Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011
The British take over Helmand, Operation Herrick
Sorting out and organizing the British era in Helmand was very difficult for me. Getting it in a presentable form for you has been a challenge. I made two decisions. First, the Taliban between 2002 and 2006 had generally retreated to safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan to refresh, recruit, re-equip, reorganize and prepare to fight again. The enemy’s previous intensive fighting reappeared again roughly in 2006, so I will start in 2006. Second, I will step you through various phases of the British Operation Herrick in Helmand by citing the British command placed in charge, then identify the main unit assigned to Sangin, and highlight some experiences they endured.
I came across an excellent paper, “Improving in War: Military Adaptation and the British in Helmand, 2006-2009” by Theo Farrell of the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. I will draw some from his work, referring to the author, Farrell.
During the period 2006-2008, the Taliban showed itself to be a formidable and skilled group of fighters, well schooled on small unit tactics. It operated extremely well in the field. The Helmand environment described earlier gave it plenty of opportunities for ambushes, and fighting quite often occurred with only 200 meters or less between opponents. Close-in fighting seemed to be the name of the game. Bayonets were employed more than once. Air power was used against them within close proximity to friendly forces. the entire landscape in Afghanistan changed.
16 Assault Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick IV, May 2006 - October 2006
American forces largely concentrated themselves in eastern Afghanistan for their OEF operations, though they did integrate into ISAF as well.
Addressing the 16 Brigade, Wikipedia has said this:
“The British 16 Assault Brigade (later reinforced by Royal Marines) formed the core (of Task Force Helmand) with troops and helicopters from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. The initial force consisted of roughly 3,300 British, 2,500 Canadian, 1,963 from the Netherlands, 280 from Denmark, 240 from Australia, and 150 from Estonia. Air support was provided by US, British, Dutch, Norwegian and French combat aircraft and helicopters.” That adds up to close to 8,500.
The British 16 Air Assault Brigade located its headquarters at Camp Bastion. They employed earth-filled bags to define the boundaries of the camp.
This is a very nice map drawn from the Danish Foreign Policy Handbook 2011, entitled “Clear, Hold, Train: Denmark’s Military Operations in Helmand 2006-2010” by Peter Viggo Jakobsen and Peter Dahl Thruelsen. I commend this document to your attention. This map also provides a very nice view of significant place names which will come up throughout this report.
The British referred to Britain’s operations in Helmand as “Operation Herrick,” and numbered each deployment with a Roman numeral. I am starting here with Operation Herrick IV in 2006. As would be the case for all British deployments, each Operation Herrick force had a lead element, such as the 16 Brigade in this case, and then integrated a wide variety of units from throughout the British Army.
The British only deployed half the brigade, essentially one infantry battalion, the 3 PARA, the 3rd Parachute Regiment. The 3 PARA formed the nucleus of the all-arms battle group. This would clearly not be enough manpower, only one battle group.
One reason for this was that the tasking for Task Force Helmand was to conduct a peace support and counter-narcotics operation. That is as opposed to a counter-insurgency (COIN) operation. The peace and support operation was to set security conditions required to foster economic development and improved governance. This translated to protecting the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), most notably in Lashkar Gah and Gereskh, the former the capital of Helmand, the latter in the center of the rich agricultural area populated by about 49,000.
Daniel Marston, writing “British Operations in Helmand Afghanistan” published by Small Wall Journals, argued, “This framing of the mission was primarily a matter of political expediency, but also showed a lack of understanding and historical knowledge of COIN on the part of both military and civilian officials.”
Just a word on these PRTs. They grew out of the mission expansion to reconstruct and re-build Afghanistan and empower local governments to govern more effectively. The PRT assists in developing schools, roads, and clinics for the people of Afghanistan. They consisted of military, diplomats, and reconstruction subject matter experts. This photo shows an example. Here, a USAF civil engineer is discussing masonry with a local contractor in Kapisa Province.
Prior to Operation Herrick, the Americans had only about 130 troops in the province, providing security for a small PRT. One result of the small American presence was that there was little fighting in the province. The Taliban seemed content to engage in its thriving opium business in the province and generally leave the Americans be. That would change dramatically as the British came in.
