Tuesday, August 6, 2019

"The Valley of Death," Sangin, Afghanistan

                                 “People need to hear what these young men went through”
                                                                                                                                 Mark “Coach” Soto

The Sangin Valley in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province is not on the radar scope of most Americans. But it is engraved in the hearts and minds of many British and American combat veterans who fought there. It is also engraved within the tombs of many who fell.
Some called Sangin Afghanistan’s hell. Others called it “The Valley of Death.” It has been known as one of the bloodiest places on Earth, a "hellhole," Afghanistan’s Stalingrad, or as the British would say, “Sangingrad.” One Marine called it “the Wild West.” At one point it was the most brutal tour for Marines of the entire war.

Let's just quickly review the year 2001 in Afghanistan:
  • The air attack against the US that killed over 3,000 occurred on September 11, 2001.
  • The US and Britain launched their invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.
  • Afghan militias and other nations would join later.
  • The Allies drove the Taliban government in Kabul out by December 17, 2001. That government fled to Pakistan along with many of its fighters. But most of its fighters fled to southern Afghanistan, to the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
The Taliban remained quiet until 2006, recruiting, regrouping, and training. Its war fighters re-emerged then and remain a powerful and elusive force to the present.

In response, the British deployed to the Sangin area in 2006. They stayed until 2010. Initially, their objective was to confront local drug lords who cultivated the lucrative opium fields in the Helmand province. The Taliban forced the British to set that objective aside and instead fight to prevent the Taliban from overrunning their bases; that is, fight to survive.

The British formed Task Group Helmand, rotating in units every six months: the 16 Assault Brigade and 1 Royal Irish, 3rd Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 12 Mechanized Brigade, and 52 Infantry Brigade. Forces from several other countries served with the British as well.

General Sir David Richards said they “turned up a hornet’s nest” when they deployed to Helmand.

He said, "There was in some respects a failure of intelligence despite the efforts to get it right.”

In short, the British were not prepared for the fierce fighting they would encounter. And, as noted earlier, they found themselves too often on the defense.

General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, agreed, saying:

"I absolutely accept that what we found when we had our forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and been hoping for ... We were ready for an adverse reaction but we did not, to be fair, expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be ... We had always anticipated Taliban potential intent. What we probably underestimated was their capacity.”

The British did not have enough men, not enough equipment, and they were so busy protecting towns and villages that they had almost no time to go out and attack the enemy elsewhere in the province. They destroyed a lot of enemy but they could not achieve larger objectives.

The British and their allies fought with great valor, but came to a stalemate by December 2007. They had lost some 106 men in the Sangin District.

The US commander in Helmand, Major-General Richard Mills, USMC said that the UK forces' performance in Sangin had been "simply nothing short of magnificent."

The US sent Marines to help. The 1-6 Marines were the first, followed by the 2-7 Marines. The 1-6 Marines focused mainly on southeastern Helmand, mostly in the town of Garmsir. The 2-7 Marines deployed to several towns, one of which was Sangin. Through April 2008 the 2-7 lost 14, and by end of tour had lost 20 with 160 wounded, thirty of which were amputees.

Chris Craven a former Marine platoon sergeant with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (B/1-6 Marines) said:

“I fought in Fallujah and I fought in Ramadi (both in Iraq) as well, and it’s the same kind of low blow. Out of the three, (Sangin) was by far my bloodiest.”
 Sangin District Center, the scene of much heavy fighting.

 Sgt. Dean Davis, a Marine correspondent described Sangin this way:

“Sangin is one of the prettier places in Helmand, but that’s very deceiving. It’s a very dangerous place; it’s a danger you can feel.”

One from the British 2 Rifles said

“The problem with Sangin Valley is it is where the Taliban and Islamist insurgents flock to.”

Dan Lamothe, a staff writer with the Marine Times, wrote this on November 5, 2008 about the 2-7 Marines:

“Deployed to Afghanistan since March, the battalion has fought off ambushes in lawless areas of Afghan wilderness, traveled bomb-laden roads and experienced more casualties than any other unit in the Corps this year.”

