Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011
President orders a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team to southern Afghanistan
By 2009, CMC General Conway was being heard in more corridors, and it looked like all his Marines would be moved out of Iraq and would instead focus on Afghanistan. He eventually hoped to bring in 15,000-18,000 Marines.
In February 2009, the president ordered a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) (8,000) and the Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (BCT) (3900) to Afghanistan. The 5th Stryker was to go to Iraq but was diverted to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the aviation brigade of the 82nd Airborne would deploy in spring as well to provide Army air support to forces throughout eastern and southern Afghanistan.
I’ll pause for a moment to remind you that General McKiernan was fired by SecDef Gates on May 11, 2009 Gates said new leadership and a new strategy were needed. The fairness of his firing is arguable. He had been begging for increased forces and more equipment through most of his tour. Those came only after he was fired. There had to have been considerable politics involved.
Whatever the case, he was replaced by General Stanley McChrystal, USA.
Marines with the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan (2nd MEB) prepare to board buses, May 3, 2009, shortly after arriving in southern Afghanistan. The Marines will add about 8,000 more service members to those already deployed. Presented by Blackanthem.com
The 2nd MEB led the”surge” and began arriving at Camp Leatherneck in April and through May-June 2009. They brought 8,000 Marines and Sailors, fighter aircraft, helicopters, artillery and the infrastructure to support a force estimated to grow to 11,000 at the time.
On May 29, 2009, Task Force Leatherneck, also known as Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) Afghanistan, took over the battlespace from SP MAGTF. SP MAGTF folded into the MEB. As you can see, Camp Leatherneck was located considerably to the southwest of Camp Bastion, Task Force Helmand, and Sangin. Task Force Helmand, as you’ll see shortly, was still in charge of the Sangin District.
The 2 MEB was structured to include Regimental Combat Team 3 (RCT-3) as the main ground force component. RCT-3 was composed of 1-5, 2-8, 2-3 and 3-11 Marines, the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalion and Det, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.
Shortly after their arrival, on July 2, 2009, about 4,000 of the Marines and 650 ANA troops launched Operation Strike of the Sword in the Helmand Valley, south of Lashkar Gah. This was the largest Marine offensive since the Battle of Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, and the largest division airlift by the Marines since Vietnam. The offensive involved the 2-8 and 1-5 Marines and 2nd LAR. So for the moment, MEB involvement was minimal if any in the Sangin area.
I’ll note here that General McChrystal, the ISAF commander, instructed the Allied forces including the Americans to reduce civilian casualties. He issued a “tactical directive” that said, among other things, “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories—but suffering strategic defeats—by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.” He acknowledged this directive could cause greater danger for the troops, but felt the risk of pushing Afghans into the arms of the Taliban was a greater risk. One result was a curtailment of air attacks.
Stryker ICV from the front.
The 5th Stryker BCT was sent to the Kandahar area, so it too was not involved directly in Sangin. It was then scheduled to push out to several bases in eastern Kandahar and Zabul provinces. It was the first Army brigade to go to Afghanistan with Strykers. This was also the first combat tour for the 5th, which was formed in 2007. There were just over 350 Stryker vehicles in the brigade. The Stryker is a family of armored fighting vehicles. The BCT also brought the 2-1, the 1-17, and 4-23 Infantries, the 8-1 Cavalry Squadron, the 3-17th Field Artillery, and the 402nd Brigade Support Battalion. I will not report further on the 5th as it was located outside the Sangin area.
The British 19th Light Brigade was leading Task Force Helmand from April - October 2009, and Task Force Helmand was still in charge of Sangin. The 2 Battalion The Rifles was tasked with the Sangin area, commanding Battlegroup North, taking over from the 45 Commandos. Compared to other British deployments, the 2 Rifles had less manpower and resources.
A soldier from C Company 2 Rifles on patrol in Afghanistan in the “Pacman Challenge.” Presented by The Telegraph.
The 2 Rifles were engaged in what they called the “Pacman Challenge.” While on a Sangin patrol with them in July 2009, Miles Amoore of The Telegraph described the Pacman Challenge as “dodging scores of booby traps, trip wires, and charges laid by the Taliban in the fertile soil of Afghanistan’s Sangin valley.” Amoore said, “(It) is one of the ways the soldiers make light of the deadly gauntlet they run every day in the district.” The 2 Rifles were at FOB Jackson and were constantly scouted by the dickers. The Brits monitored their radio traffic and could hear them reporting to their bosses on the movements of the 2 Rifles.
The 2 Rifles patrol moved through a shallow irrigation canal (as shown in this photo of a 2 Rifles soldier in 2009, presented by vor33 at military photos.net) hemmed by Cyprus trees and searched for the scouts, the dickers. One fired a warning shot above a young boy who seemed to be watching them, and the kid ran away. The troopers had what they called an arc of safety around FOB Jackson. They searched meticulously for IEDs within the arc and tried not to get too far out of it. Some of the soldiers had mentally prepared themselves for pitched battles with the enemy, but had to learn that they were in the IED discovery business instead, always vulnerable to ambush. They lost five KIAs to a booby trap in early July 2009.
“And there they go, courageous men of the 2 Rifles into the Green Zone, the very beating heart of the Taliban. As I watched them disappear into the murk of trees and mud compounds, a soldier beside me in the guard tower said, 'They’ll be in contact within twenty minutes.' And with that I said goodbye, and headed to a briefing on the enemy situation.” Text and photo presented by Michael Yon.
