Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: How ISAF infighting helped doom Sangin to its ongoing violence

Afghanistan Analysts Network

View over Sangin district centre and the southern Green Zone

View over Sangin district centre and the southern Green Zone | Julius Cavendish

Sangin district in Helmand has again, this year, seen heavy fighting, this time between the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taleban. With dozens killed and thousands displaced following an insurgent assault involving hundreds of fighters, the Taleban leadership is once again showing how much it values this strategic crossroads and poppy-producing hub. Guest author Julius Cavendish,* who reported on fighting in Sangin in 2010 and 2011 and is following what’s happening in the region closely since, has been looking into the background of one of the most contested districts in the country. He reveals how ISAF repeatedly squandered the chance to build a durable political settlement in the district, including bombing a meeting of Taleban while they were discussing going over to the government. He argues that institutional dysfunction and competing agendas within the coalition helped ensure that the generals and bureaucrats overseeing the campaign in Helmand repeatedly undermined efforts to build a lasting peace. (With additional reporting by Muhib Habibi in Kandahar.)

On 20th November 2010, Taleban commander and shadow district governor Mullah Abdul Qayum met all afternoon with other disaffected insurgents in his high-walled garden in southern Afghanistan. According to local elders and British officials, the men — incensed by months of brutality by out-of-area insurgents — were plotting to hand one of Afghanistan’s most violent districts over to government control. It was a brazen double-cross that would, Qayum and his accomplices hoped, finally bring peace to their valley. Now, following months of secret correspondence with Afghan and British officials, they wanted a demonstration of government good faith. That is when a NATO bomb slammed into the meeting. Read the rest of this entry »


Julius Cavendish: It may not be safe yet, but progress was made thanks to aggressive US tactics

The Independent

View from Sangin: A tentative peace accord struck at the start of the year is holding, at least to the extent that it still exists

Seven months ago 500lb bombs were tearing into Taliban positions outside Sangin district centre in Helmand province as the US Marines here launched an aggressive and costly campaign against Taliban insurgents. What was already Afghanistan’s bloodiest district for foreign troops quickly became more so.

The infusion of troops, including US Marines, was part of President Obama’s surge and despite widespread suspicion of Nato’s spin, it genuinely seems that their arrival had an impact, especially in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar – although neither province is yet safe, nor going to be in the immediate future. The Taliban matched Obama’s surge with their own escalation, knowing full well that tactical defeats matter little, provided they can simply hang-on under the drawdown.

But the gun battles and roadside blasts that once took place in Sangin’s heart have migrated to its fringes – and it’s hard to see that as anything but a vindication of the Marines’ aggressive tactics. Yesterday there was barely a single explosion within earshot of the Marines’ main base. Read the rest of this entry »


Will the Taliban Re-Take the Most Dangerous Place in Afghanistan?

Time.com

Courageous elders have managed to broker a deal to allow some fighters to come in from the cold. But will the Taliban negate those gains as the spring approaches?

The men came for Badar Agha before dawn, opening fire on the grizzled, turbaned elder as he set out for the local mosque in January. A senior figure in the Alokozai tribe, Badar Agha’s offense was to yearn for peace in his native Sangin, a bucolic slice of farmland and river that U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates described as perhaps the most dangerous place on earth. Cutting a peace deal here is perilous business and common sense dictated that Taliban gunmen would try to kill him. Amid the snap, snap, snap of passing bullets, Badar Agha fired back with the Kalashnikov he was carrying. Though wounded, he managed to squeeze off enough rounds to put his attackers to flight.

Days later, “Badar Agha is fine and back in Sangin,” a fellow elder from his village said — and still trying to broker peace. Two local rebel commanders known to be sympathetic to a détente were less lucky. Riza Gul and Pahlawan disappeared soon after the attack on Badar Agha and are presumed dead by members of their community. “Everyone says they’ve been killed [by the Taliban],” the elder says. Individually their deaths might seem like small change in Afghanistan’s grim arithmetic. But they are significant casualties in a desperate fight-back from the Taliban as years of intrigue and skulduggery come to a head. Read the rest of this entry »


Taliban ‘killing their own’ in bid to wrest back control in Sangin

The Independent

Taliban gunmen have begun assassinating their own rank and file in a desperate bid to stop a remote mountain valley sliding from their grasp, as well as bringing in new commanders to oversee their fightback in Sangin, Afghanistan’s most violent district, The Independent can reveal.

They are also attacking tribal elders trying to broker a peace deal between disillusioned members of the insurgency – resentful of Taliban commanders from other tribes and districts ordering them about – and government officials eager for peace.

Speaking by phone, a tribal elder in the upper Sangin valley said Taliban gunmen ambushed an elder from the Alokozai tribe called Badar Agha as he left home for morning prayers earlier this month. Aware an attempt on his life was likely, the elder shot back with his Kalashnikov, apparently wounding an assailant before being taken to hospital for medical treatment. Read the rest of this entry »


US troops take hard line to tame rebels of Sangin

The Independent

There was so much high explosive raining down it was hard to believe anyone could have survived beneath the two-hour salvo of guided artillery rounds, Hellfire missiles and strafing runs by F/A-18 warplanes and helicopter gunships.

But somehow they did. After every strike Taliban insurgents would fire back defiantly, telling the US Marines they were still there; still alive. “Time for the tactical nuke,” Captain Alexander Vanston, a Marine civil affairs officer, said dryly as another 500lb bomb tore through a Taliban position, sending earth and debris billowing hundreds of feet into the cloudless sky. Read the rest of this entry »


Why it’s so hard for NATO to train Afghan forces

Christian Science Monitor

Corruption, drug addiction, and too many Afghan deserters, make handing over power a daunting task, say NATO officials and Western diplomats.

Sangin, Afghanistan

Men hurried through the dark with a stretcher, flares burst, and a helicopter thumped in to the forward operating base in southern Afghanistan. The evacuation was evidence of slick professionalism. But the casualty – a young Afghan policeman who had apparently overdosed on drugs – was an illustration of the immense difficulties facing NATO as it prepares Afghan National Security Forces to take responsibility for their country.

Handing over security to the Afghan government, as per the Lisbon summit two weeks ago, is an uphill task. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen want to finish transferring security by the end of 2014. Yet there are too few NATO trainers, too many Afghan deserters, and too much corruption, NATO officials and Western diplomats say, to make that a credible scenario. Read the rest of this entry »


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