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Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda

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Overview

Award-winning combat reporter Sean Naylor reveals how close American forces came to disaster in Afghanistan against Al Qaida—after easily defeating the ragtag Taliban that had sheltered the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks.

At dawn on March 2, 2002, over two hundred soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions flew into the mouth of a buzz saw in Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley. Believing the war all but over, U.S. military leaders refused to commit the...

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Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda

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Overview

Award-winning combat reporter Sean Naylor reveals how close American forces came to disaster in Afghanistan against Al Qaida—after easily defeating the ragtag Taliban that had sheltered the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks.

At dawn on March 2, 2002, over two hundred soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions flew into the mouth of a buzz saw in Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley. Believing the war all but over, U.S. military leaders refused to commit the extra infantry, artillery, and attack helicopters required to fight the war's biggest battle— a missed opportunity to crush hundreds of Al Qaida's fighters and some of its most senior leaders.

Eyewitness Naylor vividly portrays the heroism of the young, untested soldiers, the fanaticism of their ferocious enemy, the mistakes that led to a hellish mountaintop firefight, and how thirteen American commandos embodied "Patton's three principles of war"—audacity, audacity, and audacity—by creeping unseen over frozen mountains into the heart of an enemy stronghold to prevent a U.S. military catastrophe.

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Editorial Reviews

Linda Robinson
Naylor does an admirable job of exposing the many shortcomings that plagued this chapter of the Afghanistan war, although he does not sort the major from the minor failings or linger over the broader lessons. What the book lacks in analytical heft, however, it more than makes up in drama.
— The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425207871
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/7/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 101,023
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.03 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sean Naylor, a senior writer for the Army Times, has covered the Afghan mujahideen's war against the Soviets, and American military operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His coverage of Operation Anaconda earned him the White House Correspondents' Association's prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award. Naylor was named one of the 22 most influential "unsung" print reporters in Washington by American Journalism Review in May 2002.
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Read an Excerpt

It was a raw, biting wind that swept down from the Hindu Kush in the first weeks of 2002, and the militiamen guarding the Ariana Hotel in downtown Kabul stamped their feet and blew on their hands to fight off the chill.

Behind them the hotel sat squat, yellow, and ugly. The Ariana was owned by the Afghan government, which in reality meant whichever guerrilla army happened to be in charge of Kabul at the time. It also meant the hotel had played several cameo roles in the decade of civil war that had wracked Afghanistan since the pro-Soviet government fell to the mujahideen in 1992. When the Taliban army of fundamentalist Muslim students routed the weak central government in 1996, their first order of business had been to drag Najibullah, the last pro-Soviet Afghan dictator, from the United Nations compound in which he and his brother had sheltered since their government fell in 1992. After torturing them, the Taliban death squad murdered the brothers and then hung their bodies from a makeshift scaffold in the traffic circle in front of the Ariana. Thereafter, the Taliban used the hotel as an R & R spot for troops rotating back from the front line in the war against the Northern Alliance forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and as a way station for Pakistani volunteers en route to the front. By way of payback, a Northern Alliance jet dropped a bomb on the hotel in 1997.

Now the tables had turned again. Al Qaida, the Islamist terrorist organization that had found a welcoming home in Afghanistan under the Taliban, had hijacked four planes in the United States and flown two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing thousands and stirring the world’s only superpower to action. The Americans had come to Afghanistan, embraced the Northern Alliance, and driven the Taliban from power. And so it was that the guards lounging by the large concrete steps that led up to the Ariana’s main entrance were tough-looking Northern Alliance fighters, hard men down from the Panjshir Valley whose fingers never wandered far from the triggers of their Kalashnikov assault rifles. Some of these men had been fighting—against the Soviets, Najibullah’s regime, other mujahideen militias, and the Taliban—for more than twenty years, and it showed on their dark, worn faces and dirty, calloused hands.

