National Security & Defense

Sangin, Bloody Sangin, and Wretched Afghanistan

U.S. Marines with Third Platoon, Kilo Company, in Sangin, 2010. (Photo: Bing West)
U.S. forces will be there for years, without winning. Some problems can only be managed.

Sources on the ground in Afghanistan tell American Military News that on January 1st, 2017 Afghanistan time, Sangin, widely known for the battle that took place there in 2010, has been completely retaken by the Taliban from the Afghan National Army.

American Military News, January 1, 2017

In 2010, the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company in the 5th Marine Regiment was patrolling the farmlands in bloody Sangin in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. When I joined them, they were shot at or encountered concealed IEDs (improvised explosive devices) every day. I had patrolled in many places in Vietnam (in the ’60s) and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third Platoon went into Sangin with 51 Marines and in seven months took 27 casualties, including two killed and nine amputations. Altogether, American and British forces each lost 100 troops in the battle and incurred several hundred moderate to severe casualties.

I suppose I have as much time on patrols as any American, and I loathed what I saw in Sangin, because what we gained could not be sustained. Our top generals were preaching a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy based on winning hearts and minds. “The conflict will be won,” General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander, wrote, “by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” Yet by a two-to-one ratio, the Marines in the platoon rated the Taliban better fighters than the Afghan soldiers, and not one Marine believed the villagers supported the government. (See my book One Million Steps, page 244.) Every battalion commander who served there knew that the Afghan soldiers would give up what we paid so dearly to gain. Yet the top Marine general in Helmand wrote me that I did not understand operations or strategy. We had a difference of opinion long before Sangin fell.

The denial, at the top, of the reality at the bottom was Kafkaesque. The 3rd platoon waded through red, crimson and purple poppy fields as beautiful as Monet’s paintings. Helmand provided 70 percent of the world’s supply of opium and heroin. A farmer collected pitch from every bulb on his five to seven acres and earned $9,000 for the aggregate product. He paid about $3,000 to the Taliban youths who helped him, plus a tax of 15 percent. Sangin District was yielding $40 million and Helmand Province was yielding $250 million in farm-gate revenues alone. The value skyrocketed from there, after the raw opium was refined in hidden labs and smuggled out to Pakistan, then west into Iran, and from there to the Balkans and on to the rest of Europe and to Russia. The Taliban in Helmand and across Afghanistan are tied into a global drug network estimated at well over $20 billion. Of course tribal leaders and government officials at all levels wanted their share. Our Marines were sent to the end of the earth — the miserable, selfish, mean district of Sangin — to win hearts and minds, while drug lords in collusion with the Taliban (and too many government officials) filled the wallets of the villagers. Mission impossible.

I voted for President Trump and believe President Obama gravely set back our nation overseas. But Obama’s instincts about Afghanistan were right, and our top generals led him down the wrong path. They claimed they could build a stable nation if he sent more American troops. That claim was in error because the tribal Afghans lacked a cohesive national spirit and because corruption was pervasive. The 10 million Pashtuns in the east were given no incentive to turn against the Taliban in their midst. Growing opium corrupted all involved; they knew they were exporting poison. There were no innocents and no commonweal. The only common defense was in support of the drug trade.

To make matters worse, Pakistan was dodgy, giving shelter and aid to the Taliban. The Pakistani goal is to keep control of Afghanistan, ostensibly to prevent any Afghan alliance with India. More fundamentally, Pakistan simply believed Afghanistan is its satrapy. Given a 250,000-square-mile sanctuary, obviously the Taliban could not be defeated on battlefields inside Afghanistan.

Our Marines were sent to the end of the earth to win hearts and minds, while drug lords in collusion with the Taliban filled the wallets of the villagers. Mission impossible.

So where does the Trump administration go? When he left the Pentagon in June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates believed he had succeeded in “weakening the Taliban and strengthening the Afghan Army.” Five years later, that is not the case, and yet President Obama has decided as he leaves office to further reduce U.S. troops there from roughly 10,000 to 8,400. That places the incoming administration in a bind. If President Trump increases the number, he will be asked for a specific objective and timetable. He will have to sideslip both. Basically, our objective is not to lose, but that is politically awkward to say. Fleeing from the rooftops in Kabul as we did from Saigon in 1975 would be a grave setback to American influence. Conversely, trying to regain districts like Sangin should not be an American or allied mission. So we’re going to be there for years to come, without fully consolidating that country; that is, without winning.

Counterinsurgency as the cornerstone of an overambitious nation-building strategy failed owing not to a lack of American troops but due to the cunning of Pakistan, to the incentives of the criminal drug network, and to the failure of the Afghan leadership within a tribal culture. It’s not clear that more training will yield better results, unless our training is linked directly to evaluating Afghan officers and includes a mechanism for firing the corrupt and incompetent. Above all, Pakistan must be treated with toughness on a transactional basis. Each time a red line is crossed, there must be a very serious reduction in our aid. Pakistan is not our ally. By its behavior, Pakistan has lost our trust. No cooperation, no aid.

#related#Can Afghanistan be prevented from collapsing as did Vietnam in 1975 and Iraq in 2012? Yes, for one basic reason. The Taliban can’t walk to Kabul. They can seize districts like Sangin, especially those linked to the drug trade. This means losing most of Helmand Province. And there are several provinces in the northeast where the Taliban can cut the roads through the mountains and take over. But that’s the extent of it. Central and western Afghanistan is tolerably stable thanks to tribes that are not Pashtun. As to the Pashtun provinces around Kabul, they encompass hundreds of square miles of flat lands. The Taliban cannot mass without detection that ensures devastating air attacks. Any time the Taliban drive vehicles, they become prey. I personally advocate more-rigorous bombing, with rules of engagement left to those in the fight, not thousands of miles away. In sum, Afghanistan can be continued indefinitely as an economy of force operation, as it is today, to prevent terrorist sanctuary. More grandiose political goals will remain elusive. Some problems can only be managed.

— A former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, Bing West has written ten books about our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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