Marine forces formally took over Sangin yesterday, assuming control of the former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan from Great Britain’s 40 Commando, a Royal Marine unit that has been patrolling the area for months.
The change is significant, even if it has received only limited attention in the U.S. mainstream media.
The Brits are leaving Sangin, in northern Helmand province, after four years and 106 deaths — 36 of which occurred this year, according to a Daily Mail report out today. Their struggles to establish and maintain security in the district of about 50,000 people has contributed to growing discontent in the country about the British military’s role in Afghanistan.
More recently, the Brits have reportedly locked horns with Marine commanders, who have altered how business on the ground in Sangin and nearby Musa Qala is conducted. A recent story by The Washington Post’s respected Rajiv Chandrasekaran highlighted those details nicely:
To the south of Musa Qala, U.S. Marines are in the process of moving into Sangin district, where more than 100 British troops – nearly one-third of that country’s total war dead – were killed over the past four years. Senior Marine officers initially resisted being saddled with the area, which they dubbed “the killing fields,” but they relented after pressure from top U.S. commanders.
The influx also has elicited conflicting emotions from coalition partners. British and Canadian officers say they didn’t have the manpower or equipment to confront a mushrooming insurgency by themselves, but they also cringe at the need to be bailed out by the United States.
“There’s a mix of relief and regret,” said a British officer. “We’ve spilled a lot of blood in Sangin and Musa Qala, and we’re quite frankly happy to leave those places, but we don’t want this to look like another Basra,” referring to the southern Iraqi city that U.S. and Iraqi forces had to rescue after it was seized by militias upon a British pullout in 2007.
Commandant Gen. James Conway addressed the differences of opinion between Marine commanders and their British counterparts in an Aug. 24 news conference at the Pentagon, after he returned from his last major trip to Afghanistan. As 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., was preparing to take over Sangin, Conway defended the practice, saying the Corps will conduct business with more, smaller combat outposts.
“We believe that we need to challenge the enemy where he thinks he has strength, and we are less prone, I think, to move into a forward operating base and simply use that as a basis for operation,” he said. “Our mentality is there’s no place in a zone where we’re not going to go.”
British forces will remained focus on Now Zad, Helmand’s provincial capital, and the surrounding area. Marine officials have said the area has seen improvement this summer.