The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The outsize legacy of Sangin, one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for U.S. and British troops

Members of 40 Commando, Royal Marines, look out onto Sangin’s “Green Zone” during a dawn patrol in Sangin in June 2010. (Photo by Wes Morgan)

They called Sangin a “low-density minefield” — a whole district laced with bombs everywhere U.S. and British patrols ventured, slowing their movements to a snail’s pace.

The bombs were everywhere: not just on the bridges over streams but in the streams themselves. The only way to move was single-file, along a trail painstakingly cleared by a point man with the mine detector. Stepping out of line risked death or dismemberment — a popular U.S. Marine platoon sergeant lost his legs that way — and when troops came under fire, they couldn’t even roll into the nearest ditch for cover, so likely was it to be mined.

Barely a year after the last American advisers departed, Sangin, a rural district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is reportedly on the edge of falling to the Taliban, the last police there under siege in what used to be NATO’s Forward Operating Base Jackson. That news has prompted soul-searching among veterans of the district — where more U.S. and British troops lost their lives over the years than in any other in Afghanistan — and set off alarm bells at the NATO headquarters in Kabul, which has already rushed U.S. Special Operations teams to other imperiled Helmand districts.

A small district with fewer than 100,000 residents, Sangin straddles the scorched dryness of the desert and a lush, fertilized river valley that NATO troops called the “Green Zone” (a reference to its brilliant color, not to the famous fortified enclave in Baghdad). The Taliban fights for Sangin because it is a node in Helmand’s opium trade, the livelihood of most of the movement’s local members. Government security forces fight at times to eradicate that trade and at other times to protect corrupt officials’ stake in it. British and American troops fought there because the Taliban and Afghan security forces were fighting there — and for reasons they themselves did not fully grasp.

“The issues in Sangin are so much deeper than Taliban versus ANA,” one of the last U.S. Marines to serve as a combat adviser in the district, Dom Pellegrini, told Checkpoint, using the acronym for the Afghan National Army. “Those categories aren’t at all adequate to describe what was going on, and I’m not sure I ever figured out what was going on. It was a drug war, I guess.”

At the peak of NATO involvement in Sangin, in 2010, the thud of exploding bombs formed the first part of a ritual, repeated throughout the day almost every day: first the boom, then the grim details over the radio of how many limbs had been lost by whom, and whether the wounded man was expected to survive.

In ceremonies at FOB Jackson, officers read aloud the names of the U.S. and British fallen a few at a time. Often, men in the assembled ranks toppled over from dehydration or heat stroke. The ceremonies continued uninterrupted, ending with a prayer and (when the British ran the base) a terse line of First World War verse: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Exactly how many allied troops lost their lives in Sangin over the years is hard to say, largely because the U.S. Marine Corps — which, after the British military, was hardest hit in the district — often released only general information about the locations of its combat deaths. The toll, however, was high: at least 176 Americans and Britons over the years — almost certainly a low estimate — along with one Canadian and an unknown but eventually much larger number of Afghan soldiers and police.

The first allied soldier known to have died in Sangin was a U.S. Army Green Beret, National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Robinson, killed in March 2006. When a small contingent of British airborne troops, or “paras,” arrived that summer, they quickly came under siege, and casualties mounted. Among them was Pvt. Damien Jackson, after whom the outpost was named. Another fallen para was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor in battle. The next year, the reserve battalion for the whole NATO command in Afghanistan joined the fray, reinforcing the British in bitter fighting that killed two 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers.

In the summer of 2009, as U.S. Marines and British reinforcements flowed into more southern areas of Helmand for the first summer of the Obama administration’s Afghan surge, the Taliban struck back in Sangin, turning the district from a backwater into the brutally violent epicenter of British casualties. Two successive British battle groups — built around the 2nd and 3rd Battalion of The Rifles, a British Army regiment — lost 25 and 28 soldiers respectively, among the highest tolls of the war. In British newspapers, Sangin became a familiar name, akin to the notorious Korengal valley that American media covered extensively.

The network of outposts into which the British troops spread out were called patrol bases, but in many cases that was a misnomer. Stretched thin, the British units at the outposts often could hardly patrol at all, and when they did, local spotters broadcast their movements with everything from radios and signal mirrors to kites and smoke signals the moment they left the gate.

