January 19, 2011

Onto the Next Sangin

The latest reports out of Sangin always sound good.

Only four months on the job, U.S. Marines have wrought miraculous changes in the surrounding district in Helmand province. The hated British have been disposed, locals are more willing to aid NATO and Afghan forces, schools are already beginning to open, and the town may soon connect with route 611, a provincial highway. And last but not least, U.S. and Afghan officials managed to strike a deal with the local tribe in what’s being hailed as a “watershed” moment in Afghanistan.

So why does all of this “success” taste familiar?

80 miles down river U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers continue to patrol the Nad Ali district, home to a village complex called Marjah. U.S. officials had openly announced their intension to seize the town in February 2010, prompting criticism over the lack of secrecy, as a means of deterrent. They declared that Marjah - the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand province - would take a month to clear. Though a sense of normality is returning to Marjah a Tet-like 11 months later, expectations in America were shattered long ago.

The area remains infested with Taliban.

It is this déjà vu that has crept into Sangin. The same U.S. general (Richard Mills) that proclaimed Marjah as "the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand" now operates in Sangin, declaring it the last stronghold in Helmand. Only two possibilities exist: either U.S. officials simply lied for propaganda purposes or they exploited a NATO loophole. As British forces controlled Sangin district for the first nine years of war, Marjah was technically the last Helmand "stronghold" under U.S. jurisdiction. Either option is duplicitous and misleading though; Sangin became infamous in Britain for killing over 100 soldiers and the area has already dealt 27 of the estimated 120 Marine deaths since April.

In reality Sangin was the Marjah that Marjah never was - an ancient Taliban stronghold/opium hub - but Sangin may share more in common with Marjah than U.S. officials care to admit. Both fallaciously marketed as the “last stronghold,” neither is likely to stabilize within their designated time-frames. Without near-flawless execution over the next several years, Marjah stands the chance of slipping back under the Taliban’s shadow government.

Not only does Sangin require additional months of kinetics, the conditions hailed as a turning point favor the Taliban as much as U.S. forces. al-Qaeda was the only real loser and perhaps that’s the objective. However, a row of question-marks cast doubt over the effectiveness of agreements with the local Alikozai tribe. With the elders coming to the Taliban and requesting a ceasefire, the two sides are now linked to any dialogue with U.S. forces. So while the Taliban gave up some freedom of mobility, it may gain other advantages to protect its forces.

A halt in U.S. air-strikes is reportedly included in the deal.

Furthermore, the Alikozai tribe appears to have used the deal to shield its own involvement in opium production. NATO had raided a number of labs since September, but the agreement stipulates an end to house raids and supposedly bought the Alikozai time to relocate its facilities. It appears, then, that U.S. forces traded the denial of al-Qaeda agents for Taliban leniency and a blind eye towards opium. Although this strategy could eventually pay-off, the national and local governments are more likely to undeliver and sustain Taliban sympathy. Sangin could become another half-governed district - with de facto Taliban immunity.

Daoud Ahmadi, the government spokesman for Helmand, said that the people of Sangin promised to deter attacks against development projects in order to secure international aid.

"People have lost hope in the government because they lack services.”

One outside factor also deserves consideration. According to Mullah Sadaqat, one of two mid-level Taleban commanders who caved into pressure from tribal elders (the other is Mullah Abbas), the two were moved by “compassion” to halt their operations in Sangin. Attacks against fellow Afghans were unacceptable, he said. Although Sadaqat denied requesting permission from Taliban leadership to halt his unit's fighting, contrary to statements by Helmand’s deputy governor Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, Sadaqat acknowledged receiving dozens of “unhappy” calls from Taliban commanders in neighboring districts.

And, like U.S. forces, he too wants to show off his new pet project: “We need to explain to them why we have done this, and they will understand."

After the inconclusive success of Marjah's COIN showpiece, the ultimate irony of Sangin resides in its own new-found fame as a COIN model. Judging by the overall factors in the district, Sangin also appears to be drifting towards the same muddled conclusion. “Success” is always around the corner - new roads, new shops, new schools, new hospitals. Most battles read "coalition victory." In Sangin’s particular case, UK troops came to be so despised that opponents of foreigners considered U.S. Marines to be a relief.

Except these villages require decades of development, not years. Maintaining gains will require a continually heavy U.S. footprint, the size that simultaneously provokes Afghans.

This leads to a final question. Having now tasted the same bitterness Britons endured, how do Americans know that another Marjah and Sangin isn't lying in Helmand’s opium fields? Obviously Washington won’t say - General Mills declared Helmand "routed" in January 2010 - and there may not be another “Sangin” in Helmand. But several areas could qualify as alternates.

Nawzad, to the northwest of Sangin, continues to serve as a Taliban sanctuary and could shelter fighters looking to cool off during the ceasefire. The areas around Musa Qala and Gereshk remain active, with NATO and Afghan forces killing more Taliban in Gereshk (13) than in Sangin (3) during a recent operation. Durzay, the hub of Garsmir district, is no Sangin either, but the area is far from government friendly. According to Mills, Durzay is full of opium traffickers and "professional cutthroats" who stepped out of "the bar scene in 'Star Wars... Durzay is a spot on the map where they sell their evil things, so they're not going to fight to the death.”

NATO estimates that 60 Taliban fighters operating in the village managed to plant 300 IEDs since November.

Though nothing compared to the 500-1,000 fighters and thousands of IEDs in Marjah and Sangin, the Taliban would have few problems ballooning its forces in Durzay and other villages under its sphere of influence. This is basic guerrilla strategy - yield to the full, fill the vacuous - and Helmand still has space despite the presence of nearly 20,000 NATO troops.

Where the next Sangin emerges is difficult to predict. Anticipating that there will be a next Sangin isn’t.


  1. The NATO spin routines are as lame as the military strategies and practice. The rose-tinted press releases are re-cycled from the old Iraq ones. Or even the old Afghanistan ones.

  2. Today I read a DOD list of operations in Afghanistan, probably between 40 and 50 entries. In every case, a "victory." Tactically losing the majority of battles and strategically winning the war is the essence of asymmetric warfare.