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Why the British are Leaving Sangin

Mark Urban | 18:05 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The decision to withdraw British troops will leave Sangin, the most violent district in Helmand (and probably all of Afghanistan), shows how many parties share in the decision making as well as how hard it is to leave these places without adverse comment.

Essentially the decision was taken by Nato in Afghanistan, with input from the British government. The number two in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) set up is a British general, but the main impetus for change came from the Americans.

There are now 18,000 US troops in Helmand (mostly from the US marine Corps) - twice as many as the British have. Increasingly they have taken over sections of the province to the north and south of Britain's Task Force Helmand.

The northern US brigade, Regimental Combat Team 2, has already taken over formerly British districts in Musa Qaleh, Now Zad and Kajaki. It has also taken the British battle group in Sangin under its control.

Announcing today's decision Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the American who commands ISAF's fighting troops day to day, emphasized that the change was about tidying the boundaries between different commands in southern Afghanistan. As this happens a US Marine battalion will be freed up to the west, and will be able to replace the British in Sangin.

While the creation of orderly boundaries and coherent command structures is of course important to the military mind, it would be foolish to think that this decision had been made without the involvement of the British government. Indeed, announcing the change today defence secretary Liam Fox stressed that it had been, "closely consulted by ISAF".


In deciding what to do with Sangin, there was an emotional subtext as well as a military or political one. For some of the US Marine commanders, the idea that their northern brigade would sub-contract the toughest challenge in Afghanistan to the British sat uneasily with their self image as warriors. They relish the challenge ahead.

For the British military, Sangin aroused even more powerful feelings. The battle group that returned in April, 3 Rifles, lost 30 men killed and had more than 100 wounded - almost half of the entire casualties suffered by Britain's Task Force Helmand over a six month period.

Some British soldiers will be delighted to see the back of the place - with all the myriad dangers it contains. But many of them, particularly the more senior ones, wanted to be able to demonstrate that they had turned the situation around before handing Sangin over to the Americans. There are some indicators of progress, for example in the number of shops open or children at school. However there is an argument locally that the Taliban have colluded in this by letting these places function.

The real problem however is that the security indicators - of attacks on Nato or Afghan forces, and casualties - show no sign of improvement. Indeed, 3 Rifles lost seven more men than the previous battle group.

Security arguments

Some MoD spokesmen have today characterized the hand over of Sangin as being just the same as that of other districts such as Musa Qaleh. But there is a crucial difference. In Musa Qaleh, where Taliban resistance was so strong in 2006 that British troops were actually forced out, the town was re-captured and there has been a dramatic improvement in security. When British troops handed over a few months ago they could therefore say, 'job done'. This is not the case in Sangin, despite their heavy sacrifice.

Some talk about that place as an irredeemable nest of drug traffickers, bomb makers, and jihadists. It may be that the Americans cannot improve the security situation either under the tight timescales demanded by their political masters.

All we can say for the moment is that leaving Sangin ought to lead to a significant reduction in British casualties and that may make it possible for the UK to soldier on in Afghanistan for longer than might otherwise have been the case. Those who hoped to hand the place on to the US or Afghans with much greater security are unlikely to achieve this by October, when the changeover will occur. So the arguments are bound to swirl about whether the British have done a 'Basra 2' and left the Americans to finish the job. People will also ask whether both the US military and the government in London ultimately ran out of the patience required to let them do that.


  • Comment number 1.


    Surely, even the most dim among us, now knows that Tony Blair is - how can I do this justice without being 'Blogdogged' - the last person we should have allowed to take decisions that affect the lives of innocent people?

    Afghanistan will end up a confused mess. The mix of epoch, ethos and culture, that will ensue, will be inherently unstable, and will yield generations of angst, JUST AS WE HAVE IMPLANTED ROUND THE GLOBE FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS. We have learned nothing. Nothing about interfering in alien lives, and nothing about elevating deluded leaders to a feudal position of near-absolute power. Who was it said that politicians should know more history?

    Emperor Dave is such a posturing ninny. At PMQs he covered all the opportunities for flag-wrapping and jingoism EXCEPT ONE! Harman pounced on it and pathetic Dave had to do a 'me too' to catch up.

    Westminster is full of diminished, single-minded individuals. Let's have another election and choose our own. We might just SPOILPARTYGAMES and bring some sanity.

    Oh - it's all going awfully well.

  • Comment number 2.

