diverted to Gardez, returned at 06:25 with the rest of the Ranger QRF and the SEAL team leader. With the help of the new arrivals and close air support, the force was eventually able to consolidate its position on the peak. It continued with the rescue mission, and at around 20:00, the QRF and Mako 30 were finally exfiltrated from Takur Ghar peak.40 Because they had remained undetected in an observation post throughout the firefight, the AFO were able to provide critical support by coordinating multiple coalition air strikes to prevent the enemy fighters from overrunning the downed aircraft, to devastating effect. In the meantime, the attempt to reinsert the Afghan forces into the valley finally had its effect by pushing the enemy fighters out of their positions, while the AFO teams continued targeting the enemy formations. This was a turning point in the battle.

Ultimately, the battle for the Shah-i-Khot Valley lasted for almost two weeks, but in the end, the steady flow of U.S. and coalition reinforcements into the fight finally broke enemy resistance. On 16 March, the 10th Mountain commander declared the end of Operation Anaconda. By that time, coalition forces were firmly in control of the entire Shah-i-Khot Valley and the surrounding area. Reporting on the casualty rate is inconsistent to say the least, but it is estimated that the U.S. forces suffered 80 casualties in the operation, with 8 killed and 72 wounded. Several Afghan soldiers died in the fighting as well. Estimates of al Qaeda and Taliban casualties range from 100 to 500, with U.S. commanders favoring the higher estimates and Afghan commanders citing the lower ones. An unknown number of enemy fighters were able to escape the Shah-i-Khot Valley into Pakistan.

Unconventional Leadership

This case study exemplifies the very distinctive and complex leadership requirements and characters that arise in irregular warfare. The AFO leader, the TF 11 TOC, and the 10th Mountain subordinate units and their commander were working on the same mission, but as this article shows, they did not work from a shared reality. This is partly because of the clashes between the different cultures of the Services (Army, Air Force, and Special Forces), but mainly because there was a gap in leadership education. Some Services might do better than others in this field, but there is room for improvement everywhere. Closing this gap should include education for leaders at all levels in how to deal with the highly complex and uncertain situations of irregular warfare. This is a different kind of leadership: unconventional leadership.

As Ronald Heifetz observed, "[O]ur language fails us in many aspects of our lives, entrapping us in a set of cultural assumptions."41 Leadership in an asymmetric conflict has to be very different from what we typically have been trained to do as military personnel. Conventional wisdom says that military units are most likely to succeed in the field when they follow strict C2 procedures. Operation Anaconda showed in several instances, however, that following conventional wisdom created confusion on an unconventional battlefield, and arguably cost the lives of brave warriors. Western industrialized militaries are organized and trained to operate through a top-down, rigid hierarchy, and they tend to stick to this familiar system despite changing circumstances. In an asymmetric conflict, this is the same as settling into our personal comfort zone, not wanting to venture out into new territory. Before digging deeper into the realm of unconventional leadership in an asymmetric environment, let us consider the comfort zone model (see Figure 1, next page).

Your comfort zone is the area of your life where you feel relaxed and at ease, because your current skill set allows you to easily navigate within that area. For instance, you may be very comfortable with your daily schedule, but you want to increase your energy and become more fit. Taking up some form of regular exercise initially moves you out of your current comfort zone and causes a little distress, but it helps you reach your goal of being fitter, and gradually becomes part of your familiar routine.

Now, imagine a problem materializing in your life for which you do not have a solution or skill set. This problem could potentially pull you out of your mental comfort zone if you make the decision to face it. It could even create some anxiety in you—in fact, your anxiety and stress levels will rise proportionally the further you go from your area of familiarity. In this case, you are in what is called the learning zone, and if you tackle your problem, something interesting happens: your comfort zone expands, because by learning a new way of solving the problem or acquiring a new skill, you have expanded your universe.