The Taliban had something completely different in mind than what the British thought they were going to do. The Taliban took the offense in a very aggressive way. So right off the bat, the British and others had wrongly assessed the nature of the threat.
The British forces deployed and had barely set up shop when they found themselves embroiled in almost immediate open warfare with the Taliban. The British had no idea that the Taliban’s intent was to destroy them. Over time, the British would send in about 1,500 more troops but it took nearly three months to get them there. This gave the 3 PARA two battle groups.
The troops and their commanders learned almost instantly they had a COIN task on their hands, and tried to set up a “clear, hold and build” approach and push north out of Lashkar Gah, but they ended up having to settle for a strategy built around platoon houses, which I will address in a moment.
Compounding this, the Canadians and Afghan National Army (ANA) had launched Operation Mountain Thrust from May 15-July 31, 2010. Their objective was to put down a strong enemy insurgency in the south. This endeavor would mark the bloodiest fighting in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war in 2001. The British forces were in the thick of heavy-duty combat, along with forces from the US, Australia, Romania, The Netherlands, and the Czech Republic.
A major development in how the British were to fight in Helmand developed during this period.
Farrell has pointed out that the Helmand governor talked the British commander into deploying forces to garrison towns in northern Helmand that turned out to be vulnerable to Taliban attack, such as Sangin, Musa Qala, and Now Zad.
As a result, the British commanders set up what came to be called “Platoon Houses,” small fortified “bases” in the towns of Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Garmsir. Often these platoon houses were government complexes where the troops could bed down, organize, obtain shelter, and prove a place from which they could launch their patrols. The plan was to hold these towns by using these platoon houses.
Part of Platoon House, Sangin, Afghanistan 2006, presented by hub pages.com “Through the eyes of a soldier Afghanistan 2006, Part 4.”
The Sangin Platoon House was located in the abandoned District Centre, about 100 meters square, along the Helmand River. It had sandbag defenses, 81 mm mortars, Javelin missiles, 50 cal firepower. Some soldiers called it “The Alamo.”
Here you can see a view of the Platoon House, Sangin, Afghanistan 2006 from the outside, presented by hub pages.com “Through the eyes of a soldier Afghanistan 2006, Part 4.”
This is a photo of the derelict Sangin bazaar, abandoned when British troops arrived. Presented by Senlis Afghanstan, “Afghanistan Decision Point 2008,” London, February 2008.
What happened is that the platoon houses simply attracted the Taliban and attacked them over and over. Worse yet, the houses rendered the British to fixed defensive locations vulnerable to the enemy planting Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) all around the platoon houses, allowed the enemy to lob grenades over the walls, and fire indirect fire at the houses. They would be attacked as many as 7-8 times a day. The soldiers inside were almost always outnumbered, with no escape route other than by helicopter. There were times when the helicopters could not get in for as many as five days.
The IED threat was monumental, felt by most to be greater than anywhere else in Afghanistan. One estimate was that 1,200 IEDs had been planted in the cultivated areas south of the detract center, and at least that many inside the town itself.
This idea of the Platoon House would grow into a source of contention between the US and the British over time. The Americans argued that this war demanded considerable maneuver and aggressive offensive attack. I’ll not get into this “feud” deeply, though it will come up again when the US returned to Helmand in force downstream. I wills ay however, US forces ran into plenty of its own problems implementing a “clear, hold, build” approach in eastern Afghanistan as well.
The enemy commenced its siege of Sangin, then occupied by the British, in June 2006 and this initial siege lasted until April 2007. It’s worth mentioning that in 2006, just about all the residents of Sangin had left. The town was empty. At the time the British had a company located there. Helicopter and fixed wing air came in to support the troops. Incredibly, the 3 PARA was able to repulse every enemy attack. General Sir David Richards, the NATO commander in Afghanistan at the time, said the fighting here was the worst the British had experienced since the Korean War.
