Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
The statistics for the British in the Sangin region remained as bad as years past, KIAs counting for a third of all British losses country-wide since the war began.
November 7, 2011
British Operation Herrick VIII and US Marines set up Camp Leatherneck
We’re still in 2008.
In the previous section, we reported that the US 24th MEU began deploying to Kandahar province in February 2008, with BLT 1-6 Marines, infantry. In addition, the 2-7 Marines, also infantry, arrived in Afghanistan in about March 2008, working in multiple Helmand and Farah Province districts, Sangin included.
When they arrived, the British 52nd Mechanized Brigade was in the throes of turning over command of Task Force Helmand to the British 16 Air Assault Brigade, whose core consisted of 2 and 3 PARA with some elements of 4 PARA. As a point of interest, the 1 PARA also deployed, so this was the first time that virtually the entire 16 Brigade was deployed. The 1 Royal Irish also deployed. This was Operation Herrick VIII, with a total manpower of about 7,800.
The 2 PARA formed up Battle Group North in the Upper Sangin Valley with its five FOBs, located about one kilometer either side of the Helmand River. The 3 PARA had Battle Group South set up in the southern end of the Green Zone into the desert regions stretching through Helmand and Kandahar Provinces and from the mountains of Zabul near Pakistan to the interior of Kandahar City.
In conducting my research, it is at this point that I first learned of what the British often called the “Devil’s Triangle” of FOBs around Sangin, FOBs Gibraltar, Inkerman and Robinson, shown by the yellow arrows.
FOB Gibraltar, photo credit: Michael Yon
I’ll focus on Gibraltar for the moment. It was known as “Gib” and in some instances, “the witch’s hat.” It was located in upper Gereshk Valley, between Gereshk and Sangin. The Taliban called it the “mouth of hell” and the “devil’s place.” The 2-2 PARA was there from April - October 2008, about 160 strong. In the summer of 2008, there were about 160 members of 2 PARA at the FOB.
Members of the 2 PARA get ready to go on patrol from FOB Gibraltar, July 9, 2008. Presented by “Krachslhuaba” at militaryphotos.net
I’ll refer to a report by Michael Yon, “Death in the Corn,” of September 17, 2008 to convey a sense for the situation at Gibraltar in the summer of 2008. As an aside, Michael Yon has proven to be among our very best embedded reporters in combat situations. He ran afoul of the Canadians and was barred from being embedded with them. This editor still thinks he is the very best.
Back to the subject. Contrary to criticisms of the British in Helmand, Yon reported that the Charlie Co 2 PARA were hunters. On patrol outside Gibraltar they had to face ambushes, mines and other kinds of bombs. They also knew they were always being watched by enemy look-outs, known to them as the “dickers.” The 2 PARA were hooked by with a group of Danes in the intelligence business. The Brits liked them. The Americans were also nearby.
British soldiers search for man believed to be tracking them, an enemy dicker. They spotted him, and a sniper conducted his business. Photo credit: Michael Yon.
One of the challenges with the dickers is confirming whether he is enemy or just a farmer doing his work. Quite often the PARA would fire warning shots to see how they reacted. Often, the British would shoot the guy, employing a sniper when they had one, and end up medevacing him out for top flight medical care and subsequent interrogation.
Gib was small, with little room for error for incoming supply and troop helicopters. On landing, they were vulnerable to attack. It was widely believed the Taliban worked hard to shoot one down.
Yon went out with a patrol on September 3, 2008. I’ll convey his story to give you some insights into what a patrol was like in the valley.
An enemy sniper fired at the FOB, but was not very good and was missing his targets. The Brits on patrol knew that the enemy would mark where they planted their IEDs with plastic in a tree or a bottle on a stick. At daybreak, a patrol went out.
Abandoned compound, known as Lima 1-1. Photo credit Michael Yon.
It divided its movements into sections. Yon went with the one tasked to occupy a fire support location known as Lima 1-1, an abandoned family compound. Two other elements moved around to cover positions. Soldiers led the way with metal detectors. One section of the patrol carefully moved into the compound. Troops spread out, moving into positions, including on the roof tops, to set up security. They brought along ladders to get up there, but had to be aware of the possibility the roof was laced with bombs.
Two elements were still outside the compound. The section inside looked for a dicker. A British sniper spotted him and had him in the crosshairs, in the midst of a group of trees. He missed and the dicker snuck away.