The best way to grow your comfort zone is to stay within the learning zone or at the edge between the learning and panic zones. The panic zone is where your current skill set is nowhere near the level that is needed, or the difficulty you are facing is utterly different from those you have encountered before. You can go into the panic zone, and it can potentially create rapid growth and vastly accelerate your learning, but it's also likely that you will see this as a negative experience. It all depends on how well you can handle these situations. In general, going into the learning zone is the right approach, and only the very adventurous should deliberately cross into the zone of panic.

There is a zone beyond the panic zone, often called the zone of failure. If you reach too far outside of your skills and knowledge, you set yourself and your organization up for failure. Although we can certainly learn from mistakes, operating in the failure zone, especially for the military, will not bring about accelerated learning and is likely to cost the lives of our men and women.


Leaving your comfort zone feels, naturally, uncomfortable. But this is a good thing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to go through the discomfort in order to get to the level you want to be on. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that being outside the comfort zone raises one's level of happiness, as long as one doesn't get into the red panic zone. Adaptation and expansion can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience, one that our military leaders not only have to practice regularly, but have to learn to incorporate into their everyday lives.

Our military training is based on following orders, but as recent research suggests, there is a clear distinction between leadership and authority. As the Anaconda study showed, especially in the case of the AFO leader, on the one hand, people without formal authority can practice leadership on any given issue at any given time. On the other hand, we have all seen cases in our lives when people had formal authority, and thus a following per se, but they did not lead. The most interesting leadership operates without anyone feeling as though they are following.42 This form of leadership is often observed in the zones of challenge and panic. I call this phenomenon unconventional leadership.

What is interesting is that genuine unconventional leaders can mobilize even those who are opposed to action, or who are just fence-sitting. This is an essential skill in an asymmetric conflict, where mobilizing the fence-sitting portion of the population is the ultimate goal if we want to achieve strategic victory. In the Anaconda case, the AFO leader was not only able to mobilize the local tribal leaders, but he managed to navigate his way through bureaucratic channels as well, and changed the mind of the 10th Mountain Division commander about aborting the mission at a very decisive moment of the battle. He cultivated close ties with the 10th Mountain Division command although officially discouraged from doing so, a bit of insubordination that paid off at a vital moment. Through constantly sharing the reality of the battle from his perspective, he managed to mobilize the leadership by raising their awareness of the operation's complexities, which demanded trade-offs throughout the battle.

One of the major questions that arises when we try to conceptualize unconventional leadership is, Where does it takes place and how can we anchor more "following" in the process?

Leadership, as in the zone of comfort model, emerges in the context of problems and complex challenges. In fact, leadership isn't much of a consideration when everyone is playing from the same sheet of music and all we need to do is keep the beat while coordinating routine activities. Good leaders step up when a tough or complex problem arises, and are willing to tackle it by moving themselves and their followers directly into the zone of learning. Some especially skilled leaders also dare to step into the zone of panic when they realize that operating under the current structures and processes is no longer sufficient. Unconventional leadership in most cases results in organizational or procedural changes, and most importantly, influences the thinking of people within the organization. (See Figure 2.)


Complex problems are also multilayered, and can be divided into three distinct categories: technical, adaptive, and critical.43

Technical problems fall within the range of our current problem-solving expertise, but stand out as unusual nevertheless. In our case study, dealing with helicopters in an austere environment can be a technical challenge. To solve it, what we need to do is to apply the right kind of expertise to the problem in order to get a solution.

Adaptive problems require new perspectives, expertise, and solutions. This type of problem is the real innovator's challenge, because first we need to diagnose the problem, develop an understanding of it, and then create a new set of tools to solve it. An adaptive problem often creates a lot of friction within organizations. In the Anaconda case study, setting up and operating an AFO organization was an adaptive challenge in itself.

Critical problems require new ways of working as well, but these problems are by definition less controlled or predictable. In such cases, the intensity of the situation demands immediate action. The first suggestion often is to slow down ("take a deep breath"), share perspectives, and then focus the team's actions toward the solution. In critical problems, the stakes are also very high, and this puts a lot of stress on leaders.