During its six month deployment, the 16 Brigade fought 500 contacts, fired 13,000 rounds of artillery and mortar and half a million rounds of small arms ammo. They encountered rocket attacks, sophisticated IED detonations, ambushes and ground assaults. They often fought for weeks with precious little sleep, often only two hours a day, and barely ever able to get out of their armour and helmets. One company fought for 31 of 35 days with the enemy.
During July 2006, for example, a 100-man British force, I believe from the 3 PARA at the Sangin base, experienced perhaps two firefights on a good day, six on bad days according to Capt. Drew Gibson, a British spokesman. Enemy fire was so accurate that the force was often cut off from air supply for days and came close several times to running out of ammo. The enemy employed rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine-guns and small arms.
Chinook coming into Sangin, presented by netavision.no
Apache attack helicopters cleared an area with their cannons for Chinooks to bring in a force of about 200 British paratroopers (have also seen 300 as a number) largely from the 3 PARA Battle Group, supported by another 700 Allied forces including those from the ANA and Estonia.
The troops aboard the Chinooks had to disembark with lightening speed into completely foreign territory to avoid hostile fire during disembarkation and to enable the Chinooks to get of out of there before taking debilitating battle damage. While the enemy attacked, the British forces in the base managed to execute a break-out. After fighting died down, the large force remained in place, I do not know for how long.
On July 27, to give another example during this period, elements of the 3rd PARA, I believe mostly from A Company, were in the Sangin town center. Taliban forces moved up a dried-up river bank toward the British-Afghan government compound, merchants shut their shops, the streets became deserted.
The PARA set up a defensive cordon around the Americans. At night, the Taliban with RPGs and machine guns, attacked, wounding two Americans badly when grenades blew through their jeep. The wounded Americans called for help. When McKinley got there, he found one of the GIs with serious facial injuries, a broken arm, a neck injury, and fragments in his legs. McKinley took him to his Humvee and worked on him for 15 minutes, which included stopping the bleeding and keeping his airwave open, all the while under enemy fire.
A Company was withdrawn the next day but would soon return to battle. Such battles would ensue through August.
Throughout this, the 16 Brigade’s first deployment to Helmand, there were some 100-plus casualty evacuation missions flown carrying out 170 wounded and injured. The Brigade lost 33 troopers.
The British held their own but the price was unacceptable.
Fighting was so fierce and resupply so difficult in Musa Qala and Now Zad that the 16 Brigade eventually had to abandon both towns.
The main problems for the British were they did not have enough men, not enough equipment, and they were so busy protecting towns and villages that they had almost no time to go out and attack the enemy elsewhere in the province. They destroyed a lot of enemy but they could not achieve larger objectives.
General Sir David Richards said they “turned up a hornet’s nest” when they deployed to Helmand. He said, "There was in some respects a failure of intelligence despite the efforts to get it right.” In short, the British were not prepared for the fierce fighting they would encounter. And, as noted earlier, they found themselves too often on the defense.
"I absolutely accept that what we found when we had our forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and been hoping for ... We were ready for an adverse reaction but we did not, to be fair, expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be ... We had always anticipated Taliban potential intent. What we probably underestimated was their capacity."
The Brits learned quickly that they were in much more than a peace support operation. Their military leaders understood they were in a major COIN. Their problem, however, setting aside being undermanned and under-equipped, was that they were in no position to conduct military operations, do reconstruction and improve governance all at the same time. At this point, integrating those was an impossible task.
I must remark here that there was plenty of disagreement between British leaders and between American and British leaders about the British approach. I’ll not get into that debate here in any great detail. Decisions were made and executed and the rest is history. The facts are the Taliban returned in 2006 with a vengeance, not only in Helmand. The Americans in the east faced three times the threat they had faced earlier.
3 Commando Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick V, October 2006 - April 2007
The British chose to rotate their Herrick commands and units every six months, arguably a mistake, as you will see each command take different approaches. One set of combat outfits, just as they obtained considerable experience and knowledge about the environment, left things to a wholey new command and battle group structure.
One can debate the wisdom of their mission. The endeavor at this point in this volatile area seemed to focus on supporting reconstruction rather than seeking out and destroying enemy.
