Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?
November 7, 2011, updated June 29, 2012
October 2011 and beyond in the Sangin
Well, we started in 2006 and it’s now October 2011. I intend to keep tracking events in the Sangin District for, perhaps, several years ahead. We and our Allies have paid a high price for this turf, and we need to see what happens to it. __________
A report by Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2012, said, “Now, with those additional troops having departed, American forces cannot leave Camp Leatherneck (Sangin Province, the most deadly of them all) without getting fired at or bombed on any given day. An unprecedented assault on their base in mid-September saw 15 Taliban fighters enter Leatherneck, blow up six Harrier jets and three refueling stations and kill two Marines before they were stopped. The daily fight right beyond the wire is bitter and unwelcome evidence of the stalemate that exists in southern and eastern Afghanistan.”
Progress made, but is fast evaporating as Marines leave
The 1-7 Marines were in charge in the Sangin Valley in September 2012 and were controlling rice as much territory with half as many Marines back in 2011. The 1-7 Marines returned to the US on October 7, 2012, and the situation is now taking a turn for the worse as the Afghan National Army (ANA) finds itself unable to cope. While the 1-7 was preparing to leave, it had to remain in the fight to help the ANA. One officer said the Taliban keep coming back. The 1-7 was then limited in what it could do as the high command stopped combined patrols with the ANA because of the green-on-blue attacks by friendlies against US forces. The 2-5 Marines left in September. This has left the 2-7 Marines as the only battalion left in this northern region of Helmand. The 308 Marines are handling southern Helmand. The ANA thus far appears unprepared to handle the job without the Marines by their side. (101312)
Marines conduct massive attack in Kajaki district
The Kajaki District of Helmand Province, at the northern end of the Sangin Valley, and host of the Kajaki dam so critical to irrigation and hydropower, remains a tough to defeat stronghold for the enemy. Within the past few days, the Marines launched Operation Branding Iron employing eight airborne assault waves of Marines to flush out and destroy enemy in the area. The fighting at times was intense, with two days worth of hard-fought firefights. The enemy attempted to lure the Marines into fields of IEDs, but the Marines stood fast and did not get sucked in. After four days, the enemy receded and the Marines departed. The photo shows Cpl. Greg Dominguez, USMC, firing on the enemy’s position with his machine gun during a firefight. (071612)
IED remains the main threat in Sangin District
As of late June 2012, the IED remains the number one threat on Helmand provinces Sangin District, Afghan. At this moment, B/1-7 Marines have the deck and the con for this district’s security. They are supported by two, two-man Marine Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams, both based at FOB Shamsher. (062912)
Army Combat Engineers to make major improvements to Kajaki Dam
A great deal of Allied blood, especially British and American, was spilled to protect the Kajaki Dam at the northern end of the Sangin Valley in Helmand Province. US Army Combat Engineers have several projects on their plate to improve water flow for irrigation and electric power generation. To do these will require solid security. As of May 2012, the US Marines were securing the dam, the 1-8 Marines to be specific. They continue to be involved in fighting off the Taliban in the Kajaki district. This district has long been a Taliban stronghold. We need to observe whether the Marines will remain here or whether they will be withdrawn as part of the overall Marine withdrawal due to be complete by September 2012. (062512)
Marines-ANA conduct battalion-size operation in Sangin
So it’s June 2012, our forces, many of whom are Marines in Helmand Province, are withdrawing, yet 7th Marines had to join up with ANA forces to conduct a three day battalion-size operation which included helicopter air assaults in Sangin to clear caches, destroy safe havens and drug producing facilities, and clear the area. In reading a summary of what was known as Operation Sangin United Horizons, May 17-20, 2012, the operation went smoothly without any losses, unlike the patrols of earlier years. Nonetheless, the enemy is still entrenched here. (060112)
US forces brace for heavy combat this sumer in the Sangin Valley
The Sangin Valley this summer will reflect how we can expect the overall American withdrawal from Afghanistan to go this year. The Marines will soon start withdrawing from the Helmand Province and at the same time face an enemy that is still strong and is still on the offensive in the Sangin Valley. Marines there now face small arms ambushes, grenade attics, and a plethora of hidden IEDs, just as Allied forces there have faced since at least 2006. The 1-7 Marines are there now, having arrived in April. They are expecting violence to ramp up significantly over the coming weeks. It is true that much progress has been made. The Marines have made great advances. They are aware of the progress and proud of it, but they are also aware that heavy combat is imminent. The 1-7 was attacked shortly after it arrived. They are now bracing for the worst. (051812)
Kajaki Dam area still a problem