Many of the complex problems military leaders face in an asymmetric environment are in either the adaptive or critical categories. These complex problems require people to operate in the zone of learning, and even the zone of panic, in terms of our comfort zone model. Adaptive and critical problems can also be conceptualized as a gap between our aspirations and the reality, which demands a response outside of our current thinking or skill sets. The main difference between a technical and an adaptive/critical problem is whether that gap can be closed through applying existing know-how. The main difference between an adaptive and a critical problem, by contrast, is the size of the time window available to sort out the situation.

Adaptive and critical problems also demand learning, as we have seen throughout the case study: the AFO leader was constantly developing his understanding of the situation, and led by listening to his men on the ground. It is also important to understand that the learning process reaches far beyond just collecting information. We need to apply those lessons that we gathered in the past to the present situation, if we claim to have actually learned anything. This constitutes a critical difference within organizations between lessons identified and lessons learned. Referring to our comfort zone model, we can close the gap between our aspirations and the reality only if we learn new ways of thinking and doing, and are able to constantly adapt. This in turn requires a new approach in leadership education.

Another interesting factor that can be observed from Operation Anaconda is the people-centric approach of the AFO leader. He was fully aware that in a highly complex situation, when facing a critical dilemma, the people "with a problem" are the problem, but they can be part of a solution as well. Adaptive and critical problems often require a shift in responsibility from the shoulders of the authority figures and the authority structure to the stakeholders themselves.44 In contrast with technical obstacles, which experts can solve for us, overcoming critical situations requires a different level of responsibility and leadership. This is where unconventional leadership can thrive. The case study shows that responsibility must not only be shared but owned among all the stakeholders. If we are looking for authority figures in this kind of situation, it means that we are treating critical problems as if they were technical ones, and approaching them with a conventional leadership style. In most cases this mindset can be highly damaging. We will be better off if we develop the situation by relying on the key stakeholders.

It is also essential that we do frequent reality checks while we are developing the situation. As can be seen from the comfort zone model, there is a fine, usually indistinct, line that separates the zone of panic from the zone of failure. Crossing this line means that we are setting ourselves and our organizations up for possible disaster when lives are at stake. If we do not do constant reality checks, we not only risk losing an understanding of the reality on the ground, but may also set our aspirations so high that we eventually can't help but fail. This kind of reality check was much needed during Operation Anaconda, when the Ranger team was inserted by helicopter despite the previous failed attempts to send helicopters into the fight.

Finally, we have to consider the time factor, as it is likely to be one of the most critical parts of the military decision-making process. As was mentioned before, adaptive problems require significantly more time for people to learn and develop innovative solutions than do technical problems. Critical problems are even worse from the perspective of time, because they do not have any ready solutions and also offer little time to find one. Organizations in particular generally need time to learn the necessary lessons, and to make cultural changes in order to adapt.

Adaptation in an asymmetric environment is the only way forward for both individuals and organizations, and those who fail to adapt quickly become extinct. This whole process naturally generates resistance from the different organizational cultures involved, and even avoidance on the part of those who do not have an immediate stake in the problem. Diverting one's attention is one type of problem avoidance, and with today's access to overwhelming amounts of information, it is too easy to forget about something even when we consider it to be important. This is why case studies like Operation Anaconda are useful, because they can remind us to not repeat the mistakes we have made in the past.

Final Thoughts

A famous example of a model based on a distorted perception of reality, like that goldfish looking out from its glass bowl, is the Ptolemaic system of astronomy. For centuries after Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90–c. 168 CE) postulated his astronomical model, people believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe and that the planets moved around it in complicated orbits. The Ptolemaic system was adopted by the Catholic Church and held as doctrine for more than 1,400 years. It was not until 1543 that an alternative, sun-centric model was put forward by Nicolaus Copernicus.

Today we believe we know better. Many people would dismiss the question if asked which, the Copernican or the Ptolemaic model, was correct. But one could also say that both of them were right, in a way, just as our goldfish is right in its acceptance of what those outside the bowl know to be a distorted reality. The only difference between the two models is that Copernicus had access to more advanced technology with which to observe and interpret the same reality.

