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