Friday, March 24, 2017

Why We Fight, Part 94,130

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured the strategic district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand on Thursday, according to local officials. It was the culmination of a yearslong offensive that took the lives of more combatants than any other fight for territory in Afghanistan.
While spokesmen for the central government denied claims by the Taliban that the district had fallen to them, some conceded that the insurgents had overrun the district center and government facilities. But local Afghan government and military officials said there was no doubt Sangin had finally fallen to their enemy.
. . . .

More British troops and, later, American Marines died in Sangin than in any of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 other districts, until the international military coalition began turning it over to Afghan military forces in 2013. Since then, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police officers have lost their lives defending Sangin, while American Special Operations soldiers and aerial bombing tried to prevent the collapse of the district, apparently without success.

The district, a center of the lucrative opium trade, is strategically situated between the Helmand River and the border with Kandahar Province. “Sangin’s location is very, very important,” said Gen. Abdul Jabar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani’s personal military envoy to Helmand Province, who recently offered his resignation over widespread corruption that he says is undermining the government’s efforts there.
“By capturing Sangin, the Taliban are now able to connect Helmand with Kandahar,” General Qahraman said, referring to Afghanistan’s second-largest city. “Abandoning Sangin is a mistake, but the government is no longer able to keep forces there.”

Because of its strategic importance, the international coalition has invested heavily in defending Sangin, even after the American withdrawal of most combat forces from Afghanistan. In the years before then, it was the site of substantial losses for both British and American forces.

“This district was one of the most dangerous not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world,” Robert M. Gates, then the United States defense secretary, said in 2011 in Sangin, addressing the 3/5 Battalion of the United States Marines, which was deployed there. Those Marines had just “suffered the heaviest losses of any battalion in this 10-year-long war,” Mr. Gates said.

 . . . . By the end of the battalion’s full seven-month deployment in Sangin, 29 members had died.
Officials in the Afghan central government adamantly denied Thursday that such sacrifices had come to naught.

“It is not true,” Maj. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said of the reports of Sangin’s fall. “We relocated an army battalion in Sangin, we moved them to a newly built garrison. Whenever we move our forces in Sangin, they claim that they capture Sangin.”

Local government and military officials, however, said Thursday that the remaining battalion of Afghan National Army soldiers defending the town of Sangin and the district’s government and military bases had pulled out overnight. That was followed by heavy aerial bombing by the American-led coalition, to destroy vehicles, weapons and heavy equipment that the soldiers had abandoned, the officials said.
Hajji Mirajan, a member of the district shura, or government advisory body, in Sangin, said he did not understand why the soldiers had left, as no major attack had been underway. “There were no big threats to the district yesterday, and we do not know why the district is abandoned,” he said.
 . . . .

The shift of the defenders to a regimental base outside the district center meant the district had been conceded to the Taliban, Mr. Shakir said.
. . . .

The Taliban had long dominated most territory in Sangin except for the district center, which was home to the government and police headquarters as well as the army base. According to Mr. Shakir, the insurgents now hold seven of Helmand Province’s 14 districts; in five of the others, he said, the government holds only the district centers. Only two districts and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, are completely under government control, he said.

Several of Helmand’s districts have repeatedly changed hands, and it was possible that could happen in Sangin as well. But the Taliban have been determined to take the district, fighting almost constantly over it for the past eight years, and analysts said they would be unlikely to give it up easily.
. . . .

In response to the worsening situation in Helmand Province over all, the American military has announced plans to redeploy 300 Marines to the area this spring, the first time Marines will have been deployed in Afghanistan since leaving Sangin in 2014.

The New York Times, March 24, 2017

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