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'Taliban will present Sangin pullout as defeat'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 July 2010

Despite the redeployment of UK soldiers, Nato is not even close to handing over Sangin to Afghan forces, writes former commander of British troops Colonel Richard Kemp. While successes in the area exist, the Taliban will present this as a defeat.

The name Sangin will have the same resonance among the Afghanistan generation of British soldiers and their families as Crossmaglen and the Falls Road have for the Northern Ireland generations, who also faced the daily threat of deadly sniper bullets and lethal shards of shrapnel hurled out by well-concealed improvised explosive devices.

We eventually handed over security in South Armagh and Belfast to the police after nearly 30 years of bitter fighting. Unable to sustain operations; impossibly penetrated by police, military and Mi5; and under ever-increasing pressure from their own communities, the Provisional IRA were left with little choice than to surrender - in all but name. The threat posed by the IRA's remnants - the dissident republicans - is serious and deadly, but as yet small compared to what went before.

We are not there yet in Sangin - not even close. The equivalent of a hand-over to the police in Northern Ireland would be a hand-over to the Afghan National Security Forces. Instead we are going to be replaced by the hugely capable US Marine Corps who will continue the fight - alongside the Afghan military who have done such a valiant job shoulder-to-shoulder with our own forces in Sangin.

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As the troop surge continues to build and then to bite on the ground - which could take many more months - we should get steadily closer to the point of being able to hand over the majority of heavy-lifting to the Afghans.

The hurdles ahead
The fight is not just military but also political. We need to assist the Afghans to develop a government in Kabul that has enough support and respect to take over the residual insurgency when we withdraw, and to handle any subsequent resurgence. Again, we are nowhere near that point yet. 

And we need to pressure and assist Pakistan to not only cease their support for the Afghan Taliban but also actively combat them on their side of the border. Far more action is needed to deal with this most thorny of problems.

David Cameron's target of achieving our objectives within five years can only be realised if we maintain sufficient political will through what will continue to be bad times ahead. That means his and President Obama's total commitment to defeating the Taliban in their determination to seize back control of the country.

If this cause is important enough to sacrifice so many British and American lives it is much more important than electoral considerations on either side of the Atlantic. Although David Cameron's stated commitment to Afghanistan has been impressive, we are not yet getting that unequivocal message loud and clear. The same is true of our American cousins, as graphically illustrated by General McChrystal's recent catastrophic indiscretions. 

Local capability
Any chink in the armour of our political commitment will be ruthlessly exploited by the Taliban and communicated in unmistakable terms to their financial backers in Pakistan and the Gulf -  and to the Afghan people.

The Taliban's sophisticated media machine - the envy of ISAF and Whitehall - swung into action immediately the story was leaked in Britain yesterday. They will be presenting our redeployment from Sangin to central Helmand as a defeat. 

It is far from that. With the US surge swelling to 20,000 troops in Helmand, it makes complete sense to consolidate British troops together in a continuous geographical zone of operations.

An important added benefit is that it aligns the ISAF military structures in Helmand with the structure of the Afghan National Army. This will allow more effective partnering, so crucial to building up the capability of the Afghans who will eventually have to take over responsibility for countering the insurgency. 

Colonel Richard Kemp writes for Channel 4 News
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And the Afghan Army and police are crucial to our own military and development success today. Winning over hearts and minds is an over-used throw away line in the lexicon of counter-insurgency pundits. And it is critical. But British and American troops, Foreign Service officials and aid workers will no more win over Afghan hearts and minds than would Afghans attempting the same thing in Newcastle or Cornwall. That is why it is so crucial to have Afghan security forces working alongside our troops when they are dealing with local people.

Sangin successes
What has been achieved in five years' heavy fighting in Sangin?

In the most demanding and dangerous circumstances imaginable, successive British battle groups have enabled the writ of the government of Afghanistan to run in the Taliban heartland. The Taliban's anger at having their dominance here kept in check, and their movement throughout Helmand disrupted at this critical junction, is demonstrated by the fury of their fight against our troops and the Afghan security forces.

Against the will of both Taliban and narcotics barons - whose pernicious trade flourishes in instability - our forces have permitted and encouraged the expansion of Sangin market as a regional centre of trade. This boost to the livelihoods of the impoverished locals is hard to comprehend for those of us who see 24 hour Tescos as an inalienable right.

Sangin is not just vital for the security of Helmand. President Karzai once said: "Lose in Sangin and you lose in Afghanistan". It is a key symbolic as well as strategic location.

Will the British be glad to hand over the bloodbath that is Sangin? They will neither be happy nor sorry. Like countless generations of soldiers and marines before them, they will simply follow orders and march to the sound of the guns in central Helmand where their comrades are already in the thick of the fight.

They - as we - will mourn the loss of comrades killed in Sangin. But they can draw strength from the knowledge that those sacrifices have been vital to the security of their friends, family and countrymen back home. Here, the threat from violent international jihad is reduced by the work our troops have done in denying a safe haven in Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Colonel Richard KempOur troops have fought with astonishing bravery in this town. Corporal Brian Budd of The Parachute Regiment won his VC here. And let us not forget the immense damage that our soldiers and marines have inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the Taliban in and around Sangin. Our forces have prevailed in every fire-fight, imposing many more casualties on the enemy than they have on us.
Colonel Richard Kemp is the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and author of Attack State Red, an account of combat in Afghanistan.

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