A typical village blends with its surrounding. Dusty roads, mud-brick compounds, wheat chaffs, poppy fruits. Americans know the scene, but they may not know Sangin so well. They soon will.
UK forces, who’ve held down the fort since Afghanistan’s latest war began, are finally redeploying and US forces are surging in.
This is not to say the Brits are retreating or even withdrawing, a perception UK officials vehemently attack. Those on the ground haven’t exactly achieved the progress their superiors claim, but they did as well as they could with what they had and that’s all a soldier can do. The entire Helmand province has been undermanned since the war started and may still be short even with the addition of President Barack Obama’s surge.
Sangin itself is notorious to the British people for being undermanned and thus known as a deathly hollow. Here 100 of their 313 casualties have fallen.
This is more to the point - US psy-ops. Sangin is an information black-hole to America, obscured by the simple reality that no US troops are deployed there (not counting Special Ops). More recently the village found itself sucked into Marjah’s propaganda warp. Having told Americans that Marjah was the Taliban’s last stronghold and opium center of Helmand, Sangin ceased to exist in US officials’ vocabulary. It’s also a “last stronghold” and “opium center” in Helmand.
Only once Marjah’s expectations fell did Sangin surface. General Richard Mills, commander of all Marines in Helmand province, said in April, “I think when you look at the importance of Marjah to the Taliban; it is the center of, really, their psychological homeland, if you will.”
Two weeks ago and 70 miles upriver from Marjah, "Sangin is difficult ground. It is key terrain for the insurgents, it is one of the last population centers that they contest.”
Already trapped in this paradox, US officials are unlikely to hype Sangin as the last of anything. They’d be fools if they did. For one thing US troops are only assuming control of the area, not launching an operation, and the transition will take until October to complete. One would also like to think they’ve learned the hard way from Marjah, although that remains unknown.
And Sangin may present a rougher fight than Marjah too. UK and US forces stormed the village once in 2007 in a protracted operation and the British have struggled to maintain control ever since. US officials are likely to keep quiet, or quieter, on Sangin because of how dangerous it is and how long the fight is projected.
But for these same reasons the word will inevitably disseminate. UK officials claim to have made “good progress” in Sangin. British soldiers and independent sources speak of a tightly controlled bazaar, small British perimeter, and large outer ring of Taliban infested terrain.
"Sangin is probably one of the most dangerous places in the world. You walk nowhere without a metal detector in front of you," said Major Ed Moorhouse, commander of Charlie Company, 40 Commando, Royal Marines, as he hid behind a wall of large sandbags from what he claims is “a new breed of Taliban sharpshooter.”
With the roads littered with IED’s, helicopters provide the main mode of transportation and have suffered according losses. Two weeks ago a US Blackhawk medical helicopter was shot down yards from Jackson, the main British base. It was the fourth downed in 2010.
UK commanders, usually more straightforward than their US counterparts, offer mixed emotions of Sangin. Some outright despise the village and their government for leaving them for dead. Some, like Lt. Col. Paul James, commanding officer of 40 Commando, believed there aren’t enough NATO forces to hold the area against a Taliban resurgence.
One officer described the security situation, "We are like a boxer in the defensive position with his arms wrapped around his body protecting himself from the blows coming in and unable to throw any punches."
Conversely some believe Sangin could improve permanently with more troops and time. Lt Col James espouses basic COIN, "We are here to create time and space for governance to take hold. That's much more decisive than fighting the Taliban.” The catch: “It just takes hellishly long unless you have the right force density – that's my concern, that we might be here 10 years rather than five years. But we need to see this through."
He shares his concern with many Americans, Brits, NATO populaces, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
Sangin won’t be an easy fight even with the right force density. Where those troops will come from is still more disconcerting - can NATO hold Marjah, Sangin, and Kandahar, along with the rest of Afghanistan, all at the same time? High casualties, unfriendly political factions, and long time-lines don’t make for an appealing propaganda campaign. The US press started by picking only at the bare-bones of UK reports.
But Americans will eventually hear of Sangin one way or another.