Their tempo increased to 821 contacts from the 537 experienced by the 16 Brigade as a result.Kajaki
FOB Zeebrugge, presented by Britishhawk at military photos.net
In January 2007, M/42 Commando fought a tough battle to take control of the Kajaki dam. They set up a FOB at Kajaki, known as FOB Zeebrugge, cleared the area around it, and set up observation posts (OPs) up in the mountains. The FOB was in an isolated and mountainous region of northern Helmand. First, the commandos had to clear a safe zone around the dam where construction and engineering work could be done in relative safety. They did a pretty good job achieving those objectives with the help of the Royal Canadian Regiment.
42 Commando Royal Marines clearing insurgents from an area just north of the Kajaki Dam, January-February 2007, presented by xtimeline.com
February 2007 saw major contests between the British-led Allies and the Taliban around the Kajaki dam area. The truth is they had been fighting in this area for months. They ran into a number of enemy held cave complexes, and compounds. The enemy was able to prevent the dam from operating and clearly intended to destroy it.
On or about February 12, 2007 about 300 Marines from K and M/42 Commando attacked the enemy northwest of the dam and fought for 12 hours. Intelligence had indicated about 700 Taliban fighters crossed over into Helmand from Pakistan to reinforce and go after the dam. The British said Pakistani, Uzbek and Chechen nationals were among the enemy fighters.
The fighting would continue into March as the British tried to clear a 10 km safety zone around the dam. The Brits were able to win the high ground and bit by bit they found and destroyed many arms caches.
2nd Fuseliers firing mortars to defend Sangin, April 2007.Presented by You Tube.
Then in April 2007, J/42 Commando participated in Operation Silver, a multi-national offensive to clear the Taliban from in and around Sangin. It was meant to be a surprise, “shock” attack.
The 2nd Battalion Fuseliers infantry had replaced the 42 Commando in the town center, I believe its C Company. In their first 20 days they were attacked 79 times.
This was part of a Helmand wide offensive known as Operation Achilles designed to clear all of the province of enemy. Operation Achilles was the largest NATO operation to date in the war, involving some 5,500 NATO and ANA troops. It was led by the British and, at the request of President Karzai, focused on the Kajaki dam and the towns in the area.
With regard to Sangin and Operation Silver, 250 42 Commando Marines led an armored column and pushed into the town from the north. The US 1/508 Parachute, 82nd Airborne Division, augmented by the ANA and Dutch, conducted a heliborne assault about 5 kms from the district center, I understand coming at the center from the south. I believe Danish, Estonian, and Canadian forces were involved as well.
Allied fighter just dropped munitions outside Sangin Platoon House. Presented by You Tube.
Dutch and American aircraft provided air support, and Canada pitched in with artillery from Camp Robinson. The US employed Apache attack helicopters and F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers. British Harrier jets were also employed.
A typical air attack result outside Sangin Platoon House. Presented by You Tube.
They dropped some 117,000 lbs. of air munitions between March and May 2007.
U.S. Army Soldiers with 1-508 Infantry Regiment and Special Operations Forces await to attack enemy forces in Sangin, April 10, 2007, but first a little air power to clear the way in. Presented by wikipedia.
On April 10, 2007 US Army troops moved into Sangin and relieved the men of the Royal Regiment of Fuseliers. The Allies had earlier dropped leaflets over the town explaining they were coming. As a result, most enemy had withdrawn.
As an aside, I would like to mention that on May 7, 2007, men of C/2-Fuseliers visited with men from the USAF 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, which flies the B-1 Lancer bomber. B-1 bombers were providing close air support to them during their ordeal in Sangin. The B-1 was designed for strategic bombing, and of course, learning how to employ everything in the arsenal, in Afghanistan they were providing close air support to troops on the ground in a fight. This lower photo shows Capt. Todd Patterson, USAF, a B-1B Lancer pilot chatting with British infantrymen from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers during a tour of their deployed location May 2. The bomber aircrews were called upon daily to provide close-air support for the fusiliers through bombing and shows of force and presence. One of the troops from the Fuseliers told the pilots, “You’ve left Sangin in a mess,” to which everyone broke out laughing.
