Helmand Province, Afghanistan – In early 2011, National Review published “With the Warriors,” my description of the savage struggle to control Sangin District in the southern part of this province. More than 200 British and American service members have died or lost limbs inside a 25-square-mile maze of flat farm fields interlaced with thousands of irrigation ditches and jumbled clusters of high-walled compounds, with a population of about 50,000. Clad in sneakers and farmers’ clothes, the Taliban blended in, shot their AKs from a distance, and, if hard pressed, scampered across the shallow Helmand River to safety in the badlands to the north. As related in that article, the Taliban had placed hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which took a daily toll. The Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment suffered 25 killed and hundreds wounded.
In mid-September of this year I went back to Sangin to see how things were going. The First Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment (1/7) was controlling twice as much territory with half as many Marines, at a cost of six killed and 28 wounded in five months. Although 1/7 had encountered some 300 IEDs, the district infrastructure had steadily improved. Since my last visit, 40 miles of road had been paved. Over a hundred storefronts lined the main street of the town of Sangin, offering an array of goods to hundreds of exclusively male shoppers. Within sight of the north–south highway, cows, goats, and flocks of sheep grazed; the farmers returned waves and the children, expecting candy, ran toward military vehicles.