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UK pull-out from Sangin 'not a retreat'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 July 2010

Assessing the significance of the British withdrawal from Sangin, in Helmand, author and former British soldier Patrick Hennessey tells Channel 4 News it is "naive misunderstanding" to regard the move as a retreat.

British soldier in Hemand (getty)

How significant is this move out of Sangin for the British?
The move makes very little difference to the overall picture in Helmand, and its significance will be in allowing a better concentration of force in central Helmand.

40 Commando are currently under command of the US higher formation in northern Helmand in the same way as some non-British ISAF elms are under British command in central Helmand.

There is a long list of places both in Helmand and Afghanistan that have had a British presence at some point and, as the strategic and tactical pictures have changed, have ceased to: Now Zad, Musa Qala, Garmsir, Kajaki ,and even further afield there were once Brit elements in Mazar and Herat in the north.

Militarily the redeployment is of very little significance indeed and makes a great deal of sense.
Sangin is hugely symbolic for the British in terms of lives lost - does this mark a retreat, as some media are suggesting?
Of the places I mentioned above, there's no doubt that more lives have been lost in Sangin than elsewhere, and for that reason it will always have an emotional relevance to the units that have served there and to those who have lost friends and colleagues there.

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To suggest, however, that this marks a retreat shows at best a pretty naive understanding of coalition military operations and at worst a wilful effort to undermine the very work both British and American forces are doing as it will undoubtedly be used to galvanise insurgent propoganda.

When I handed over my patrol base in Gereshk to elements of 2 MERCIAN and redeployed up to Sangin, I certainly wasn't retreating, I was moving to where the overall effort needed my team most at that moment.

Just because 40 Cdo will hand over to US, rather than UK units, doesn't really make any difference.

UK commander 'called for more Helmand troops'
Exclusive: As the defence secretary Liam Fox announces the British forces will be withdrawn from the Afghan town of Sangin, the British officer who made the original evaluation of how many troops would be needed in Helmand tells Channel 4 News his estimate was "wrong".

Read the article

What is Sangin like for the troops on the ground?
There is no doubt that Sangin is one of the most difficult areas of Helmand in which to be deployed. The very high incidence of IED attacks is married with a sophistication in their deployment and reinforcement by other elements of attack (sharp-shooters, RPGs and even the odd medium to heavy weapon system, SPG-9, dushka etc), which makes for a dangerous enemy.

When I was there it seemed to be the case that more experienced and proficient insurgent fighters were concentrated in Sangin and it was more difficult than other areas of Helmand for us to dominate the ground and interact with the local population.

Some progress had been made recently but, as the figures show, that has come at a high cost. Measuring "danger" in terms of casualties is somewhat crude and there are plenty of other parts of Helmand which are as much trouble as Sangin, but one always felt that little bit more vulnerable up there - which is what added to its so-called "iconic" status.
What do the troops in Nad-e Ali, where you are, think about this announcement?
With typical gruff squaddie humour the response seems to be that the Yanks are welcome to the place.

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Soldiers don't fight and get injured for "icons", and the suggestion that they might feel like those who had died might have been in some way betrayed by handing the AO over to Americans was met with either blank stares or laughter.

The redeployment will allow greater concentration of force down here and relieve pressure where there is still a stiff fight to be had, the guys down here understand this and on balance think its probably a good thing. 
What might the Americans do differently?
It will be interesting to see whether the Americans are more robust in their application of force.

Petraeus has picked up McChrystal's mantra of "courageous restraint" which is being practised admirably down here in often trying circumstances. I've noticed, however, a growing mistrust and misunderstanding of COIN in US media and among some of the troops at the sharp end, who are keen to use more force.

It may be that this is what is required in Sangin in the short term. The US Marines moving in will certainly have more troops and firepower at their disposal if this proves to be the required course of action, but on balance I don't think they will change too much too quickly as it seems that, despite the casualties, 40 Cdo are making progress and building on the hard work done by the Rifles over the winter.
PS what are you doing there? Military or book thing?
Book thing, bit of research into the ANA, always nice to get back in the saddle though!

Former soldier Patrick Hennessey is the author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars

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