You will recall earlier references to the Green Zone. Enemy forces had lodged themselves in the northern sector of it and the 2 Rifles sent Alpha Company to flush out the enemy and work with the local population. They initially met with friendly people, but then came the hostile fire. A soldier was hit, so another ran into a hail storm of enemy fire to grab him and pull him out of the kill zone. During the battle, the troops engaged the enemy with snipers, rifles and RPGs. The Taliban withdrew and the wounded trooper was airlifted out to Camp Bastion. He was lucky. One of the enemy rounds pierced his GPS monitor located on his hip. Had the bullet hit two inches to the right, he would have had a shattered hip instead of simply a broken femur. The patrol lasted 12 hours, the men returned to FOB Jackson, knowing they would be out there again the next day.
One of the last endeavors of the 2 Rifles was to provide security for an Afghan government-run shura to take place in Sangin. A photo of that shura is shown here. The purpose of the shura was for the governor of Helmand to present the gift of wheat seed to over 2,000 farmers. Four hundred showed up. The farmers signed agreements not to grow poppy, but to grow wheat instead.
All the 2 Rifles companies were involved in the security operation, employing companies at FOBs Wishtan, Anchorman and Nolay to block and disrupt and enemy efforts to ruin the meeting. The enemy was able to fire some indiscriminate mortars at Sangin long after the shura was over, but these did no serious harm.
The British 11 Light Brigade took over Task Force Helmand from the 19th Light Brigade in October 2009 through April 2010 and partnered with the 2 MEB.
Members of the 3 Rifles head out on patrol in Sangin, December 2009
The 3 Rifles replaced the 2 Rifles in Sangin, in charge of Battlegroup North. This was the first time a battalion took over for a sister battalion. Members of the departing 2 Rifles would refer to this deployment as “an epic of hard fighting.” It lost 22 KIAs and dozens seriously wounded.
My impression is that during this time, the focus of 11 Light Brigade and US Marine and Army forces shifted a bit to central Helmand, the areas of Lashkar Gah and Marjah. Numerous major operations were launched in those areas by British, US Marine and US Army forces, one of the largest being Operation Moshtarak.
But 3 Rifles remained in the Sangin area. Operations to the south forced enemy combatants to the north, which accounted for multiple spikes in combat for the 3 Rifles.
The 3 Rifles significantly expanded the area denied to the enemy, opened more schools and increased the level of commerce at the bazaar. The bazaar flourished as the Rifles provided protection to the city, major transport routes were reopened, and the local government was able to reassert its authority.
During their stay, the 3 Rifles patrols encountered enemy contact nearly every day, many of which were hard fought at close quarters. During one attack, a British soldier grabbed an enemy grenade thrown at his area, which had not exploded, and threw it back at the enemy, where it did explode. Even at base they were subjected to intense direct and indirect fire. Many of the 3 Rifles’ patrols were with ANA soldiers. Quite often, the British would go with the ANA troops into areas where the ANA had been unable to operate, and helped them clear those areas out and establish a presence. In addition, training paid off and more ANA soldiers were searching for IEDs as well. Furthermore, the ANA brought in a lot of valuable intelligence. They received tips on enemy activities in nearby villages, for example. The locals appreciated the British security and help, but told the British that they found it much easier to interact with their own ANA.
Other units participating in Battlegroup North were able to extend into areas where neither they or the ANA had ever been. The Rifles were also able to set up new patrol bases and obtain closer and better relations with the locals.
All this said, we have been talking about the Sangin valley battles since 2006. It is now April 2010, and the 3 Rifles returned home having suffered 30 KIA and over 100 casualties. Battlegroup commander Lt. Colonel Nick Kitson said, “These are very carefully considered operations and the casualty figures don’t reflect the progress we’ve achieved.”
Soldiers from the 1 Platoon A Company 3rd Battalion The Rifles and the Afghan National Army conduct their first joint patrol to search a suspicious compound. Photo credit: Sergeant Keith Cotton RLC, presented by Northern Echo
That said, Stuart Arnold, writing for Northern Echo, said what others have said over the years about nearly every deployment to Sangin:
“The 3 Rifles’ six-month tour of Afghanistan was one of the toughest the British Army has faced in recent times.”
I commend Arnold’s article to you. It outlines briefly major events in the 3 Rifles’ deployment.
I should remark here that the strategy employed was known as “population centric” such as was advocated by the then ISAF commander, General Stanley McChrystal. Troops were told to fire warning shots and what seniors called “heroic restraint.”
Mark Urban, a BBC reporter with 3 Rifles at Patrol Base Blenheim on “the violent fringes of northeast Sangin, the scene of almost daily firefights,” said the troops considered firing warning shots nonsense. They intended to shoot targets as soon as they positively identified them as armed.
Interestingly, most losses in the Sangin area were now due to gunshots rather than IEDs. This is thought to be because the forces who had deployed here had slowly but surely expanded their security bubble and it was getting harder and harder for the enemy to emplace the IEDs where they wanted.
This was also a time where many troop deployment options were being considered by ISAF and NATO. For sure there was going to be a greater injection of American Marines. There was thought given to putting the British battalion in Sangin under the 2nd MEB.
I MEF arrives, the largest Marine command yet in Afghan