22 Dec 2015

Memories of Sangin as British forces return to help fight Taliban

Dust billows as a British Chinook helicopter takes off in Sangin valley in the southern province of Helmand June 10, 2007. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (AFGHANISTAN) FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE: ALSO SEE GM1E5AL1QVZ01 - RTR1QNMEBritish soldiers in Sangin in 2007

It was one of those walks, those memorable walks, that you just want to be boring.

As soon as the vast doors opened from the Sangin British army base at the edge of the strategically placed town in Helmand, you felt completely exposed.

The group of British soldiers fan out on patrol across the poppy fields, towards the dusty bazaar and main street of the town.

The fortress walls of dirt-filled crates that looked so ugly from within seem to beckon from without as they disappear behind you: safety.

Radios crackle in the heat. That familiar, slowly spinning walk of patrolling soldiers, continue to move but  quartering their surroundings as they turn 360 degrees with the rifle sight. But you keep walking, sweltering in the body-armour and helmets.

“If the situation changes, it will change very rapidly.” The words of an officer briefing, ringing in my ears now.

It’s true the British army had established a degree of rapport across some of the villages . They could – and did- stop by for a chai and talk about, well, not very much in particular. Talk was enough.

But all the while the feeing pulses through you that these white, heavily armoured aliens, occupying their country, were at best tolerated.

The desperate protocol of wanting to take off, having to take off your helmet as you meet and talk to people in Sangin’s villages, even though you know it is against the first rule of self-preservation. The urge to reach out, to be normal, in circumstances where normality and outreach are pipedreams.

To walk through the main bazaar of Sangin was to feel a degree of alienation hard to describe. Groups of turbaned, bearded, Afghan men watching us silently as we passed by – myself and cameraman no doubt looking even more bizarre and alien even after the years of occupation in Helmand.

Every time we went to Sangin and other areas of Helmand the brass would brief us about schools built, meetings and shuras attended with local leaders, intel gathered (up to a point) – and yet every time we had to move anywhere it was by helicopter. The environment was not – to use that euphemism – permissive.

Snipers, IEDs – so many IEDs. Helmand was never anywhere near the control of the British – disastrously under-equipped and under- supported at the outset. The army also given impossibly high and vague expectations that liberal democratic western institutions could be gouged out of the dust and dirt of Helmand.

It could be argued they have been brought with some limited success, to some other parts of Afghanistan – but the Pashtun heartlands of this desert province is not one of them, never would be one of them.

The tribe runs deep here, The tribe is all, not Sangin the local town, still less Lashkar Gah the provincial capital – and forget Kabul.

So it is that a year or so after British combat forces have left – British combat forces are back. Don’t believe the nonsense about purely advisory roles etc – it is unlikely the SAS will be confining their work to laptops.

The British failed, against unworkable expectations and ludicrous political naivety, but fail they did. The years of spin about how proficient the emerging Afghan Army was, is, becomes ever more exposed by the day.

And yes, Islamic State are present now and operating in the general insurgent mix across the country. The witches’ brew approaches simmering point. The insurgency runs strong across Helmand as in several other provinces across Afghanistan.

And we find today an army that has failed to deter, still less destroy the insurgency, advises the army its political masters have invented so they can leave their failure behind them. Fine of course, if the new Afghan army can do the job nobody in history has ever come close to achieving: centralised security across Afghanistan.

Billions and billions and billions of dollars later for the Afghan army, Obama cannot bring his troops home.

It doesn’t matter that the new model Afghan National Army (ANA) has proved more resilient than some predicted and others hoped, the bottom line is that it is not anywhere near self-sufficient on the ground nor in terms of air support.

ANA fatalities in recent days are reported by one official in Sangin to be more than 90 dead. US military figures recently released, say that ANA deaths on the battlefield generally, are 27 per cent up this year on last.

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