Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011
Sangin: Where is it, who cares?
Sangin is a district of the southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan and also the name for a town in the district, population in 2006 at about 14,000. Politically, Sangin held little sway in Kabul, a “minor backwater.” The Taliban did not see it that way, and neither did the Allies. The district is outlined around Sangin town in green. This is a situation map in 2008, prepared by SENLIS Afghanistan and presented in “Afghanistan - Decision Point 2008,” published in London in February 2008. Please disregard for the moment the red dots denoting what the Taliban controlled. Instead focus on the placenames and refer to them as we go along. Note in particular the Kajaki District. It hosts an important dam on the Helmand River in northern Sangin District. This entire area is seen as northern Helmand Province.
Sangin District Center, April 14, 2007, at peace after 21 days of after heavy fighting. Presented by USSOC
The district and town sit on the Helmand river-valley plain surrounded by rolling hills and mountain ranges to the east and west, and desert to the west and south. It has been referred to as a canyon town, a valley town, a market town on the south bank of the Helmand River.
This Sangin valley, shown here from the air, became known as the Green Zone, with a population approaching 800,000. It is a mix of rocky desert and stretches of farmland, rolling hills, groves of trees, and multiple crisscrossing canals. To the northeast is the Kajaki Dam.
The Helmand River rises in the mighty Hindu Kush mountains, about 50 miles west of Kabul. It is about 715 miles in length and passes through desert, marshes, and a lake region at the Afghan-Iranian border. It provides no outlet to the sea. Its water is considered essential for farming. Irrigation using it is crucial to the locals. Sangin is roughly located by the red dot. A major contributor to the irrigation system is the Kajaki (also Kajakai) dam and reservoir, which will command much of our attention later. The irrigation system so important to agriculture, mostly for poppy, is field by the river and dam and presented Allied forces multiple obstacles they had to learn to overcome.
Experts say Sangin’s geographic location gives it strategic importance. It is at the confluence of two rivers in the northern section of the province, the Musa Qala coming from the north, and the Helmand. Musa Qala town has a population of about 20,000.
The Kajaki dam and reservoir are about 26 miles northeast of Sangin. The Sangin valley begins here and extends to Lashkar Gah, about 47 miles to the southwest of Sangin. Lashkar Gar has a population in excess of 200,000 and is the provincial capital.
The valley passes through the town of Gereshk, population 60,000, on its way to Lashkar Gar.
For information sake, Kandahar, the capital of neighboring Kandahar Province, lies about 60 miles to the southeast as the crow flies, a lot farther by road. Kandahar and Sangin are separated by the Shah Maqsoud Mountain Range. Each of these towns will come up later in our discussions of battles.
There is a road, Route 611, the province’s main road, that is on the east side of the valley, roughly parallel to the river, and extends to the Kandahar Highway A1 connecting Kandahar with Garish and after a slight swing to the west southwest to Lashkar GaH. Route 611 too will be in our later discussions. While it does parallel the Sangin Valley for quite a way, it is valley on one side and massive desert on the other, and then as it heads southward massive desert on both sides.
Just north of Sangin, the land rises to a plateau. Toby Woodbridge, in his book, Sangin, A Glance through Afghan Eyes, wrote the “narrow plateau (offers) commanding views over the town centre, fields, and river below, foot-hills and mountains beyond. Woodbridge was an officer in the British Army and served in Sangin. He is now a journalist.
Woodbridge wrote this informative piece in his book:
“From a military standpoint the town (of Sangin) was no natural fortress for those stationed within.” He said foliage and high growing crops reduced the field of view. The rolling hills could mask sight of enemies hiding behind them. There was sufficient high ground in every direction enabling an enemy a good view of the town below. The walls are “interlinked in a warren-like honeycomb without external support, a permeable perimeter enabling easy access into the town’s center from myriad different directions.” Woodbridge said that it was impossible to place enough troopers out there to cover every potential gap, and the enemy had a way of finding the gaps and punching through. He explained that the terrain was such that soldiers were virtually forced to take known paths, vulnerable to easy ambush. You will see later the troops had to take round about routes to avoid Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the most lethal threat they faced.
He noted this reality:
“From the defenders’ point of view it was a landscape that rewarded constant presence and continual oversight at all times, for the moment you turned to look another way so your enemy would ensure danger greeted the next discerning glance. There was of course no possibility to place a boot on every pace of grass, dirt or track ...”
You will want to keep this in mind as we discuss the battles later.
Let’s turn to the matter of the opium trade and smuggling.
The Sangin District has long been a center for the opium trade, and has long been ruled by tribal politics. This map displays that clearly. Don’t worry too much about the numbers; they reflect metric tons estimated to be shipped annually over those routes. This map was provided by CNN.com/asia, with text by Amanpour. She wrote that Afghan opium is judged to kill about 100,000 people every year, with 15 million people world wide using heroin. She noted that the Taliban enemy in Afghanistan raised anywhere from $450 to $600 million between 2005-2009 from this trade.
