Afghanistan: Americans faring no better in Sangin

Former Army Captain, Patrick Bury, discusses the American involvement in Sangin, Afghanistan, and why it is such a challenge for the British troop replacements.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan; a memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, described as ‘the first great book of the Afghan war’, is out now

US Diplomatic cables released last night by Wikileaks highlight American criticism of the UK’s efforts in Helmand Province and question the UK’s approach to the volatile Taliban stronghold of Sangin. A cable from January 2009 said:

“The UK effort in Helmand is already in a ‘wait and see’ mode, wildly speculating when and where US troops will go, obsessed about Commanders Emergency Relief Programme (CERP) amounts, and doing nothing to correct the difficult situation already in Sangin.”

Another cable quotes Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, as telling a British official:

“Stop calling it the Sangin district and start calling it the Sangin base – all you have done here is built a military camp next to the city.”

To a large extent this was true. Faced with patrolling a town infested with so many IEDs it represented crossing a low density minefield, the British had been forced to respond by building 22 beleaguered outposts from which they could over-look the dusty alleyways.

But such tactics meant they were ‘fixed’ in American eyes: unable to dominate the population and the ground in the way needed for successful Counter Insurgent (COIN) operations. Thus, when US Marines replaced the British in Sangin in September they were determined to try more fluid tactics. Thirteen of the 22 outposts, which many British soldiers had died fighting to establish, were dismantled and consolidated into larger Patrol Bases from which increased numbers of patrols could be conducted.

Added to this was a confidence in Sangin itself, after a local up-swell of anger directed against the Taliban, and encouraged by the leaving British, had reduced violence by 80 per cent in August- September. The battalion of US Marines that arrived in October, the 3rd/5th, were confident they would get results from their new troop density when combined with this new approach. Unfortunately, events have proved them wrong.

Of the roughly 500 1,000 men and women in 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, patrolling Sangin for the last two months, 15 are now dead. On current casualty ratios, about 4 times that number will have been wounded.

This unit is suffering some of the highest casualty rates in Afghanistan at present, even higher than the British before they left. Moreover, although the British media has failed to follow their story, it seems these Marines are now acknowledging how difficult the Sangin AO (Area of Operations) is to dominate. Some reports have quoted individual Marines saying they need more troops to bring stability.

According to the COIN doctrine which underpins the US surge in Afghanistan, troop levels of 25 per 1,000 population are required. However, with over 500 Marines, plus at least that number again in indigenous Afghan Security Forces (ANSF), policing a population of 17,000, this ratio is actually greatly exceeded at present in Sangin. Such a fact points to how notoriously difficult and dangerous Sangin is to operate in.

Sitting, as it does, on a communications node for narco-traffickers, and compounded by fierce tribal rivalries, Sangin has always been an unstable and violent place. Add to this its backward nature, even by Afghan standards, and a majority Pushtun population who feel morally obligated to repel foreign invaders, and you can begin to understand why Sangin becomes a bleeding ulcer for any army that enters.

President Karzai once grandiosely boasted ‘He who controls Sangin, controls Afghanistan’ in a successful attempt to induce the British to rescue it’s under-siege governor in 2006. More than four years later, and after a massive mission creep that has led to combined ANSF, UK and US casualties of well over 300, all those involved are ruing the fallacy of that decision.

Meanwhile, the widely heralded introduction of the new XM25 ‘supergun’ will not pacify Sangin. The new US weapon, an infantry operated grenade launcher, combines existing laser guided technology with a new ‘smart’ 25mm grenade round. This allows the firer to determine the range to a target and then detonates the smart ammunition over head, based on the information feed from the laser.

It will be useful against insurgents ducking down behind walls, adding an airburst capability to intrinsic platoon level weapons systems. It is not, however, what The Times claimed (£) in a headline today – which may yet prove the most misleading of the year – a ‘supergun that can fire around corners’.

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