    Mark - but why are we in Afghanistan at all? What possible objective reason is there? Certainly, as someone who has been there twice (in a civilian capacity in 1989 and 1992) - I have simply no idea? Worse still, has no-one realised that this is an unwinnable and pointless war despite the tremendous efforts of our military?

    I am aways drawn to the parallel of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland in which we deployed every force we had within a part of the UK that was on our doorstep. After 30 years did we win? Barely. It took 9/11 and a political solution to slow down the blooodshed.

    Do we really think that we are 'winning the argument' in Afghanistan? No-one in their right minds could possibly believe this, anymore than they could justify our bizarre presence there.

  • Comment number 3.

    As an ex-serviceman who served for 28 years, helping out in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have to say that I do question the original reasons for entering into this unwinnable war. I hope that the Chilcott enquiry provides us with truth, but I very much doubt it.
    My Ukrainian wife cannot believe how stupid we have been, based upon Russia's failures. Her first husband served as a Russian soldier on the frontline in Afghanistan and still suffers the mental scars. Her second husband (me) served in the advance party in the set up of Camp Bastion. I'm ok. Her son (my stepson) enters the British Army in October and will be heading out to Afghanistan shortly thereafter. We will be terrified for every minute he is out there.
    My wife recalls the same propaganda being fed to the Russian people by their government/media shortly before they were forced out - "conditions are improving", "quality of life is better for the average Afghan", "we're winning" etc etc etc etc
    Nobody has yet given us the real reasons for our involvement and I am not convinced that anyone knows!! Homeland security - rubbish.

  • Comment number 4.

    barriesingleton - Going awfully well or well awful?

    Nick Snelling - the troubles in Northern Ireland could have been 'won' in a day quite easily. Our hands were tied over there. It served a purpose to drag it out, just like it does now.

    Chris- Yeah I'm with you on this. A lot of servicemen are silently asking why. But as you know, ours it not to reason why. I find it shocking that people do not see through this sham war on terror. I'm disgusted that no journalist has the testicular fortitude to report what is really going on out there and the real reasons for it.

    As pointed out this redeployment is not a defeat and I'm glad the Spams are taking it over. It's there bloody mess after all.

  • Comment number 5.

    #2 "I am aways drawn to the parallel of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland in which we deployed every force we had within a part of the UK that was on our doorstep. After 30 years did we win? Barely. It took 9/11 and a political solution to slow down the blooodshed.

    Do we really think that we are 'winning the argument' in Afghanistan? No-one in their right minds could possibly believe this, anymore than they could justify our bizarre presence there."

    Are you saying you'd have just handed over Ulster to a couple of hundred fanatics then? While each death in Afghanistan is a tragedy our losses there are historically miniscule. We lost nearly 300 in the Falklands in a few weeks and dozens a year most years in Northern Ireland. If we run away from Afghanistan now we send out a powerful message that all you need to do to defeat the British army is kill a couple of dozen men and we'll run away. Do that and I can promise Guatamala will start looking at Belize again and the Argentinians will start sabre rattling over the Falklands..... especially if we don't replace our carriers. Whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan originally is a good debate (but ultimately futile unless you have a TARDIS- we DID go in) but being seen to lose would have terrible consequences. Virtually no one in the US army today fought in Vietnam but they still carry that stigma around with them.

    My prefered solution to Afghanistan is the same as the solution to Ulster. Stop having 'accidents' like Bloody Sunday that recruit more terrorists than anything else, start fighting harder and give the Taliban a few bloody noses, then make a decent offer to their leaders. All it really took for peace in Ulster was to give Adams and McGuinness MP's expense accounts. You'll never bribe all the Taliban into giving up the fight but the Afghan army should be able to keep the 'Real-Taliban' in check enough for us to get out with some dignity left.

    P.S It might help if the BBC reported some of our wins too. I need to read Canadian and New Zealand news sites to actually find out what our army is doing.

  • Comment number 6.

    Nick and BDEngr, you both seem to have a wide and varied notion of the definition of winning. To win in Afghanistan the same way as we 'barely won' in NI would be to put the taliban back into government and leave, just as the IRA are now in NI government, the really sad thing is that we all know this is EXACTLY what will end up happening.
    These 'victories' we claim are actually outright defeats in the eyes of the world, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. I'd be interested when this is all over to see how you guys will manage to claim the Russians were defeated while we were victorious (even if only barely).

    Wars never decide who's right, only who's left.

  • Comment number 7.

    The fact that its taking over 3 hours while a fairly mild comment about the long term implications of us being seen to lose is 'investigated further' is all the statement the BBC need to make on this subject.