The economy depends on this opium. Dependence on opium trade, which is theoretically illegal, usually involves a requirement for a certain degree of instability. As a result, various tribes would work to assure such instability existed in order to conduct their trade. That in turn is related to tribal politics. Local governance was weak which made instability easy to create and made it easier to conduct opium trading and smuggling.
The opium trade is significant. It is a multi-billion dollar business that accounts for roughly half of Afghanistan’s economic output. Speaking broadly, Afghanistan accounts for nearly all the world’s opium production and Helmand Province accounts for most of Afghanistan’s opium production.
Opium processing lab chemical storage area in Nimroz Province, presented by New York Post
In addition to all this, the region provided a near perfect sanctuary to process the raw opium. I read one estimate that there are or have been some 30-35 processing labs from which the processed opium could easily be moved to Kandahar and on to Qetta, a major haven for Taliban leaders.
The planting cycle for opium is six to seven months. Planting the seed usually begins in about October.
Three months after the seeds are planted, beautiful flowers bloom (photo presented by NATO Review), then the petals fall away, and expose the spherical or oval shaped seed capsule Inside the pod is a milky sap, opium in its natural form.
The harvest begins a few weeks before the end of the cycle, sometime around April through May, after which the raw opium is handed over to middlemen who get it to labs for processing and then the heroin product goes to market. The major market is Europe.
In his book Opium season: a year on the Afghan frontier, Joel Hafvenstein wrote:
“Sangin was the biggest opium bazaar in south Afghanistan.”
I’ll add that Musa Qala just to the north of Sangin is also a huge source of opium smuggling.
Woodbridge agrees. He wrote:
“The town’s economic heart is its main Bazaar, running through the centre on either side of the (Route) 611 for some 500m, a succession of narrow, ramshackle, open front mud-brick stores interspersed with temporary, rough-hewn displays set amongst bomb-damaged buildings and flanked by dusty side-roads.”
Just a moment on the meaning of “bazaar” in terms of this region and the Mideast. The bazaar is at the heart of virtually every city in these regions. It provides a wide array of products and services.
One unnamed author wrote:
Storeholders in the Sangin Bazaar. Presented by Helmand Blog - Afghanistan
“Products are arranged in markets or suq’s so that all the sellers of a particular item are conveniently located in one area. For instance, all the gold shops are in one area, as are all the spice sellers and carpet sellers, in an arrangement that has not changed for hundreds of years. Dealers of like commodities came together to manage their trade…they set prices and working hours, regulated weights and measures, and enforced ethical trading practices. They did not see themselves as competitors, but as members of a commercial community.”
The terrain features allowed insurgents of any variety to come through the mountains between Kandahar and Helmand provinces with unlimited access to nearly all Helmand. These features also enhanced the capacity to conduct a lucrative opium trade and enabled intensive arms smuggling to, through and from the region.
A British Royal Marine described Sangin this way:
“It’s at the bottom of the mountain, and it’s on the main river and the main drug route, and is the major area for growing poppies. There’s so much resistance because the people there don’t want that to change.”
Canal crossings in Helmand province are plentiful and have been the target of many Allied combat operations. This photo is of a Helmand canal presented by Spirit of America. For example, the Mail Foreign Service of Britain reported on July 3, 2009 and said this:
“Hundreds of British troops have seized key canal crossings in a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, in one of the largest operations that overstretched forces have made there. The soldiers have seized 13 canal crossings since Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw, began 10 days ago with an airborne assault north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Today another 800 British troops began pushing north towards Gereshk, Helmand's main industrial city in the operation, one of the UK's biggest co-ordinated air operations of modern times.”
Gereshk is about 25 miles south-southwest of Sangin, also on he Helmand River.
The canals have been very important to Afghan irrigation for a very long time. The Helmand River holds plenty of water. The challenge has been to get that water to agricultural use. In 1910, the Afghans began working to reconstruct old irrigation canals and began constructing new functional canals in 1914. The Germans and Japanese helped them do that in the 1930s. Morrison-Knudsen Afghanistan, an American company headquartered in San Francisco, agreed in 1946 to undertake a massive Helmand Valley Project. The plan was to construct two new dams and an extensive canal system, the latter of which would include intakes, waterways, laterals and sub-laterals. The subject gets complex but I will simply say that this was a giant undertaking and required American foreign aid for financing. The project ended in failure but it did mark the beginning of a serious US-Afghan aid relationship.