Hierarchical decision-making implies that the leader at every level of the pyramid is the person in charge of deciding and directing everything below him. By default, in this model, the highest ranking individual is assumed always to have the deepest understanding of the problem and the best solutions. This structure is very deeply entrenched in the military, but it is unsuitable for highly complex asymmetric situations, especially when we are facing adaptive and critical problems that are changing minute by minute.

In an asymmetric environment, the guy on the ground must be entitled to make recommendations, based on a recent reality check and a shared understanding of the situation, regardless of how he will look in the eyes of his commander. When leaders up the chain regard themselves as all-knowing and infallible, the cultural pressure to give "the answer" increases the likelihood of making mistakes. One way to avoid this is to not give that answer, but instead question the guy on the ground and, with an open and adaptive mind, listen closely to his recommendations. This approach would by no means abuse the current decision-making system but rather enhance it by encouraging personnel to adapt to new security dilemmas and new ways of warfare. The concept of adaptation arises from scientific efforts to understand biological evolution; the changes needed in the way military leaders think of asymmetric conflict require a completely different mind-set—the organizational equivalent of biological thriving.45

In these situations, unconventional leadership must be the norm, just as the conventional leadership model has been the norm for several hundred years in bureaucratic military organizations, up through the Cold War. This new breed of people, who have the skill to lead in unconventional ways and the knowledge to differentiate technical problems from adaptive/critical ones, must be protected so they can fruifully share their knowledge with others and gain even more experience practicing unconventional leadership in asymmetric environments. This evolutionary model can be a cornerstone of new SOF education as well, which will enable Special Forces personnel all over the world to maintain the cutting edge in asymmetric conflict.

About the Author(s): COL Imre Porkoláb is presently serving as the Hungarian national liaison representative at NATO Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia.


1. Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men and Me: Lessons From a Former Delta Force Commander (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2008), 223.

2. According to Gen. Michael Repass, who conducted AFO in the Iraq War and was very familiar with its use in Afghanistan, "AFO consists of U.S. Secretary of Defense-approved military operations such as clandestine operations, source operations, and deployment of enabling forces and capabilities to conduct targetspecific preparations prior to the conduct of an actual operation." It is logically part of Operational Preparation of the Battlespace (OPB), which follows the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace, a concept well known in U.S. and NATO doctrine. OPB is defined by the U.S. Special Operations Command as "Non-intelligence activities conducted prior to D-Day, H-Hour, in likely or potential areas of employment, to train and prepare for follow-on military operations." OPB is seldom used outside of Special Operations Forces channels. Michael S. Repass, "Combating Terrorism with Preparation of the Battlespace," report for the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Penn., 7 April 2003: http://www.fas.org/man/eprint/respass.pdf

3. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 223.

4. A little background may help readers understand how this particular aspect of this story developed. AFO by definition was made up of "unconventional" actors. When the 10th Mountain Division came into the picture, two things apparently came into play: first was a "turf war" between these conventional and unconventional forces, and the second was a personality conflict between the TF 11 DCO and the AFO commander. In the case of Operation Anaconda, AFO units were there on the ground from the very beginning and had good situational awareness. 10th Mountain came in and assumed operational command over the area of operations, which meant the role of the AFO changed from being the shapers of the situation, using a truly unconventional approach, to a supporting role within a conventional operation.

5. This was mainly from books written earlier about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which contained combat lessons as well some useful profiles on mujahideen commanders—material that had real intelligence value.

6. Jay Solomon, "Failed Courtship of Warlord Trips Up U.S. in Afghanistan," Wall Street Journal, 8 November 2007: http:// online.wsj.com/article/SB119448472303085968.html. Haqqani cooperated with the CIA during the Soviet war, but later became a leading insurgent leader.

7. Task Force 11 was the first designation given to the U.S. SOF composite grouping, which has pursued terrorist high-value targets in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001. The higher command (JSOC—see note 16) frequently changed the name of the task force to avoid information leakage, and it has been designated Task Force 6-26, Task Force 121, and Task Force 145 as well. The main body of TF 11 consisted of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and SOF aviation assets, together with their supporting and leadership elements.

