20 Sep 2010

Can US forces succeed in violent Sangin?

As UK troops handover to British forces in Afghanistan’s Sangin, Nick Paton Walsh asks whether they will be able to succeed in the difficult area.

The questions that surround today’s handover of Sangin to the US Marines seem almost part of an era past in Afghanistan. Did Britain’s immense sacrifice in this town lead to a level of governance and security that we could be proud of? Were the troops, from day one, properly equipped and supported to do the job they needed to do? No, is the answer on both counts.

But we have known that for some time. Even the pattern of the handover is familiar: the ceremony; the platitudes from American counterparts about how positive the situation is. In a similar handover in Basra, however, the hundreds of US special forces that retook the town after years of British making-do, arrived on the quiet. In Helmand, you could hardly miss the tens of thousands of US marines aggressively hoping to fill in the blanks of Britain’s exhausting and bloody deployment.

We know that Britain did not achieve in full the job it set out to do in Helmand; we will never know whether superior equipment would have saved some of the 106 British lives lost to that small town.

The new questions are perhaps more vital for Afghanistan’s future, and for how history will judge Britain’s immense sacrifice there. Can the US marines, with their unchallenged resources, thuggishly mighty firepower, and credo of invincibility, win this fight so late in the game? Will their superior armoured vehicles, air support and numbers make a difference? Have four years of violence meant the population can not be won over again?

It is not really a surprise, historically, to see Americans pick up where Britain has left off. The true test of the sacrifice there – a third of total UK deaths in the war – comes when we see whether the town is fixable at all.