Sangin, bloody Sangin
Summary: The Afghan government appear to have lost control of Sangin district in Helmand, retreating in some disarray. The failure of the Afghan security forces is matched only by the failure of the international military force’s media spin: scorched earth does not equal victory…
Reports coming in that the Afghan Army – doubtless with stand-off support and advice from the US and other international military personnel – have had to withdraw from the district centre of Sangin, a key strategic piece of Helmand province that was bitterly fought over by US and UK troops before the ISAF drawdown in 2014. Nearly 1,000 international soldiers died fighting in Helmand. Or rather, in a slightly bizarre twist, they have simply relocated the district centre. The successor to ISAF, Resolute Support, has made a statement which makes pessimistic reading. The media team appear to have intentionally selected and highlighted the last two sentences from this press release as some kind of positive:
“The ANDSF defended the district center for two months and left on their own terms. The only thing they left to the Taliban is rubble and dirt”
Analysis and Outlook
Judging “who controls what” is a hazardous art form. Some reports say that the Afghan government effectively now only controls 60% of Afghan territory, with the Taliban controlling 10% and 30% contested. This New York Times report, from December 2016, draws on senior US military sources and summarises the difficult situation at the end of 2016:
“Afghanistan’s security crisis is fueling new opportunities for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Afghan and American officials say, voicing concerns that the original American mission in the country — removing its use as a terrorist haven — is at risk.
As intense Taliban offensives have taken large portions of territory out of the Afghan government’s hands, those spaces have become the stage for a resurgence of regional and international militant groups…Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, said the Afghan government now controls only about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban hold sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder is contested. Which group or groups fill those voids of increasing ungoverned territory in Afghanistan ‘is something we’ll have to contend with’, he said… Over all, Western and Afghan officials estimate that 40,000 to 45,000 militants are active across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated at 30,000 fighters, some of them seasonal. But the rest are foreign militants of different — and often fluid — allegiances, at times competing but mostly on the same side against the Afghan government and its American allies… The immediate existential threat to the Afghan government has been a resurgent Taliban, who officials say have been killing 30 to 50 members of the security forces each day in recent months. The insurgents are directly threatening important provincial capitals and have again made important roadways hazardous or impassable to government forces.”
The Afghan army is suffering many casualties and struggles with morale and capability. But it is likely to broadly remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes. There was increasing concern that the Afghan security forces were now contributing to a high proportion of civilian casualties: they are significantly less well-trained than the Western ISAF forces, who largely departed at the end of 2014. The emergence of IS is likely to continue to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and potentially better resourced form of jihad. Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2017.
The arrival in the White House of Donald Trump – known to be opposed to an interventionist American role in the world – may well herald a new period of declining US military support and dis-engagement in 2017. There is much uncertainty as to what the US policy will now be in the coming years. A significant reduction of US political, military and financial support could cause the country to collapse.
The security situation is quite fluid and we should be careful about attempting to judge who controls what at any given point in time: both the government and the Taliban are prone to giving out inaccurate information. Taliban group can dominate particular routes, towns and villages over prolonged periods, simply by setting up a few checkpoints or mobile Sharia courts, without necessarily formally controlling a district. Conversely, government forces often define “control” of a village or district simply by the fact that they having their flag planted on the roof of the police or local government headquarters.
But, after sixteen years of international military engagement, making a virtue out of “scorched earth” just doesn’t cut it, somehow…
 Mashal, M., and Schmitt, E., ‘Afghan Security Crisis Sets Stage for Terrorists’ Resurgence’, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/world/asia/afghanistan-security-terrorism-taliban.html?_r=0