But the balance of power had not shifted completely in the Northern Alliance’s favor. Not yet. The big dog on the block was the United States, and so while the Panjshiri guards shivered outside in their motley camouflage uniforms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, inside the Ariana’s bullet-scarred walls the Americans held court. The CIA had rented the entire hotel, retained the staff, and set up its Kabul station there. It made sense for the spooks to use the Ariana. It was centrally located, just a couple of blocks from the Presidential Palace, and the safe house being used by the Special Forces, but it was protected from the busy street by a ten-foot wall. The only other defenses the Americans had added were a string of concertina wire atop the wall and a sandbagged guard post on the flat roof, manned twenty-four hours a day by a couple of Northern Alliance fighters.

Easy living it wasn’t. The plumbing was atrocious, even by Afghan standards, and the hotel was in a general state of disrepair. But it was warm, and the dining room still offered simple but delicious dishes of beans and rice and other staples of Afghan cuisine.

On this frigid mid-January afternoon a handful of men were gathered in one of the hotel’s upstairs rooms for a meeting. The CIA personnel conducted most of their meetings in this room during those first turbulent months after the fall of Kabul, but on this occasion only one agency officer was present—a thin, bearded man with long sandy hair called John, who was the deputy chief of station. The rest of the men were soldiers, special operators from the units that had been at the forefront of the war in Afghanistan. Like John, they were dressed in civilian clothes and wore their hair longer than most American soldiers are allowed. All sported the beards that were ubiquitous among American special operators and intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Most were armed with M4 carbines or 9mm Beretta pistols.

It was a dark-walled room made even darker by the curtains drawn to prevent any snipers from drawing a bead on those inside. Dust motes swam in a single shaft of intense sunlight that exploited a small gap between the curtains. A lamp resting on an end table cast shadows on a floor covered by an Afghan rug, and the men sat on a tatty, overstuffed sofa and similarly worn but comfortable chairs.

As the Americans sipped green tea from a service that a member of the hotel staff had set on a glass-topped coffee table, the mood was businesslike. The Taliban had been defeated, the Northern Alliance had swept into Kabul, and the whole country was—in theory—under the control of the Americans and the Afghan warlords with whom they had allied themselves. But the men in the room were not celebrating. The Taliban were gone and Al Qaida’s guerrillas were on the run, but there was still much to do. Six weeks earlier the Americans thought they had Al Qaida’s leaders holed up at Tora Bora in the White Mountains that straddle the border with Pakistan. Reluctant to put too many American troops on the ground, U.S. commanders had relied on their Afghan allies backed up by Special Forces to snare Osama bin Laden and his henchmen. But this time the Americans’ faith in their militia allies was misplaced, and a failure to block escape routes into Pakistan from Tora Bora meant bin Laden and hundreds of Al Qaida’s most hardened fighters had slipped the net.

So long as those guerrillas remained at large, the Americans knew they could not rest. And so as usual in these brainstorming sessions, which John convened daily in his excuse for a sitting room, the talk this afternoon was where to focus next.

As the meeting was breaking up, John looked across the table and spoke directly to one of the special operators—an Army officer dressed in a thick, long-sleeved shirt with an Afghan scarf around his neck. Clipped into the waistband of his cargo pants was a black leather holster in which nestled a semiautomatic Glock pistol with a twenty-round extended clip. Over six feet tall with dark hair and a goatee that framed an open and honest face, the officer was forty years old, yet still had the lean, hard physique of the track and field champion he had been in his youth. He exuded the self-confident air of a man used to not just living but succeeding on his wits. His name was Pete Blaber and he was a lieutenant colonel in 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, better known to the public as “Delta Force.”

The agency was getting a lot of reports that Al Qaida forces were regrouping in a mountainous region south of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan’s rugged Paktia province, John said. “What’s it called?” Blaber asked. The CIA officer told him. Blaber, who had been in Afghanistan for a month and thought he knew the lay of the land, had never heard of the place. “How do you spell it?” he said, eyes narrowing with curiosity as he grabbed a mechanical pencil to jot the name down in his day planner.