“The IED threat in Sangin was monumental — greater than anywhere else in Afghanistan,” one military study noted, using the acronym for improvised explosive devices. In just one square kilometer around Sangin’s district center, British troops estimated in 2009, the Taliban had planted 1,200 bombs, sometimes within 30 meters of the gates of British outposts. By the end of that summer, “patrols were not able to walk more than 200 meters in any direction without hitting a wall of IEDs.”

Along with other southern battlefields of the Afghan surge like Marja and the Arghandab river valley, Sangin accounted for a huge proportion of so-called “life-changing wounds” suffered by U.S. and British troops at the height of the war: legs, arms, and genitals mangled or sheared off by bombs designed to be small enough to avoid detection by minesweepers and dogs. At the patrol bases, some British platoons listed their members’ names on murals, then ticked off “WIA” and “KIA” in red as men were wounded and killed. Among the dead was British Staff Sgt. Olaf “Oz” Schmid, a revered bomb disposal expert credited with defusing 70 IEDs before one finally killed him.

The ebb and flow of the struggle in Sangin often seemed to reflect the dysfunction of the NATO war effort in southern Afghanistan, where new units arrived twice a year and the contingents of different allied nations often replaced one another, bringing new strategies and tactics.

For years, the pendulum swung back and forth between units that focused on securing the populous district center and units that preferred to hunt their ghost-like insurgent enemies in the cultivated Green Zone by the river. When U.S. Marine commanders identified Sangin as a cancer requiring excision in 2010, for example, the American 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, replaced the British at FOB Jackson and closed half of the 22 outposts that British troops had built up over four years, on the theory that fewer patrol bases would allow the allies to regain an offensive edge they had lost.

But that approach quickly became mired in the minefield, where troops could not effectively control terrain they could not watch over at all times. When a new U.S. Marine battalion, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or 3/5, replaced 3/7 after a few weeks, the losses it took were severe enough to cause concern back at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates requested daily updates about the unit and prayed for the Marines there each night.

“We learned a lesson that you shouldn’t do operations where you’re not going to actually hold the ground afterwards, and unfortunately that lesson came at a price,” one former 3/5 officer, Joseph Kristol, said of the battalion’s first operation, during which 23-year-old Lance Cpl. John Sparks was killed. Before long, 3/5 had reoccupied three of the 11 former British outposts that 3/7 had abandoned, and it eventually built many even more new patrol bases.

Over the next year, progress came at a heavy cost both in lives — 29 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in Sangin during 3/5’s seven-month tour — and in manpower, as companies were stripped from battalions elsewhere in Helmand to help out and an elite reconnaissance battalion pushed deep in the Green Zone to 3/5’s north.

The brutal losses the recon unit inflicted — which one Marine general estimated at “some 500 enemy soldiers” — convinced a tribe allied with the Taliban to switch sides, causing violence to drop off. When Gates visited Sangin in early 2011, he hailed the Marines’ success there as “a major strategic breakthrough.”

To the surprise of few, however, the Taliban gained ground as the Marines withdrew. In 2013, panicked Afghan army forces abandoned many of their outposts before reinforcements arrived to take them back, bringing with them a contingent of British advisers whose return to Sangin spurred concerned debate in Britain.

Lacking medevac helicopters and many of the mine-sweeping tools that Western troops enjoyed — from high-tech handheld ground-penetrating radars to bomb-sniffing dogs — Afghan soldiers and police have taken staggering losses since the Marines left Helmand in late 2014. Close watchers of the conflict warn that Afghan government officials may exaggerate the day-to-day numbers, but even accounting for that, the toll has dwarfed the figures of British and American losses that at the time seemed sky-high.

Just why they were in Sangin was often murky to the British and U.S. troops fighting there.

On the surface, taking on the Taliban in Sangin seemed like a sensible proposition to one group after another of NATO commanders responsible for securing Helmand. Situated in the province’s north, the district was a natural haven for militants and a source of funding for attacks elsewhere in the province. Moreover, the road through town was the gateway both to Taliban-controlled opium-processing facilities further north and to the crown jewel of Helmand’s infrastructure, the Kajaki Dam.