Everyone was waiting to be attacked. After some waiting, one of the forward sections came under attack. The men in Lima 1-1 held fire because they could not identify the targets. Men back at Gib fired an 81 mm mortar, found their targets, and blew off some more with good precision. The enemy broke off and the fight stopped.
The company commander, Major Dawson, kept ordering smoke to try to draw enemy attention to their position. He was looking for a fight.
USMC Harriers were flying in the area, ready to provide close air support if needed. They would come and go to get fuel or attack a target, or both. The 2 PARA patrol heard fighting going on around them, but kept alert for their own security. Since they were not involved in these other fights, and all was quiet in their specific area, some of the men would try to catch a few winks.
This gives you an idea of what a Javelin missile is like. You can see the 2 PARA soldier with one on his back needing help to stand up. It is hard to imagine him running with that, though Michael Yon said the men of 2 PARA were among the most fit he had ever seen. Photo credit: Michael Yon.
A paratrooper fires a Javelin missile at a Taliban enemy position during a patrol by members of 2 PARA. Photo credit: Sergeant Anthony Boocock RLC. Presented by w54biz
The group had received word enemy was moving toward their position. Once again, their forward section got into a firefight. Two from inside Lima 1-1 ran out toward the fight with a Javelin missile. This is a man-portable, shoulder-fired missile designed to be an anti-tank missile. The other soldier carried his SA-80 rifle, the standard issue service rifle for the British. The Brit with the SA-80 opened fire to provide cover while the Javelin shooter set up and honed in on his target. He fired, but received a misfire signal. Equipment malfunction at a terrible time.
Now the two had the problem that the missile could fire at any time on its own. The Javelin shooter was under great stress, as the two were receiving heavy fire. He tried again. It would not fire. He changed out missiles. The second one fired and struck his target. Then they had to take the bad missile, which was still a dangerous missile, and pack it up to leave. they got it back.
A 2 PARA soldier at FOB Gibraltar firing an 81 mm mortar round to support his comrades in the field. Photo credit: Michael Yon.
Interestingly, the men at Gib began firing so many mortar rounds at the enemy hat the men inside Lima 1-1 could hold their fire. Then they decided to get out of Lima 1-1, smoke was fired, and they left. They killed a bunch of enemy, how many they did not know, and they would back again on the next day.
In September, the corn around FOB Gibraltar is 10-11 feet tall. Photo and text credit, Michael Yon.
The men of C/2 PARA said they chased enemy through shoulder-high cornfields, shooting enemy within punching distance. Corporal Matthew “Des” Desmond said he shot a Taliban enemy with his pistol only two meters from him. Children would lead the soldiers into ambushes. The enemy placed IEDs all around the FOB. But Desmond would say, “We never stood down. We would always push on to them, even chasing them through their own ambushes.” In one firefight, the 2 PARA element fired 9,000 machine gun and automatic rifle rounds plus 179 mortar shells. Desmond said, “Time stops during such moments. Fighting is like a waltz, quick quick, slow slow.”
So that was in September 2008.
The next move by the Marines was a bit different.
The 3-8 US Marines were notified in August 2008 to lead and form the command element of a Special Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) that was to go to southern Helmand. It would relieve the 24th MEU and 2-7 Marines. The 3rd Marines had to hurry to assemble the force, took from units all over the US, pieced together an outfit, but had little time for training. The SPMAGTF’s mission was to conduct counter insurgency operations (COIN), train Afghan police and enhance police capabilities and influence.
In mid-November 2008, the SPMAGTF deployed and took control of the area held by what was now being called Task Force 2-7, built around the 2-7 Marines. The 2-7 had been in a tough fight but managed to gain a solid foothold. The SPMAGTF was to hold that ground and prepare the way for a larger Marine force, a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). Col. Duffy White was in command of the SPMAGTF-A (“A” for Afghanistan). The 3-3 Marines had formed the command element and lashed together the SPMAGTF, but the 3-8 Marines formed the core of the ground infantry. The photo, from Leatherneck magazine, shows LCpl Sean Kuni, I/3-8 Marines providing security during a patrol in Helmand.
The challenges before the SPMAGTF were many. First, their force was not large compared to the area of their responsibilities in Helmand and Farah Provinces, roughly the size of Vermont. Actually, it was to operate in ISAF’s RC-S and Regional RC-W, the latter of which was under Italian command. I do not believe the SPMAGTF was under ISAF command, but instead was an OEF force.