As Blaber scribbled, the CIA officer spoke each letter in turn: “S-H-A-H-I-K-H-O-T.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 68 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 68 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2009

    Absolute read for every American

    The book is great for any American to read as it shows the tremendous courage and foritude for which the US forces fought. It shows both great cooperation between the services and also the defects of it. The one weak point is the lack of cooperation between different nations. Nonetheless the book is a must read for anyone looking for inspiration in a tough situation.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2013

    Not a Good Day To Die

    A great, professional book on the actions of the first major operation by conventional forces in Afghanistan. Full of first hand accounts, well sourced information and remarkably well written. Definately a must read for those interested in The War on Terror and the history of the service men and women abroad.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2013

    Interesting

    A good story but the writing style was a bit difficult to follow.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    One of the finest books of it's kind, a real primer for special

    One of the finest books of it's kind, a real primer for special ops as deployed to Afghanistan. Comparable to Black Hawk Down in depicting all of the little failures that add up to one big cluster on the battlefield -- at the cost of human lives. Provides the kind of background on the war that puts other books like Lone Survivor or Robert's Ridge into perspective. You need to read this if you want to understand the complex nature of our bizarre joint command structure, logistics and artillery support restrictions and other issues that make this war so maddening for the warfighter and confusing to our clueless politicians. We need more books on Afghanistan and this one is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2012

    A must read for soldiers present and future.

    Under any circumstance should a soldier lead in battle, regardless of rank, unless they are qualified to do so. To allow this to happen can only be a criminal act against the soldiers, their family, and our country. With war, casualties will happen but any injury or death caused by incompetent leaders need to face serious consequences. Reading this book, after reading "Roberts Ridge", also pointed out to me that unless there is a competent chain of command many lives will continue to be loss. During Operation Anaconda not only were there too many leaders, too many of those leaders were under qualified, and out of the qualified leaders there were too many restrictions to allow them to perform to a high standard. This is a book that needs to be read by all present and future commanders. Hopefully they will learn arrogance and ignorance are two personality traits that need to be left out of their future decision process.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2005

    A Factual Account of Operation Anaconda

    Without a doubt, this is the most definitive account of Operation Anaconda and the firefight on Takur Ghar (aka Roberts Ridge). The author was in Afghanistan and attached to the units that conducted the operation. He interviewed dozens and dozens of people who were there from the top generals to the basic squad leaders. The author does not throw politics (anti-Bush/anti-War) issues into the book. He does lay out a clear sequence of how and why things went the way they did during this battle. He offers critical comments by one source and then allows another source to counter the criticism. My only minor issue is that there are so many important people mentioned in this book that I sometimes found it hard to keep track of who was who even with the help of a printed list in the beginning of the book. It also takes about the first 1/3 of the book to cover all the issues that developed during the planning stage, but it is key in helping the reader understand the flow and confusion that resulted in the battle. There is a line in the book that sums it up in that sometimes no matter how well intended all the planners were for this operation, tragedy still resulted. This book helps to show that the military is not a machine, but rather a human entity that is capable of making mistakes.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2014

    Been there done that

    I have to admit sometimes reality differs from what the writer writes but take it from someone that was there this book brought back some memories but also filled in the blanks and it was interesting to find out why we didnt do this or why our mission was changed so often. With so many moving parts the author was able to link each part beautifuly. Recomended read for sure.

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  • Posted May 26, 2012

    Since I have a special friend who is now stationed at Kandahar,

    Since I have a special friend who is now stationed at Kandahar, I found this book to be extremely ineresting and it gives me a better outlook on what is really going on over there. We, as Americans, have no clue as to what our military men are facing in this losing battle. Mr. Naylor has done an excellent job of telling us like it is.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2012

    Not a good day to die

    This was an excellent example or our brave soldiers, both regular and Special Forces during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan during 2002.

    You can taste the dust and smell the gun powder and even feel the danger our troops were in. The "Fog of War" is demonstrated throughout the battle. Also, the difficulty of multiple commands trying to run operations is well demonstrated.

    I highly recommend teading this book to get a good feel of Special Forces in action.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2012

    good

    good detailed but slow read, excellent reference

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2011

    thank you delta!!!

    If you want to know how special forces shapes the world then read this book! These men are truly remarkable! And thank the lord they are on our side!

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  • Posted December 11, 2011

    This is a book with true hreos as protaginists. My son..an hero..is mentioned in the book and that was my reason for reading it. BUT it gave me information and feelings I was unaware of. One must have interest in what the mikitary experiences to read

    It seemed slow until I was captured by an excellent writing. I would not suggest this book for anyone looking for a fiction thriller. This is REAL combat, wtth our sons and daughters in the roles of REAL, living people. up against an enemy they did not choose. They are a full, volunteer, team of Americans, who are fighting against strangers, for the freedom of strangers in their own country.