But the Western commitment to Helmand from which the Sangin mission sprang, some commentators have argued, was driven less by strategy than by the internal politics of Western militaries, with first the British army and then the U.S. Marine Corps identifying the province as a place that suited their own needs.

When Britain took responsibility for Helmand in 2006, it did so against a backdrop of lackluster performance in Basra, the British-run sector in Iraq, according to Mike Martin, a Pashto-speaking former British army captain whose scathing study of Helmand the British government attempted unsuccessfully to bar from publication.

“Senior British generals at the time were saying, ‘We’ve screwed up in Basra and therefore we need to put on a good show in Helmand,’” Martin told Checkpoint. “The target audience for the British intervention was the [U.S.] Pentagon, not the Helmandis.”

Three years later, the Marine Corps pushed to be assigned a sector in Helmand so that its forces could operate under their own command rather than being parceled out to Army headquarters, former Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran argues in his Helmand book.

At the center of the long NATO struggle in Helmand has been the province’s drug trade, from which the Taliban, government officials and almost everyone else make their money. “The Helmandi economy is the opium economy,” explained Martin.

Stuart Farris, a U.S. Army officer who spent time in Sangin early on, told an Army historian that his Green Beret detachment had trouble figuring out whom to fight during its time in the area in 2003. “It was hard to determine if folks were actually no-joke Taliban or just criminals. That’s where a lot of the problems were,” Farris recalled.

Farris’s team found Sangin friendly, however — perhaps because they had avoided antagonizing poppy farmers, let alone destroying poppy crops wholesale as later units sometimes would. “Once they started going after the opium guys, a lot of people who had been sitting on the fence . . . felt forced to align themselves with the Taliban because the coalition was taking away their livelihood,” Farris speculated.

The Afghan army built the first permanent base in Sangin in the spring of 2006 at the request of Helmand’s provincial government, ostensibly as part of a major poppy eradication initiative. But U.S. advisers who accompanied the Afghan troops discerned ulterior motives. As one officer told a historian, the same provincial bigwig who had militated for the establishment of the Sangin base ran the operation like a shakedown, openly demanding that communities pay bribes to avoid the destruction of their drug crops.

When British forces arrived a few months later, setting up their main base, FOB Jackson, in a palatial home seized from a drug baron, they inherited both the Sangin mission and the stew of local politics and commercial interests that helped create and perpetuate it, argues Helmand scholar Martin.

“From the Afghan government’s point of view, sucking Britain and America into the conflict was what they wanted, their protestations to contrary, because the more we commit, the more we’re forced to support their particular group of tribes and interests,” Martin told Checkpoint. Many in the local government and police hailed from one local tribe, the Alikozai, which historically had battled for drug profits with the neighboring Ishaqzai tribe. The Ishaqzai, predictably, threw in their lot with the Taliban.

“The police in Sangin are a drug militia belonging to one tribe, and the Taliban are another drug militia. Whoever controls the Sangin bazaar is able to tax the drug crop. Hence why people fight for control of the bazaar,” next to which FOB Jackson was located, Martin said.

U.S. Special Operations teams have reportedly returned to combat in Helmand in recent weeks, accompanying elite Afghan units rushed in to reinforce districts under Taliban threat or help retake districts that have fallen. It is unclear whether any of the teams have reached Sangin, although special operators have been spotted in Gereshk, the district to Sangin’s immediate south.

As the Washington Post reported, the top NATO officer in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Campbell, recently vowed privately to Afghan security officials “to fix Helmand,” promising to “use more of SOF [special operators] and enablers to buy you more space and time.”

That line of thinking worries Martin. Sending advisers back to Sangin will bring, at best, temporary relief to Afghan forces, he argues, while risking fresh Western casualties in the minefield — which, in turn, may reinforce the district’s outsize legacy and make it harder to let go of.

“Sangin is not strategically important. The only reason we see it as important is because we lost so many troops there,” Martin cautioned Checkpoint. “It has to fall at some point. It just depends on when the local tribes get around to it.”

Wesley Morgan’s book on Afghanistan’s Pech valley is forthcoming from Random House. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleysmorgan.