Nestled amid Afghanistan’s southwestern foothills, the lush pomegranate orchards and dense poppy groves of Sangin have seen more combat fatalities than any other district in the country.
Relentless insurgent ambushes and roadside bombings in the district claimed the lives of more than 100 British troops from 2006 to 2010. The U.S. Marines have lost 29 men there since they took charge last summer, and the limbs of dozens more have been blown off. Top commanders had all but given up hope that the district could be salvaged.
But now, a chance at peace has emerged: On New Year’s Day, leaders of a tribe that has been responsible for numerous attacks in Sangin struck a deal with the Afghan government to cease offensive acts and evict foreign fighters in the area in exchange for the release of a prisoner, the promise of development assistance and the prospect of establishing their own security force.
If the agreement with the Alikozai tribe holds — similar pacts have fallen apart elsewhere in the country — it has the potential to pacify a swath of seemingly unwinnable terrain and affect the war across southern Afghanistan. It opens up a key road in the direction of the Kajaki Dam, where the U.S. government is trying to repair a hydropower plant to provide much-needed electricity to Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city.
Taliban leaders have long used Sangin as a staging area to assemble bombs and plot attacks carried out elsewhere in the south. If their ability to do so is restricted, U.S. military officials believe they will have to relocate to more remote places where it will be more challenging to operate.
The officials expressed hope that other tribes in the area, and other pockets of Alikozai in the south, could seek similar deals.
The arrangement has “a huge potential to deliver change,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the top operational commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview Tuesday.
Even if the Alikozai keep their promise, it will not automatically end the insurgency in Sangin, but it probably will shrink and simplify the complex mosaic of violence there, which has been colored by tribal rivalries.
When Taliban leaders came to Sangin, they forged an alliance with the Alizai tribe. The Alikozai elders chafed at the presence of Taliban fighters from Pakistan and other parts of Afghanistan, but they initially were loath to collaborate with coalition forces or the Afghan government because they were involved in the lucrative business of processing and trafficking opium.
In 2007, the Alikozai rose up against the Alizai and sought to evict non-indigenous Taliban fighters, but Alikozai requests for help from the British military were refused because of concern about getting involved in what appeared to be a tribal dispute. The Alizai eventually killed several Alikozai tribal leaders, and many Alikozai tribesmen had little choice but to surrender and join the Taliban.
The dynamics changed when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.
“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”
At the same time, Marine commanders sought to convey to the Alikozai leadership that it would be aided if it decided to stand up to the Taliban again. The Marines described how their counterinsurgency operations in other parts of Helmand province were aimed at safeguarding the population from the insurgency.
“We’ve reassured them that we’re going to be here for them, that we’re not going to abandon them,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills, the top U.S. commander in Helmand. “In years gone by, you had to take our word that if you came over to our side, things would get better. Now we have something we can point to. Locals can see what’s happening elsewhere . . . and they can see the inability of the Taliban to come back in any meaningful way.”
The pact calls for the Alikozai elders to prevent their tribesmen from participating in attacks on Afghan and coalition forces, and to deny safe haven to Taliban fighters from Pakistan and other parts of Afghanistan.
Mills and other Marine officers said the rapprochement began about a month ago when Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal’s top security adviser traveled to Sangin to talk to residents about a government program to reintegrate insurgents who renounce violence. He was approached by a few Alikozai elders who expressed interest in brokering a deal.
The Alikozai initially demanded that U.S. and NATO forces stay out of their areas and that several imprisoned tribesmen be freed in exchange for a cease-fire. The Marines rejected that offer but wound up compromising on the release of one Alikozai bomb-maker on the condition that he not engage in violence again. The Marines also pledged to have Afghan forces take the lead in searches of homes in the area.
There also was the emolument of development assistance. The Marines have pledged to rebuild schools, open a medical clinic and pave the main road from the Alikozai area to the district center. “We’re going to do for them what we’ve done in other parts of the province,” Mills said.
Mills said his Marines will not shirk from patrolling in the Alikozai region. Other Marine officials said they would seek to test the agreement in the coming days with intense sweeps through the area.
“We’re not going to sit there with our pants down,” the senior officer said. “If they’re not keeping their word, we’ll know.”
Although the Marines said they plan to destroy any drug labs they find — “We’re not going to allow this to become poppy-land,” Mills said — they may not encounter many. Some U.S. officials say they believe the Alikozai have moved much of their processing infrastructure elsewhere, making it easier for them to countenance U.S. patrols in the area.
The 10-year Afghan war has been littered with peace deals that have fallen apart, and it is impossible to know whether this one will stick in ways others have not. In the neighboring district of Musa Qala, a 2006 agreement with a Taliban commander to join the government in exchange for being named the district governor resulted in him creating his own militia, which ran roughshod over the local population. And in eastern Afghanistan, a peace arrangement with the Shinwari tribe last year, which involved U.S. promises of substantial development projects, fell apart because of opposition from the Afghan government and tribal infighting.
U.S. commanders said the Sangin pact is different because it is built upon the lessons of previous failures. The deal was negotiated by the Afghan government, not the Americans, and it will not involve no-go zones for international forces.
But there is a dispute about whether the agreement was formally consummated. Marine officials say it was agreed to by about two dozen elders and tribal militia commanders during a Jan. 1 meeting with U.S. and Afghan government officials. But a spokesman for Mangal said no “legal protocol” has been signed making it official.
For the U.S. military, the biggest concern is Taliban retribution. It has struck at one of the negotiators, killing him and his family.
“The enemy is going to react, and they’re going to react by targeting those who are supporters of this process,” Rodriguez said.
Although senior commanders were eager to crow about the deal, they sought to give themselves an escape clause in case it goes the way of so many other such peace-making efforts in Afghanistan.
“It’s a step,” Mills said. “We’ll see. We don’t know yet if this will hold. We don’t know how it will play out.”