Marines continue to hold the Kajaki Dam area but the Marines report that the area north of the dam is still enemy territory. The Marines pushed the enemy to the north back in 2012, but G Battery, 2-11 Marines has had to repel repeated attacks over the past four months. G Battery is located at FOB Zeebrugge. Sgt. Erick A. Granados, the 1st squad leader with 1st Platoon, said recently, “Now we have the main advantage. We have a [heavily] fortified position … where we can engage the enemy and have the upper hand. Any time they try to attack with a burst of machineguns, we have a lot more guns and they just don’t stand a chance. All the guys love all the firepower that we have up here. It gives us the advantage.” While this is good, the Marines will be leaving here over the months ahead and then what? US, Britih and other NATO forces have spilled a lot of blood for this territory, and to protect and upgrade this dam. (032312)
Progress at Kajaki Dam
There has been significant progress at the Kajaki Dam, which is at the northern end of the Sangin River Valley and provides hydroelectric power to residents of the valley. Two new turbines became operational in 2006 despite all the fighting, and a third is scheduled to be installed and operational by 2013. US DepSecDef Ashton Carter, shown in this photo, visited the dam on February 24, 2012. Securing this dam was a major NATO military effort in the past few years and it looks like the sacrifices made will pay off for a large segment of Helmand Province’s population. (022712)
Marines say conditions in Sangin have improved markedly
Members of the 3-7 Marines in the Sangin area say conditions have improved markedly in the Sangin District. They say the 2nd Kandak forces there have built up strong security and strong relationships with the community to keep the area safe. The Marines were impressed by the ANA forces there and the work they have done, and say the Kandak troops have welcomed them with open arms. (022212)
Cause for optimism in Sangin
Afghan National Army (ANA) Lt. Col. Hazbullah, the commanding officer of 2nd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, said recently, “In the past, the situation of Sangin district was unacceptable to the people of Sangin … In the area of five kilometers away, our security forces did not have access; the area was under the threat of the enemy. By the cooperation of Afghan units, there is [now] security and there is a peaceful situation.” Slowly but surely the ANA has been taking greater security responsibility from the 2nd Marine Division (Forward). The Marines are taking on a greater advisory role. Hazbullah added, “Over the past five months, the situation in Sangin district is improving … We are moving toward development. Today we have been able to gain the trust of the public. The people are confident that [security forces] are able to defend the property and honor of the people. The confidence and trust of the people is a result of the achievement of the security forces here.” While these assessments are interesting, be cautious. As recently as december 2011 US 1-6 Marines fought their way across the Helmand River into Kajaki Sofia, north of Sangin. Marines in the fight said they were surprised by how “kinetic” it got. (013112)
The Marines are still pushing in Sangin.
One things the enemy knows. The Marines keep coming. The 3-7 Marines came in to replace the 1-5 in late September - early October 2011. They had been in Afghanistan’s Sangin in 2010, the first to take control of Sangin from the British. They are back.The 1-6 Marines was there with them, functioning as a maneuver unit in the Sangin area to help out. The 1-6 had also been operating in Afghanistan during the previous year, focused on Marjah.
Overall, according to Toolan, the Marines had calmed things down in southern Helmand and were now concentrating even more forces on the northern sector and the Sangin area. Part of the 1-6 for example was to go to Marjah, but instead the Marines sent the whole battalion to the Sangin area. That left the 3-6 to handle Marjah on their own.
Toolan commented on the 1-6:
“(Marines with 1/6 are) reinforcing our activities in northern Sangin and in areas further north ... (It) is actually a maneuver element that we will continue to use to put the pressure on the insurgents. The battalion is not located anywhere specific right now. They’re pretty much a free maneuver element.”
The Marines have brought in tanks and a reconnaissance battalion. Forces from the nation of Georgia have set up shop between Sangin and Musa Qala.
As we leave this story, it’s October 27, 2011, and Marine forces are pushing into northeast Helmand to conduct an assault in the area around the Kajaki dam, yet again, this time “Operation Eastern Storm.” More than 2,000 Allied soldiers are involved. ONce again, General Toolan:
“(The Kajaki Dam offensive) closes the lid on central Helmand. It will be one of the last areas that we need to clear in the Helmand province ... Insurgents have hidden explosives on either side of the Helmand River to slow the coalition advance, but the bombs have been cleared and there are indications they are using low-quality explosives. We could tell they were having problems. We’re putting the squeeze on them.”
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is planning a $266 million project to add a third turbine to the dam, increasing power production for southern Afghanistan. However, as has long been the case, there remains a heavy enemy presence in the area seeking to disrupt that effort. This project on October 2011 was described as stalled and facing extraordinary challenges. The Global Post said this:
“(The) project that has come to symbolize how the U.S. has its hands tied in Afghanistan with projects that are too ambitious in areas where the military can not provide security. Some critics say there is also insufficient auditing and oversight of projects on this scale, and that they often fall prey to corruption. To anyone who lives near the dam or officials who have traveled there, it is clear the Taliban is in control of Kajaki.”
So I close on an inconclusive note. Has the US gained the upper hand, or does the enemy remain in control?
