the campaign, an initial insertion of a dozen soldiers from the
5th Special Forces Group transformed into a several thousand-man
army that, aided by precision weapons, drove Taliban and Al Qaeda
fighters from northern Afghanistan.
“This was all done with less than 100 special forces soldiers
with boots on the ground,” recalled Maj. Mark Nutsch, former
commander of Operational Detachment 595, the first units infiltrated
to wrest Mazar e-Sharif from Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
Gen. Tommy Franks, during his tenure as head of Central Command,
asked the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to design an
accurate virtual depiction of the campaign, including Special Forces
activity, coalition cavalry, enemy regular and irregular units and
the complex web of air strikes and resupply that supported the battle.
The goal of the project, run by the Institute for Defense Analysis
and DARPA, was to faithfully recreate the operations that liberated
the northern Afghan city. The pair previously worked together on
the reconstruction of the Battle of 73 Easting, a tank-on-tank engagement
from the 1991 war against Iraq, which is hailed as an impressive
learning tool for current and future soldier training, as well as
However, the complexities of documenting a lengthy, inter service
and coalition fight was a far greater challenge than the Gulf War
simulation, project participants told National Defense.
The battle was a milestone in joint fighting and combined arms,
but it would take an enormous data compilation and integration effort
to fulfill Frank’s mandate. “Our question at IDA was,
‘Is this constructible?’ ” said Robert Richbourg,
of the research staff of IDA’s joint advanced war-fighting
The answer was, not all of it. Since the campaign took three weeks,
not every incoming flight, troop movement, shot and bomb could be
documented. IDA instead concentrated on two critical days of the
fight, including the battles for Darya Suf and the drive on the
city itself. Still, details of the 23-day campaign were collected
and logged, if not fully modeled in virtual reality.
IDA members have put together a detailed play-by-play of the effort
to take Mazar e-Sharif, plus simulations of small portions of the
fight for more detailed analysis. Such tools will be the “textbooks
of the 21st century,” Richbourg said, borrowing a phrase from
The first step was getting the information. The IDA team used a
slew of resources to create timelines in which to plot actions,
from global positioning system signals to air force mission logs.
They also used overhead radar data, battle damage assessments and
photographs to help create a sequence of events. “When we
had all this data, we could reconstruct an air mission,” said
Jeff Koretshy, of IDA’s research staff. “It was a painful,
manual process.” He added that 1,753 aircraft were tracked
during 23 days and 614 air strikes.
Members also deployed to Afghanistan and military bases in Germany,
the Middle East and the U.S. to conduct interviews with Afghan civilians,
former Taliban and Northern Alliance members and conduct a battle
The timing of battle sequences needed to be carefully tabulated
for the reconstruction, since critical events happened so close
together. For example, Nutsch said he had to change the order of
the aerial bomb strikes because Northern Alliance cavalry was charging
against the Taliban positions being bombarded. He recalled Afghani
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, of the Northern Alliance, telling him
that despite being showered with debris from the explosions, “the
horses weren’t nervous because they knew they were American
The average age of Special Forces soldiers at Mazar e-Sharif was
32, with an average of eight years of active service under their
belt. In the simulation, they are pictured as expressionless, uniformed
soldiers on horseback, surrounded by a motley crew of pickup trucks
and Mujahedin cavalry. Nutsch said that individual soldiers or three-man
teams sometimes operated a full day’s ride from each other.
Such small units and small actions made recreating the battle a
challenge, but their presence was the lynchpin of the campaign.
“Our NCO’s synchronized their 19th century force with
our 21st century force,” he said.
Comparisons to the 73 Easting simulation come quickly, and the
complexity of the Mazar model becomes evident. Unlike the half-hour
fight in Iraq depicted in 73 Easting, the 2001 fight features mountainous
terrain, changing weather and a coalition force ranging from mules
to warplanes, each action of which needed to be followed and placed
in exact detail.
To support this integration, IDA combined a handful of simulation
systems. One system reconstructed the weather patterns from historical
data. “Weather played a key role,” noted Richbourg.
“It sometimes precluded the use of air power…Weather
had to be a variable that changed, and changed accurately.”
Other simulation systems generated dynamic terrain, such as bomb
crater or trenches, and another recorded the actions for playback.
One unique system brings high-fidelity behaviors to each individual
soldier or mount on the field. “These are no longer the stick
figures of 73 Eastings.”
Built parallel and integrated with the three-dimensional model,
IDA also constructed a command and control view, which provides
another layer of recreation of the engagement for senior leaders
in the rear. “Not all these advances were in graphics,”
A simulation modeling the battle for Tora Bora, called Operation
Anaconda and marred by the escape of many Al Qaeda fighters, also
has been started but is not yet finished, IDA staff said.
Richbourg added, “There have been some discussions”
to recreate the battle of Fallujah in Iraq, but no concrete plan
has been formed to do so.