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  • Posted January 1, 2011

    Real Good Read

    I know someone in the book and it gives me a whole new insight on him. This seems to be the truth of what truley happened.

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  • Posted August 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great read on the Battle of Anaconda

    Does thorough job describing the planning and execution of the Battle of Anaconda, and particularly does solid job highlighting the shortcomings. I found myself writing down the numerous examples of bad assumptions, bad planning, poor communications, and weak leadership as I read through the book. I think perfect for military type round table discussions and lessons learned for military planners and leadership seminars. The only area I think where the book could have been improved was perhaps the author could have added a section that summarizes the lessons learned... a "post mortem" hotwash.

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  • Posted May 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Operation Anaconda

    Naylor must have put a lot of research into the writing of this book. One of the main characteristics of Operation Anaconda was the amount of confusion and miscommunication, as Naylor aptly shows. He follows units and people from well before the planning of the operation - necessary background for understanding the leadership of the operation - through to the end of the operation. The background and planning of the operation drag on while the execution of the operation and the battles seem to go by quickly. While understanding the background is crucial to understanding and following the events in the operation due to its fractious nature, this makes for a fairly dry read. A good read for anyone specifically interested in Operation Anaconda, the battles in Afghanistan, or the battles in the War on Terror. I recommend making a flow chart to keep track of people and organizations through the book. There were so many organizations involved in the operation and battles that it can be confusing to keep track of.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2008

    left me speechless

    I listened to the audio CD of this book. It was absolutely riveting - I don't know how many times I cried, yelled back at the recording... It is an absolute MUST READ for any American of voting age - any American over 16 needs to read this book ... ...so that we can treat the women and men who defend us with the reverence and honor they deserve... ...AND so we understand war enough to question, critique and restrain the government that would send these women and men to make such sacrifices.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2007

    A reviewer

    This is an awesome book, and I'm sure its details are very accurate. It's a true shame that our own government sends our troops into combat ill-equipped with weapons and communications equipment. It seems like we're more likely to die from friendly fire than enemy fire. Thanks to Sean Naylor for letting us know what it's like on the front lines.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2005

    Tremendous Read

    Naylor's writing is superb, both in his style and his unbiased approach to describing the operation and its run-up. At many times I found it near impossible to put down. One issue I didn't see completed in the narrative was whether or not U.S. forces did finally establish the OP on the top of Takur Ghar as was Mako 30's original task? After the savage battle fought by the SEALs and then the Ranger QRF, the position was taken and secured, but was the OP set-up thereafter and used during the remainder of Operation Anaconda? The other issue I have with the content is Naylor makes mention several times of the Rakkasan and 10th Mountain forces being denied the permission to deploy their own artillery to support their operation. The question that should be asked in my opinion (and I have no pre-disposition on the issue) is could that artillery have been deployed in sufficient strength, within range of the enemy positions, and with sufficient speed so to not alert the terrorists to an oncoming attack? Would not that artillery being towed towards the Shahikot Valley have been something Al Qaeda observers or spies would spot? All in all, this is a tremendous book and well worth the time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2005

    Better than SLAM

    S.L.A. Marshall would have been proud and a little envious of the suberb effort put forth by Mr. Naylor. The combat rings true, the bravery of the soldier and his NCOs and of the best of the best----SFOD-D. Sadly, the the ad hoc command and control lash up of CENTCOM is on point. I served in JSOC and CENTCOM. I know of what the author speaks with the Command and Control blunders of CENTCOM. If I had had the talent I would have written this suberb effort without changing a thing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2005

    UNTIL THIS BOOK, I DIDN'T FULLY APPRECIATE WHAT MY SOLDIER SON HAD EXPERIENCED IN OPERATION ANACONDA

    Made me angry at the politically correct and media sensitive senior officers who put our brave and tenacious young warriors in peril, my young Army son included. It opened my eyes to the real life drama and near disaster my son faced in a desparate battle against an enemy underestimated.

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