12 Mechanized Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick VI, April 2007 - September 2007
The objective was to set Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as the key towns and extend security radii from each. This included going up the Sangin valley. Mechanized warfare did not work. The 12 brigade tried to secure the areas between Lashkar Gar, Gereshk and Sangin. Their contacts rose to 1,096 and they destroyed a great many enemy. But as the others had learned, they could not hold their gains; short on manpower.
British troops fire a mortar at Gereshk, Afghanistan, during Operation Silicon. Presented by USA Today photos
The British launched Operation Silicon on April 30, 2007, once again sweeping into the Sangin Valley and again coming under heavy fire. They are said to have expelled the enemy from Sangin after which they moved on to Gereshk to remove the Taliban from that area as well.
Then on May 30, one thousand British troops, and another 1,000 troops from the ANA and other Allies, and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division assaulted enemy positions around the Kajaki dam and forced the enemy out of there as well, yet again. Engineers came in quickly to try to help locals fix their irrigation problems.
“So what” to all this you might ask. The Taliban boasted it would launch a major spring offensive in March 2007. But by late May 2007 that offensive failed to occur, in large part to the devastation wrought on them by all these Allied forces described above and many others I have failed to mention. The Taliban had to go back to the drawing board and in February 2008 began preparing for a summer 2008 offensive. To many this seemed like a different kind of war, and it certainly had its uniqueness.
The fighting in Helmand was so fierce, so lethal, and so continuous that several observers have remarked that the people of the province resented both the British and the Taliban. There was simply no peace to be had. As hard as the British worked to help the local populations, the fighting was simply overwhelming for the citizens. Add to this the casualties the British were taking, and the British population had lost patience with the war as well. And to complicate things, the Americans questioned the British strategy.
52 Infantry Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick VII, September 2007 - February 2008
Its commander, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, saw little fruit in killing enemy but instead focused on befriending the populace.
Major General Andrew Mckay, commander, 52 Infantry Brigade, presented by Mirror News
His concept was to “clear, hold and build.” The brigade did commit its units to some of the FOBs set up by12 Mechanized but kept its assigned troops there for their entire tour rather than rotating them in and out. Farrell tells us the brigade conducted “influence operations.”
Having seen how the populace reacted to previous attacks to retake towns, 52 Brigade, when tasked to retake Musa Qala, decided to do that with minimum impact on the population --- the idea was to try to keep the people in the town rather than cause them to flee or rachet up their anger at the foreigners. Mackay would say, “the people were the prize.” The 52 Brigade did take Musa Qala, and Brigadier MacKay received the The Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the CBE, for his service.
The operation against Musa Qala was done very much in the open. People were told of an offensive to come. When the 52 Brigade came in, the enemy had largely fled. Farrell labeled this a “population centric focus.”
I have read accounts that submit that by 2008 the Taliban seemed to some to be a bit more timid than before. The ANA capability was improving. British forces peaked in 2008 at 8,500, most assigned to Task Force Helmand, some to supporting RC-S in Kandahar. The Estonians contributed a company and the Danes a battle group. Regrettably, the task force suffered from the same equipment problems experienced by the others --- not enough helicopters.
US military planners, on the other hand, saw the Taliban threat as a growing one. In December 2009, Admiral Mullen, USN, the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) said, “The insurgency has grown more violent, more pervasive, and more sophisticated.” He also said the enemy dominated 11 of the country’s 34 provinces. He said 2008 was a tough year, and the period ahead was going to be even tougher.
I feel compelled to note that General Mackay quit the British Army after his tour because of his disgust over the lack of government support for the troops. One source quoted by Mirror News said this:
“Andrew is a very dedicated and brave soldier but he was deeply unhappy with some policy decisions relating to Afghanistan … He was also pretty appalled over the apparent lack of support given to our troops. He is disappointed by the Government's failure to heed advice from military experts and its total lack of leadership … Don't be surprised if other senior officers follow his lead between now and the election. It has got to the stage where officers are now prepared to fall on their swords rather than pretend to their soldiers all is well when it is clearly not … Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Treasury are all to blame. It's a scandal an officer like him has been ground down."
The arrival of US Marines and the American surge: 2008