Its forces faced desert, mountains, extreme weather and virtually no roads. A composite Air Combat Element (ACE) came with them and was the main means of transport since those roads that did exist were lined with IEDs. The ACE was also pieced together from aviation elements that crossed all three Marine Expeditionary Forces.
One of the SPMAGTF’s top jobs was to clear the highways of IEDs and other threats to security. It employed its Weapons Company “Team Smasher,” a task-organized element to clear roads. They did a lot of work in Farah Province to keep Route 515 open.
First goes a “Route Clearance Platoon” to find the IEDs, then a “Combined Anti-Armor Platoon” for security and offensive operations.
The “Husky” is assigned to be an up-armored metal detector. It will mark the location of the IED.
Then comes the “Buffalo” to dig up whatever the Husky found. Then a Combat Logistics Battalion would follow to build or repair what had to be done while other 3-8 Marines would provide security. The Marines would joke that quite often it is harder getting to work than to work!
The ACE spent a lot of time ferrying troops around by air to avoid IEDS and conduct assault missions, and resupplying the outposts at which SPMAGTF Marines were deployed. Major George Marert, SPMAGTF-A logistics officer said this:
"Many of the ground convoys were contested by the enemy ... they took time … The use of aerial delivery into the forward operating bases was critical in enabling battle-space distribution."
I have not spent and will not spend much any time on the aviation units involved in these battles of the Sangin. I’ve done this in order to keep this report manageable. But in this case, I do want to note the ACE contribution and use it as an example of what went on with the helicopter forces. I’ll address specifically Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 (HMH-466) Super Stallions and their crews, who faced here what many of the other aviation units faced as well.
An HMH-466 CH-53E Super Stallion flies over southern Afghanistan with more than 20,000 pounds of supplies January 2, 2009. Presented by The Tension.
These aircrews had to deliver thousands and thousands of pounds of all manner of materials to the FOBs. The aircrews would say they had to deliver their stuff to “FOBs in a box,” referring to the degree of difficulty of setting down their loads in small areas. Captain Molly Cahill, USMC, a Super Stallion pilot, said, “We essentially picked up three large shipping containers with everything a unit would need to make a FOB.
HMH-466 CH-53E Super Stallion spins up the dust on approach and landing at the FOB. Presented by The Tension.
The aircraft created so much dust when close to the ground that they were losing lift power from their engines. Major Stuart Howell remarked:
“Our maintainers got the engines back up to specification power. The Marines just worked it back into shape, cleaning out the engines, and in some cases replacing them. We couldn’t have accomplished this mission without them.”
As mentioned, the SPMAGTF had to use the ACE a lot so their ground forces could avoid the many land mines and IEDs.
L/3-8 Marines take cover from a controlled detonation of explosives during a combat operation in Naw Zad.
Arguably one of SPMAGTF’s most notable achievements was to pave the way for the arrival of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) that was on its way and was going to be about 8,000 strong. To start, they had no bases that could host that kind of force, so they built what came to be known as Camp Leatherneck virtually from scratch.
Navy Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 measure and place flooring for a structure at Camp Leatherneck, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, April 18, 2009. Presented by Picasa Web Albums.
The effort to build Camp Leatherneck from an empty place in the desert, nothing but dirt, to a camp that could, for starters, accept a MEB began in January 2009. The goal was to be able to house 10,000 Navy, Army, USAF and Marine forces. It was to be a hub for the reception, staging and onward deployment of Marines in Afghanistan. By April 2009, it could accommodate 5,000. Navy Seabees, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 did much of the construction. The Marines anticipated they might have to expand to as much as 30,000 during 2010.
The unit became known as the “Little SPMAGTF that could.”
In the meantime, the 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines returned to take Task Force Helmand in October 2008, and so too returned the 45 Commando as its principal formation. It took charge of the Northern Battle Group in the Upper Sangin. The Battle Group was 1,200 strong, about 800 of which was from 45 Commando. This photo shows the Y/45 Commandos in contact with the enemy in the Upper Sangin valley in January 2009.
The Battle Group split into five FOBs, but the main staging base for 45 Commando was Sangin City, with its headquarters and W/45 Commando posted there yet again. By now, the city had a population of 25,000, up from 14,000 from when we started. This population increase is one measure of some of the successes achieved by all the units that had fought here.
