Tuesday, September 14, 2010
U.S. Takes Over Fight in Helmand
As British Soldiers Leave Bloody Afghan Province, American Troops Try Out More-Mobile Strategy By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS SANGIN, Afghanistan—After four bloody and frustrating years trying to secure the most dangerous town in Helmand Province, the British are pulling out with, at best, a draw. Over the coming months, U.K. forces will leave Sangin and turn it over to the U.S. to finish the job. Neither British nor U.S. officers describe it this way aloud, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. Marines are being sent in to complete what the undermanned British couldn't, in a province once known as Helmandshire for the U.K.'s dominance here. Change of Command in Sangin View Slideshow Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal Almost a third of the 335 British troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 have died in just one town: Sangin, Helmand Province, population 20,000. More photos and interactive graphics Although British officers point to incremental security gains, they acknowledge they simply haven't had enough men to oust the hundreds of Taliban fighters who attack from the shadows, litter the landscape with hidden explosives and blend in easily with the locals. "The concentration of force is something we haven't been able to bring in here," says Royal Marine Maj. Aldeiy Alderson, chief of staff of Combined Force Sangin. Almost one-third of the 335 British troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 have died in this single town of 20,000 people. "Helmandshire is symptomatic of the broader problem in Afghanistan—that we as a coalition haven't had the resources needed to get the job done," says John Nagl, head of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. In the past two years, the British fought to a stalemate in Garmsir and Now Zad, only to see larger American forces sent in to clear the towns. U.S. Marines are also taking over Kajaki, site of a key hydropower plant. Sangin is a test of whether it is possible to reverse the gains the Taliban have made against British forces in Helmand Province. The Americans—the 1,200-strong Third Battalion, Seventh Regiment—have been entering Sangin since July and, fighting alongside 1,200 Royal Marines, appear to be making headway. But in a couple of months, the British will be gone, leaving the Americans to cover the same ground the U.K. struggled to control—with roughly the same number of troops. The British contribute the second-largest force to the international coalition. Still, the U.K. has just 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in Helmand, while the U.S. has 10 times as many in the country, including 20,000 Marines in Helmand. The British "have decided, given limited resources, to focus on the central part of the province" and leave the hot spots of northern Helmand to the U.S., says Col. Paul Kennedy, commander of U.S. Marine forces in the area. The bloodiest battlefield they are leaving is Sangin, a crossroads for insurgent fighters, drugs and money that has assumed mythic status in Britain. The U.K. has lost at least 106 men there since coming to town in 2006, with 36 of them falling this year, according to the Ministry of Defense. "On the lowest level, it's hard to fault the commitment and bravery of the lads," says Maj. Alderson, the Royal Marine officer. "This isn't two weeks in the French trenches and going to the rear. It's six months of constant patrols. This is some of the toughest fighting I've ever seen." The British say they have improved both security and governance, at least in the town's commercial center. Last year, the British counted 399 shops open in the bazaar; now there are 1,400, selling everything from cars and motorcycles to groceries and household goods under solar-powered lights provided by the international coalition. "We've invested a lot of blood and treasure in Sangin. Has it been worth it?" asks Royal Marine Maj. Paul Lynch, commander of Delta Co., 40 Commando Group. "We've made progress in governance and socioeconomic development for the people of Sangin. That's why we came." Still, the British continue to find Sangin a hard slog, even as they head to the exits. Only infrequently do locals tip off the Royal Marines to the locations of fighters or bombs. Dozens of British troops have lost legs to hidden bombs. "The Yanks do come in with the manpower to hopefully do the job properly," says Marine Adam Wells, a 29-year-old antitank gunner from Weston-super-Mare, England. "If we were just pulling out and leaving it, it would be a different matter." Sometimes the fighting assumes a roadrunner-and-coyote dimension. The British tether surveillance blimps above patrol bases, the Taliban shoot them down and the British patch them up. Taliban fighters creep next to one British patrol base and toss hand grenades over the wall; the British put up a high net. "If there were a stand-up battle between 250 Taliban and the Royal Marines, we would win," Maj. Lynch says. "But it's not as simple as that. You can't tell who's a bad person." U.S. commanders praise the fighting prowess of British troops. But the Americans question the British decision to build 22 patrol bases in Sangin, a variation on the neighborhood-policing tactic used in Northern Ireland. Even some British wonder if they tied up too many combat troops just guarding the bases. "If you stay static, Terry Taliban will sneak up and plant an IED next to you," Maj. Alderson says, referring to an improvised explosive device. British commanders have begun closing some patrol bases, although they say they haven't yet decided whether building them was a mistake. U.S. Lt. Col. Clay Tipton, commander of Third Battalion, hit the ground with a more mobile strategy. He sent two companies—roughly 200 men each—sweeping through hundreds of yards of cornfields and irrigation ditches between the main road and the Helmand River. Another company fought to secure the heights on the river's far bank, while a fourth blocked enemy movements on the outskirts of town. The fighting was fierce at first, with Marines coming under sustained machine-gun and rifle fire from tree lines and mud-walled compounds. "I heard it was a pretty kinetic environment," says Lance Cpl. Parker Greider, a 21-year-old Lima Co. infantryman from Wichita, Kan. "They weren't joking." Apparently battered in initial clashes, the Taliban have turned cautious. Fire fights are more sporadic and shorter now, though booby-traps and snipers remain constant dangers. The true test will come over the next two months, when the last Royal Marines leave Sangin to the U.S. Marines. Right now, the Americans just have to fight; they don't have to manage relations with the local Afghan government, navigate tribal politics or promote economic growth. Once the Royal Marines are gone, those jobs will fall to the U.S. Marines.