8. Sean Naylor, Not a God Day to Die (New York: Berkley Publishing, 2005), 32.

9. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 231.

10. General Tommy Franks, American Soldier (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 493.

11. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 78.

12. Note that this is the same DCO as mentioned above, but I use the titles interchangeably from now on, as he had been given command once the CO left.

13. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 80.

14. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 232. This information is also derived from Naylor (Not a Good Day to Die), who seems to have had "off the record" access to high level TF 11 leaders while writing his book.

15. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 81.

16. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a component command of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and is charged to study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization; plan and conduct special operations exercises and training; and develop JSO tactics. After the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States, JSOC expanded enormously. The JSOC runs various specialized task forces, which are identified only by their numbers (e.g., TF 11, TF 6-26, TF 121). These task forces perform highly classified activities.

17. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 236.

18. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 39.

19. Ibid., 141.

20. Ibid., 142.

21. As operational commander, it was well within the 10th Mountain commander's right to do whatever he wanted. Also, he had TACON (tactical control) over the SF teams during the operation, but not over the AFO. One of the main C2 problems, which emerged later, was that these units had authority to request support from the same assets that also supported 10th Mountain operations, such as the C130s. These competing command structures must have served as another source of confusion during the execution phase of the operation. The main debate between the AFO leader and TF 11 commander was over the role and mission of the AFO in Anaconda. TF 11 command emphasized throughout that AFO was to act strictly as a reconnaissance mission to enhance the common operating picture, not a direct action force.

22. Throughout the Afghanistan campaign, U.S. forces had been receiving numerous reports concerning "thousands" of enemy troops in a variety of locations around the country, but when friendly forces investigated, the reports turned out to be highly exaggerated. Misinformation of this nature had made U.S. commanders and staffs at every level highly skeptical of all reports of very large enemy forces.

23. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 169.

24. Ibid., 176.

25. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 258.

26. It is not clear what happened to this information. It is possible, on the one hand, that a strong reliance on technical superiority convinced those in charge that what the sensors did not see did not exist. On the other hand, the information may have been taken simply as another instance of inaccurate human intelligence, as described in note 22.

27. MAJ Edgar Fleri, COL Ernest Howard, Jeffrey Hukill, and Thomas R. Searle, "Operation Anaconda Case Study," College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 13 November 2003, 27: http://www.au.af.mil/au/aul/school/awc/electives/6543_operationanaconda.pdf

28. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 266.

29. Ibid., 274.

30. Ibid., 270.

31. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 286.

32. According to the AFO leader, there was no mission critical requirement to deploy a team on the top of the mountain that night, but the decision was made up the chain to send them in. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 279.

33. Ibid., 280.

34. Nate Self, Two Wars: One Hero's Fight on Two Fronts—Abroad and Within (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 216.

35. Robert Valdes, "How the Predator UAV Works:" http://science.howstuffworks.com/predator.htm

36. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 285.

37. Naylor, Not a God Day to Die, 322.

38. Blaber, The Mission, The Men, 328.

39. Ibid., 292.

40. The SEAL who had fallen from the helicopter died while awaiting rescue. Accounts differ on exactly how and when he died.

41. Ronald A. Heifetz, "Anchoring Leadership in the Work of Adaptive Progress," in The Leader of the Future 2: Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the New Era, Frances Hesselbein and Marshall Goldsmith, eds. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 73.

4.2 Ibid., 74.

43. The three types of complex challenges are described in detail in John Alexander, "The Challenge of Complexity," in The Leader of the Future 2: Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the New Era, Frances Hesselbein and Marshall Goldsmith, eds. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 85.

44. Heifetz, "Anchoring Leadership," 76.

45. See Ernst Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1988). Biological evolution conforms to laws of survival. Thriving is much more than simple survival, it eventually leads to a vastly expanded range for the species to live in. Organizations, however, generate purposes beyond survival, and thrive by expanding their activities.

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