  • Comment number 8.

    #6 (and doubtless Mark won't publish this either)

    What were the IRA's aims throughout the troubles?

    Answer: Ulster united with the Irish Republic, British troops out, A marxist state imposed.

    How many of their aims have they achieved? Yet they're the ones who have totally disarmed and have stopped killing our soldiers and civilians.

    What did we have to concede to get this far?

    The release of some prisoners who'd probably be out in a few more years anyway.

    That was a pretty good result. If Afghanistan works out the same way it really will be Mission Accomplished as you seem to forget that the Taliban never ran the whole country anyway... between the Russians leaving and the west invading there was a 12 year civil war that killed over a million Afghans. ANY form of government would be better than what was there.

  • Comment number 9.

    Chris said it cannot argue with a thing he said, if the Russians got out then we should get out as I think we are doing. One thing about conservative governments...they hate to blow money especially on a failed enterprise by Blair and after Lord Goldsmith said he wasn't happy with the invasion I do not think our hearts are in it you?

  • Comment number 10.

    people have been stuck fighting this war in one place for so long they have 'emotional attachment' to battle zones? Sounds like commanders vanity? Which is in keeping with the whole exercise?

    given the academic studies shows occupation troops increase suicide bombing in the occupiers own country in what way is our occupation making it 'safer here'.

    Given AQ don't need afghanistan to train and motivate people-the mere fact of daily combat with occupation forces is going to be top grade training- providing the taliban with a cadre of battle hardened troops and skilled and experienced commanders all we have done is to turn the whole of aghanistan into one big training camp?

    we know the unannounced churchills choice policy is about working through tribal networks letting them sort out their society rules even thought the media do their best to tub thump this is about womens education and what not.

    as long as the British FO Policy is hijacked by neocons they will try to turn this into another 100 years war.

    The USA, through troop shortage have been recruiting gang members and prison offenders [see previous posts]. if anyone knows how to fight drug gangs it should be them?

    The way to make the uk safer is to have a ring of steel around the uk borders. If the 2000 or so jihadis in the uk really wanted to wage war in the uk they could make uk cities ungovernable [like people did in Iraq]. Look at the lock down and massive resources currently on just to find one gunman?

    the uk has no society building science. So it does not know what it wants to do in the uk never mind abroad. How come uk troops are fighting to bring a greater level of democracy to Afghanistan than we have here? Are we less than Afghans in human rights?

  • Comment number 11.

    I have just seen the story of the Afghan Army's only surviving triple amputee,Mohammed. I hope someone in the UK government does the right thing and helps this brave man as an example of what a good ally does for those that stand with Britain. I wish you would do more stories about the amazing service British women are carrying out on the fronlines of Afghanistan. Corporal Sarah Marriot deserves a medal, what a terrific example to all.

  • Comment number 12.

    The reason while we failed and we did fail in Sangin is that the Army is too Small to undertake long term medium -scale COIN missions any longer.
    the accepted wisdom is that it takes 15-20 Conventional soldiers for every insurgent! and even if that figure is probably to high,. Britain needed to deploy at least 2 divisions to have completed the task.
    with a Army and added Marine brigade of no more than hundred and ten thousand that was impossible
    COIN is labour intensive, a brief look at this countrys coin campaigns over the last 60 years would have confirmed that. the average commitment to Malaya at any one time was 30 thousand, Tens of thousands of British and Commomwealth troops where deployed for the Indoesian Confrontion, even if only very small numbers ever saw action.
    Ulster needed a sustained average of 11 to 15 thousand troops , plus about 8 thousand RUC and similar number of UDR and that was a very low intensity campaign.
    our greatest mistake was deploying to Helmand Province, the right strategy was continuing to provide the Headquarters forces for ISAF in Kabul, sending a battalion battle group to support the US "Enduring Freedom" anti-terrorist mission in the country, as a "Fire-Brigade" force in a similar manner as the commitment of the Royal Marine 45 Commando battlegroup in "Operation Jacanna" during the summer of 2002.
    But due to the Hubris of Blair and incompetance of that clown Reid, added to the poor advice given by the Army General Staff , we ended up biting off much more than we could chew.
    This Country is only able to deploy a division of troops for a short High to medium intensity Coin or Conventional Campaign or a Battalion battle group on a sustained campaign, except when this country or it's national interests are threatened and there is a total commitment of our Reserve forces such as a attack on the mainland or perhaps something like the Falklands.
    As armed forces go we have a Very Good little 'un, but the Gods of War favour the Big Battalions.


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