In the spring of 2009, eleven thousand additional Marines poured into the province, the first wave of President Obama's 21,000 troop surge into Afghanistan

Ferocious fighting has been the rule in Helmand every day since 2006. That continues to this day.

A report dated July 14, 2011 by Gretel Kovach about Sangin starts off this way:

“There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of Sangin lately. After a year of punishing losses among the insurgent ranks, the Taliban finally launched a counteroffensive to retake their former stronghold in the poppy fields of southwestern Afghanistan.

“The Camp Pendleton unit fighting to rout them from Sangin, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3-5 Marines), has lost seven Marines killed in a little more than a month, and many more wounded.”

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment US Marines (3-5 Marines) arrived in Sangin in September 2010, relieving the 3-7 Marines who had relieved the British 40 Commando. The 3-5 would remain until April 2011.

During the period October 2010 through January 2011, the 3-5 Marines lost 25 dead and 184 wounded, including 34 who lost one or more limbs to traumatic amputation.

Late in 2010, Secretary of Defense Gates offered to withdraw the Marines. Gates commented, “This district was one of the most dangerous not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world.”

General James Amos, Commandant USMC, said “absolutely not. We don’t do business that way. You would have broken the spirit of that (3-5) battalion.”

Following this, the 1-5 "Geronimo" Marines came to Sangin to relieve the 3-5. Geronimo lost 17 KIA, and suffered 185 wounded during its deployment. Tony Perry, writing for the Los Angeles Times, said:

“Of the 17, nine were lance corporals, three were corporals, four were sergeants and one was a gunnery sergeant. The youngest was 20; the two oldest were 29. The 17 included snipers, riflemen and specialists in finding and defusing the buried bombs that are the main killer of U.S. and Afghan military personnel.”

The number of battles fought by US and Allied forces in Sangin is too high to accurately count. These became known as the Battles of the Sangin Valley, to this day, one of the most difficult and lethal aspects of the Afghan War. One American Marine aptly said:

“Marines do not fight wars. They fight battles.”

That is exactly what they did in Sangin. And they were fierce.

Toby Woodbridge, in his book, "Sangin, A Glance through Afghan Eyes," wrote this informative piece in his book:

“From a military standpoint the town (of Sangin) was no natural fortress for those stationed within.” He said foliage and high growing crops reduced the field of view. The rolling hills could mask sight of enemies hiding behind them. There was sufficient high ground in every direction enabling an enemy a good view of the town below. The walls are “interlinked in a warren-like honeycomb without external support, a permeable perimeter enabling easy access into the town’s center from myriad different directions.” Woodbridge said that it was impossible to place enough troopers out there to cover every potential gap, and the enemy had a way of finding the gaps and punching through. He explained that the terrain was such that soldiers were virtually forced to take known paths, vulnerable to easy ambush.

He noted this reality:

“From the defenders’ point of view it was a landscape that rewarded constant presence and continual oversight at all times, for the moment you turned to look another way so your enemy would ensure danger greeted the next discerning glance. There was of course no possibility to place a boot on every pace of grass, dirt or track …”

Julius Cavendish reported for Time magazine on March 10, 2011 that one western diplomat viewed the current situation this way:
“Basically in Sangin they have lots of guns, lots of heroin infrastructure, key distribution points, and zero interest in 'government' — which may just want to control the heroin ... It's not always useful to look at things as 'government' versus 'Taliban' rather than a hotch-potch of interest groups — cut along tribal, political, historical lines — fighting for control.”

I will stop here, though there is much more to tell.

The Marines left the Sangin Valley in May 2014. About 300 Marines returned in May 2018 to work as advisors. I believe they are still there.

Ownership of territory in Helmand has changed hands many time. Fierce fighting continues there to the presen, including in Sangin.Thomas Ricks mnoted this in 2017, and it applies now as well:

"The spectre of Sangin lives on."

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