We will continue keeping our eye on this area and update this report as we can. (110711)
January 25, 2012: ISAF has released figures that show the Taliban has increased its attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan, up 19 percent in the east, and six percent in the south. Attacks in these regions account for two-thirds of enemy attacks across the country. This despite intensive NATO operations in these areas and significant casualties.
HMLA-369 ready to go
January 5, 2012: God bless our Marines, but it sounds like a broken CVD that has been playing since at least 2006. The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) (Forward) has shifted its support to the Sangin District. Major General Glenn M. Walters, the 2 MAW (Fwd) commander, said, “It really hasn’t changed from the summer,” said Walters. “We conduct operations during the wintertime to keep the enemy off-balance. That requires aviation support, both for our conventional forces and our special operating forces. We haven’t seen too much of a let up. We’ve been flying just as much during the wintertime as we did during the summertime … We pushed up to Kajaki, there’s no secret about that. All that happened during the winter months. So we’re still taking the fight to the enemy and that’s the best way to disrupt and keep the insurgency off balance.”
January 4, 2012: SSgt Jay Mullen, USMC, 3rd Recon, took a 156-vehicle convoy from Kabul to Sangin on a 14-day trip with the ANA’s 215 Brigade 4th Kandak, troops he had trained, and encountered numerous ambushes. The Taliban is still present and still considers it very important to stop such convoys form reaching Sangin. They encountered a serious firefight close to Sangin in which four of his Kandak troops were killed, but they drove off the enemy. Mullen claims that the Taliban for all purposes has been driven out of the valley, that in the old days the convoy might not have made it.
December 7, 2011: An enemy mine killed 19 people, including seven women and five children, while riding on a minibus in the Sangin District. Five more were injured and are being treated at a nearby NATO hospital. They were traveling from Lashkar Gah to Sangin.
December 7, 2011: Major efforts are underway to secure Route 611 paralleling the Helmand River through the Sangin Valley. Combat Logistics Company 6, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) is establishing new outposts along Route 611 to help ground forces secure the route. After years and years of fighting, Route 611 remains unsecured. It is hoped these efforts will bring that to a final end.
December 3, 2011: Some 600 Marines along with ANA and ANP forces have been swarming over the Sangin Valley to solidify control over the Kajaki dam. The Marines and Afghans have established numerous bases in the area, whereas prior to that they had only one, FOB Zeebrugge. The Christian Science Monitor reported on December 3, 2011 that the Marines have met with greater success than they expected. As reported earlier, the 1-6 Marines have been leading the charge. Major General Toolan, USMC, the overall Marine commander in Afghanistan, has reaffirmed, "From my perspective, it's the last piece of real estate that ISAF forces are going to really clear.” The Marines experienced about two days of heavy fighting and lost two KIA, and then they said the valley “went quiet.” While this is encouraging, the Marines will be leaving Afghanistan in significant numbers over the months ahead and the question remains as to whether the Afghans can hold on. This could easily be a tactical, even a strategic withdrawal by the Taliban who will regroup, reequip and come back after the Marines are gone. They’ve done this before. Time will tell.
November 28, 2011: Cpl. Zachary C. Reiff, USMC, 3-7 Marines, died on November 28, 2011 in hospital in Germany after being wounded by an IED in the Sangin district, Afghanistan on November 18, 2011. He had served in Sangin once before, beginning March 2010, and was injured by an IED on July 21, 2010, but recovered, was rehabilitated, and volunteered for another deployment.
November 26, 2011: The 3rd Recon Battalion Marines, RCT 8, 2nd MARDIV have been fighting for the past five months to secure their portion of Route 611 running parallel to the Helmand River through the Sangin valley. The fighting has been intense. Enemy forces have ben using 30 mm grenade launchers attached to their AK-47s, and have been firing them indiscriminately in an effort to locate where the Marines are, hoping they will return fire. In such cases, the Marines have been reevaluating whether to return fire or focus on from where the hostile fire is coming, maneuver into position, and then attempt to destroy the source of the hostile fire. We started our examination of the Sangin valley in 2006, and security for Route 611 remains an issue.
November 18, 2011: LCpl Joshua Corral, 19, assigned to the 3-7 Marines, died of wounds received in the Sangin area.
Marine bulldozer lays dirt along Route 611 near Kajaki dam. 110311
November 15, 2011: The region around the Kajaki dam seems to be the last enemy stronghold in Helmand Province. The 1-6 Marines is operating there now and working to clear Route 611. The 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Fwd) is working to repair the road and build multiple observation posts along the way. The 1-6 Marines now hold the entire route from FOB Alcatraz to the dam. An effort is underway to install and operate a third turbine.
I should give you just a taste of clearing Route 611 can entail.
The Marine 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Fwd), clear Route 611 during Operation Outlaw Wrath, December 4, 2010. Presented buy I MEF Headquarters Group
The price of sacrifice in the Sangin Valley