The web site Spirit of America reported, “In the 50s and 60s …. Engineers, planners and development workers with the US Agency for International Development literally built the cities of Lashkar Gah (the provincial capital) and Marjah, as well as an incredibly networked system of canals down throughout Helmand. As a result, Helmand became the breadbasket of Afghanistan.”
Despite failure of this particular project, canals remain the most common method of irrigation in Afghanistan, and have also served as a means to smuggle opium out to Pakistan and elsewhere. It has been common for Allied forces to be ambushed in the areas of these canals.
By 2009, Woodbridge noted that the Taliban essentially owned Sangin District, with all those who had attempted to govern it having left because of a lack of support from Kabul and the dangers associated with opposing the Taliban.
The climate, to Woodbridge, seemed to be always “extreme.” In June he saw temperatures that averaged about 103 degrees F. with very high humidity. Night temperatures would decline by only a few degrees. It was cold in spring, though unpredictable, and sub-zero in winter. Broadly speaking, the enemy did not do much fighting in winter, nor during the opium harvest in the spring.
There is an incredible amount of research available that addresses the societal relationships with opium production in Afghanistan. I cannot go into this subject here. I do, however, want to pass on Woodbridge’s perspective:
Tribal Helmand, presented by Naval Post Graduate Studies, Culture & Conflict Studies
“Absolutely ingrained into local conscience were the complexities of tribal affiliation that seemed never ending to an outsider and often excruciatingly frustrating and incomprehensible when it came to their affect on efforts at development or reform. Local loyalty could go in several different directions at any one time for reasons that may be significant, were occasionally trivial, and often rooted in acts which took place many years before. Respect would be paid to figures of authority who most often repaid that courtesy by using their particular position of influence as justification to take from the majority beneath them, and most would accept such behaviour with a resignation borne of a familiar acceptance of corruption passed from one generation to the next. It’s just the way things were done because it’s the way things had always been done.
“Tribal connections would often determine who held sway in a particular part of the District or on a specific area of expertise, and matters would only be decided definitively if the appropriate tribal representatives were present to provide an acceptably official level of endorsement.
“In Sangin near all of the most important tribal leaders were in exile by 2009 after their attempts to combat Taliban infiltration in the town went unsupported by higher authority and left them open to the threat of execution ... Left in their stead were the infinitely less influential second and third tier leaders, whose influence over their respective communities was correspondingly poor, and as such attempts to engage with a naturally reluctant civilian population on matters of security or social and economic development went unreported by anyone with the tribal standing to ensure they were heard and acted upon.
“Deals would be done between Afghan power brokers with barely a nod of the head or stroke of a beard, an unspoken determination of how things would be that eluded all but the local few who seemed to have an innate understanding as to their respective social position in life, and an acceptance that those able to profit from theirs should and would do exactly that.”
I want to turn to the Kajaki dam, and spend a bit of time on it. The Kajaki Dam was constructed in the 1950s and activated in 1953 by an American construction company as part of the Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority Project.
It sits at the head of the Helmand River, surrounded by mountains and desert, one of Afghanistan’s only strategic infrastructure sites. The project was an ambitious undertaking by the Afghan and U.S. governments and was designed to store water for downstream irrigation in the Helmand River Valley, known as the Green Zone.
In the 1970s, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded the hydro power plant construction at the dam which included two 16.5-megawatt (MW) generators. It was completed in 1975.
In December 2003, only Unit 1 of three was operational, with output reduced to 3 MW. USAID hired two foreign companies to rehabilitate Unit 1, repair Unit 3 and install the new Unit 2. However, enemy attacks against the dam forced the contractors out. The British fought hard to establish a security zone around the facility. In september 2008, the British escorted a convoy transporting the Unit 2 generator, four transformers, and other supplies. Unit 3 has been repaired and rebuilt. As of November 18, 2010, the hydroelectric operation was generating 51 MW and Unit 2 was awaiting installation.
The biggest problem for the Allies has been to eliminate the enemy just to the south of the dam. The Allies were able to hold the dam, but had the additional responsibility of protecting the construction of a highway to the dam and then securing it. This road was essential to get the needed construction done and install the needed upgrades. It is thought that once the dam becomes fully operational, it could supply electricity to 2 million Afghans and double the amount of arable land in the south. As you will see, the enemy’s objective was to destroy the dam. Many Allied forces fought many battles here. As I am going to try to focus on Sangin, I will not cover FOB Zeebrugge located here, once held by the British, now the US Marines, but I can say that there were many fights up here and casualties.
I will conclude this section and move on to try to describe the nature of some of the battles that have occurred in an around Sangin and convey to you the feelings of some who have been in those fights. I’m going to step through this chronologically. You might find it tough to follow. The British rotated new units in and out every six months. I will address the top level units, and then try to provide an example or two of combat situations they faced in each rotation.
The mission creep