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On the Sangin handover

Mark Urban | 19:35 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

The handover of Sangin to the US Marines has rid the British of their most troublesome district in Afghanistan. Some 106 British lives were lost there, and several times that number of Afghans has perished, since Paras were first sent there in the summer of 2006.

Many soldiers will be only too pleased to see the back of the place. A six month tour meant running the gauntlet of snipers, booby traps and ambushes sometimes placed just yards from the gates of your patrol base.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has tried to handle the situation with due deference to British, Afghan and US political sensibilities. It wants to suggest that much has been achieved during the British time in Sangin but to shy away at the same time from body counts or claims that might sound like bravado.

So the emphasis has been on a doubling of shops open in the bazaar, hundreds visiting the district health centre weekly, and the reopening of schools. All of these are no doubt significant measures of society trying to get back to normal in Sangin. But as we discovered when visiting earlier this year, the Taliban commission in the district has also played a role in agreeing to health or education improvements.

The key issue or indicator is therefore security. British officers tell me there has recently been a distinct improvement in security there, speaking of an 80% drop in attacks on coalition forces. Two British soldiers were killed in the district during August, compared to ten during August 2009.

So it's possible that at the eleventh hour, the British generals who believed that some kind of turnaround had to be achieved before the place was handed to the Americans have had their prayers answered.

The MoD, however, when asked today by Newsnight for monthly figures for significant attacks on coalition forces in Sangin declined to provide them. Why, you might say, if these figures do indeed reveal any sort of positive trend? The answer seems to be that it is MoD policy not to release such figures because doing so would set a precedent. Naturally, there are many places where they would not show a positive trend.

Such a policy underlines the difficulty of reporting the war, in trying to make an assessment of what is really going on in many parts of Afghanistan. So perhaps it's not surprising that so many of those working on this conflict - from journalists to aid workers or academics - therefore welcomed the Wikileaks publication of secret files on the conduct of the war.


  • Comment number 1.

    If there was any kind of good news coming out of Afghanistan they would be desperate to parade it?

    Its best we slip out quietly like we did in Iraq? After all the camps where Brits are trained are in somalia and yemen now?

    One wonders if there will be an Afghanistan inquiry like the iraq one where witnesses are brought in open session. Given this war has lasted longer than both world wars it would seem arrogant to assume there were no lessons to learn? It would make for gripping Tv?

  • Comment number 2.


    How very easy it is to read that as: "The Sangin Hangover".

    How ironic that a hangover is, typically, 'our problem' because we have clasped alcohol to our cultural bosom, never summoning the wisdom to eschew it (in the way the ignorant Arab did). But then, the son of our version of Abraham's God, actually turned potable water into poisonous alcohol! It does make you wonder who is the ignorant, misguided savage!

    Oh well - let's bomb him to make sure.

  • Comment number 3.

    all those wasted lives all those families in trauma...was it really worth it? For some far off piece of desert no cares about and where so many have perished and in five years, ten years who will remember them...only their bereaved families...

  • Comment number 4.

    So we have handed Sangin over to the US marines, pity that we ever entered Helmand Province in the first place, hubris and a Prime Minster and Defence Secretary who knew nothing of History, Reid was supposed to have had a degree in the Subject! waltzed into a bearpit without the slightest notion of the problems. Britain doesn't have the numbers to conduct Military Operations over a Province the size of Helmand, We learnt nothing from the same mistake in Southern Iraq, biting off more that we could chew.
    This Country's best option is to cease large -scale missions and instead provide tailored Battle-groups and "Task Forces" for Anti-Terrorist and Coin operations in conjunction with Allies , most usually the Americans.
    The US Military admire our Special Forces and Infantry units, were they have serious doubts is in our ability to conduct "Operational -level" tasks.
    Lets play to our strengths, not large scale deployments, we no longer can sustain.


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