One year after Nato troops ended combat operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban are close to overrunning Sangin, a key town in Helmand province. Akshay Narayan examines a rapidly deteriorating security situation.
Why is Sangin important?
Sangin is a town of approximately 14,000 people in northern Helmand province, where, from 2006 to 2014, coalition forces consistently suffered heavy casualties. Sangin is strategically important because it links Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, to northern districts like Kajaki. The town is notorious for being heavily involved in the opium trade in southern Afghanistan and is considered to be sympathetic to the Taliban. If the Taliban gain control of it, then they can cut off northern Helmand from the rest of the province and can also prevent Afghan forces in Lashkar Gah being resupplied. If the Taliban is to be destroyed in Helmand, it is vital that the Afghan government hold Sangin town.
Despite the fact that close to a quarter of all British deaths in the Afghan conflict occurred in Sangin, the Afghan forces who have been holding the town since the beginning of 2015 have been badly resourced and thinly spread, allowing the Taliban to launch an effective offensive. Sangin district fell to the Taliban on December 21st, following fierce fighting that left 90 Afghan soldiers dead in two days. By December 23rd, approximately 200 Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops were pinned down in Sangin’s police headquarters. Sangin police commander Mohammad Dawood reported that they were completely surrounded by the Taliban – the troops inside were running out of ammunition and food, and risked being captured alive. Meanwhile, the Taliban controlled the rest of Sangin – they blocked roads and removed police checkpoints, so supplies had to be airdropped into the Sangin police headquarters.
What’s the situation like now?
By December 24th, a counterattack was launched with the help of US airstrikes and (reportedly) British and American special forces. Reinforcements were slow to reach Sangin, but the Afghan interior ministry said that a local Taliban commander (along with 50 of his fighters) was killed during the counterattack. Despite this, the Taliban came very close to completely capturing the town, and probably would have overrun it completely were it not for American and British intervention. The battle has highlighted that the Afghan government is still incapable of fighting for itself – it cannot protect the Afghan people without foreign support.
What does this mean for the future?
This is highly problematic. Coalition forces cannot fight in Afghanistan forever. Large parts of the Nato intervention involved training Afghan troops to fight for themselves but as soon as conventional Nato troops left Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the Taliban took the initiative. They have begun massive offensives all over the country taking advantage of the Afghan government’s weaknesses. The struggle for Sangin is merely a part of a larger battle for control of Helmand. The Taliban began a Helmand offensive in early 2015 and by June, they had killed 5,588 Afghan security troops – astounding figures considering that Nato troops took a combined total of 3,486 casualties over a 13-year period, across the whole country. The fact that Afghan forces within a few months in one province alone took almost double the total coalition casualties should cause lots of concern in Kabul. 65% of Helmand now belongs to the Taliban, and many are saying that the entire province may fall.
Aside from recalling foreign conventional troops into Afghanistan (a highly unlikely prospect), the Afghan forces can change their methods in order to start successfully beating back the Taliban. They need to realise that they are fighting a guerrilla war. The Taliban are not a conventional force as such – they can blend into the civilian population. This is about territory control – the sole presence of the ANA and ANP doesn’t mean that they dominate the area. They need to win the hearts and minds of the people. Gaining the trust of the local populace will win the war for the Afghan government. So far, especially in Sangin, the population are not on their side. Military operations earlier in 2015 brought destruction to homes, farms and other property in Sangin district – consequently, the locals are quite resentful of the ANA and ANP. The Taliban can exploit popular resentment to generate sympathy towards their cause, making it a powerful recruiting tool.
The ANA and ANP are also not trained well and communication within the forces has a long way to go. Videos from Sangin district show Afghan troops using unprofessional “spray and pray” tactics – a waste of ammunition. Evidently, they have not been trained well and their discipline is pathetic. More time needs to be invested in training soldiers to the required high standards – the Taliban are veteran fighters who are experts in warfare, so ANA and ANP personnel need to be very good soldiers if they are to stand a chance. As shown by the time it took for reinforcements to reach Sangin (a number of days), there is insufficient communication between security units. This could easily be solved by provision of sufficient equipment.
In one year, the ANA and ANP have suffered several setbacks. The northern Afghan city of Kunduz was briefly captured by the Taliban in September (their first major victory since 2001) and large parts of Helmand are under Taliban control. It is time for the Afghan government to rapidly change their methods, start fighting back hard and win the hearts and minds of their own people. If they don’t, then the last 14 years of war will have been for nothing.