The people of Sangin Town seemed to be coming around to the British, who ran daily patrols through it. There were a number of fights in the suburbs, but schools were built, hundreds of tons of wheat seed were given to the people by the Afghan government to replace poppy, and shops started opening in the bazaar.
The British forces seemed to agree that their FOB Jackson had been made much better, larger and safer. Seven (Sphinx) Commando Battery of the 29 Commando regiment RA returned in mid-DSeptember and was responsible for providing joint fire mostly for W/45 Commando on Sangin. 7 Commando Battery men found the people of Sangin making major gains and experienced marked improvements in the atmosphere.
The 45 Commando responded rapidly to Taliban incursions which built local confidence that they were there to protect them. Intelligence improved, and the Royal Marines found many hidden stores of rifles, explosives and ammo. They also conducted a nighttime raid and shut down a key enemy opium production facility. Furthermore, the Afghan police started taking increased responsibility for the city.
45 Commando soldier firing 51 mm light mortars into Afghan village
But do not get the idea that the area was one of total calm. The 45 Commando used more ammo in three months than their predecessor unit had used in a six month deployment.
W/45 had the city center. This photo shows Royal Marines from W/45 Commandos arriving at Sangin District Center by Chinook helicopter.
I use this map to show where the 45 Commandos deployed. Disregard the (C COY) etc. labels. I just wanted to show locations.
Y/45 was located just to the south at FOB Inkerman. It sat in a plateau with distant mountains. Its job was to stop enemy from coming into Sangin from the south. Their main challenges were the criss-crossing irrigation ditches and canals through which the enemy could sneak. Y/45 troopers were known to go into their assaults with bayonets fixed. The unit spent a lot of time looking for enemy arms caches and enemy bunkers. The photo shows them doing just that. They discovered an enemy stash of weapons and IEDs. They did this after breakfast at 0300 hours! On one day during the election, Y/45 pinned down and fully occupied enemy intruders while the people voted.
V/35 was farther north at Kajaki dam. The enemy was fairly well entrenched north of the dam and V/45 had to conduct a lot of patrols to keep them away. V/45 ran an early morning operation in February 2009 against an enemy command and communications base near the Kajaki dam. They snuck out of their FOB Zeebrugge under cover of darkness, moved into place, set up their fire support in an overwatch position, and then dove in as the sun rose, right after a change of enemy sentries. V/45 employed a barrage of round, mortar, artillery and air weapons. The enemy was caught fixed in its trenches and was pinned down. An aircraft was called in and dropped precision bombs destroying bunkers and defensive positions. The attacking force then learned the enemy commander had been killed in the action. The photo here is of V/45 Commandos, and I believe it shows the headquarters group on a sand dune overlooking the objective, directing the attack and providing the requisite support.
X/45 was to the south at FOB Nolay, sitting on high ground to defend the Sangin valley. Their job was to stop the enemy from approaching the city from the south. This photo circa December 2008 shows X/45 Commando Marines on patrol in Nolay before three of their colleagues were killed in a suicide bomb attack.
Z/45 was in the southernmost FOB at Gibraltar. They had their hands filled with stopping enemy that was moving up the valley from Gereshk along the main route to Sangin. Z/45 encountered a great many IEDs as the enemy attempted to restrict its movement. Here you see 2 Section, Z/45 Commando Royal Marines, patrol out of FOB Gibraltar in the Gereshk Valley, Afghanistan, to conduct a search operation to clear key terrain of improvised explosive devices
45 Commando remained until April 2009. While it made important gains, 45 Commando lost eight (some report say nine) Marines, five of whom were lost in the Sangin area. Four more were lost in supporting units. It was replaced by 2 Rifles.
Lt. Colonel Jim Morris made these observations, however:
"Opium to the street value of over £20m was found and destroyed as well as the chemicals and equipment to produce it … In addition a large number of Taliban weaponry and associated equipment was also destroyed. The operation was an enormous success and local Afghan reactions have been extremely positive … There are now eleven schools that have opened since our arrival in Helmand, families are moving back into southern Sangin, the bazaar is thriving and we have secured an area in the centre of the town which is about to receive a new Afghan health clinic, school and government offices."
The British 11 Light Brigade and 2 MEB