New York Times ~ September 11, 2013
SANGIN, Afghanistan — Some days, the Afghan soldiers worry that the mud walls around their headquarters in this embattled district are barely enough to keep the Taliban out. Perhaps more problematic is that the crumbling facade appears to be keeping the soldiers in.
Nolay Base takes direct fire almost every day from the Taliban. With more forces lost here than almost any other district in the country, the Afghan soldiers seldom leave the installation, and mostly refuse to conduct missions — too dangerous, they say. And when soldiers head out to go on brief home leaves, a growing number of them desert rather than return, their commanders say.
“It’s difficult to find local people who are against the Taliban,” said the executive officer of the brigade here, Col. Abdulhai Neshat. “This place is like a prison.”
In this corner of Helmand Province, widely agreed to be the most critical running battle in the country today, Afghan forces are in trouble. Though it does not reflect the broader security situation in Afghanistan, Sangin (pronounced SANG-in) offers a troubling portrait of life where the Taliban decides to make its mark and the Americans no longer fight, a situation that is likely to multiply as coalition forces completely withdraw next year.
Since launching their major offensive in late May, the Taliban have easily weathered the halfhearted attempts by the Afghans to reclaim Sangin, despite aid from international forces. In the past week alone, the Taliban have cleared out several villages, displacing up to 1,000 people and overrunning several security checkpoints, locals and Afghan officials say.
Coalition commanders are quietly growing alarmed, concerned that if the situation gets worse they may have to intervene for the second time this summer in an area officially turned over to Afghan security control.
Since the war’s beginning, the district, in the heart of Afghanistan’s poppy-growing country, has been home to the fiercest fighting in the country. British and American forces struggled here for years, taking heavy casualties to create even just a modest security bubble to free the district center from insurgent pressure.
Those gains have started to evaporate under the Afghans this year, as casualties mount and as a reluctance to confront the Taliban allows the insurgents to broaden their territory.
About 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed this summer, with more than double that number wounded, according to the district governor and others. Among the ranks of soldiers, attrition hovers near 50 percent, counting deaths, debilitating injuries and soldiers who never return from leave, according to the executive officer of the main unit in northern Helmand Province, the Second Brigade of the 215th Afghan Army Corps.
While elsewhere in the country Afghan forces are taking the fight to the Taliban, American commanders complain that their counterparts in Sangin have developed an “addiction to bases” — building new fortified posts instead of leaving the ones they have to attack the insurgents.
Even then, they are losing ground. Afghan forces have dismantled many security checkpoints they felt they could not defend, and at least six have been captured and held by the Taliban since May. In the past week, more have been taken down, and at least four new posts have been overrun, local officials say.
Desperate to regain momentum, the Afghan Army has been chewing through senior officers here. The commander of the Second Brigade has been fired, as has the battalion commander in Sangin. Casualties have taken a toll on the leadership, too: last month, the Taliban killed the district intelligence chief.
“Right now, Sangin is like an open space for the Taliban,” said the Sangin district governor, Habibullah Shamlanai. “Anyone can enter, and anyone can leave.”
Sangin became the focal point of the fighting season in late May, when the Taliban kicked off their biggest assault of the year. Massing around 600 fighters in a 36-hour blitz, the insurgents attacked about 20 Afghan patrol bases in a strategic area of the district that borders the river.
The Afghans were overrun in some locations, while other outposts were abandoned when the local police staffing them ran out of ammunition. An initial attempt to reclaim the lost ground in the aftermath of the embarrassing assault was somewhat successful, but several bases still remain in Taliban hands.
In July, the Afghans mounted a major counteroffensive, drawing in an entire battalion from the Third Brigade of the 215th Army Corps in Marja and bringing both British soldiers and American Marines onto the battlefield to assist.
But after a strong start, participants say, the Afghans refused to continue. Losses mounted, momentum dissipated, and the mission was left less than half complete, leaving the green zone, a lush strip of foliage that hugs the waters of the Sangin River, largely in the control of the Taliban.
In August, after the end of Ramadan, the Afghan commanders were nervous, expecting another major Taliban assault. To safeguard some of the more remote bases, the brigade sergeant major, Zabiullah Syeddi, assembled a quick reaction force to move farther into the hostile green zone.
As his men prepared to leave Nolay Base, taking up positions beside a row of idling Humvees and tow trucks, a large explosion suddenly shook the ground. Several soldiers ran to see whether they were under attack. Sergeant Major Syeddi, a veteran soldier, swung the door of his Humvee open to investigate.
When he returned, he ran his hand over his face and shrugged. The insurgents, he said, had laid an improvised explosive device on the driveway of the brigade headquarters, in plain sight of the guard towers.
At 2 a.m. that night, the sergeant major began making a series of scheduled check-in calls to three neighboring base commanders. Two responded immediately — all clear. But there was no answer at the third, the Mahmud Agha outpost, several hundred yards away.
His voice grew more desperate with each call, until finally he disappeared out of sight. He reappeared a few minutes later, walking slowly.
“They were sleeping,” he said.
The next morning, on the way home, the convoy drove through the Sangin bazaar, the largest in Northern Helmand. Fabrics, food and electronics lined the shelves of dozens of storefronts as merchants and shoppers stood along the bustling road.
A line of soldiers was on a rare foot patrol in the bazaar, bunched together, guns slung loosely over their shoulders.
Near a central roundabout, the convoy stopped to allow reporters from The New York Times to speak with a handful of residents, who offered bleak assessments.
“I just stay in the shop and don’t go outside,” said one merchant, Hayatullah, standing at the edge of his electronics store. “This is my job, how can I leave?”
A crowd gathered, describing the district as a land divided — the center, which was somewhat secure, and everywhere else, a wasteland.
“There is fighting every day — every day, bullets are flying,” said Hayatullah, 20, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.
Eager to leave, the soldiers returned to their vehicles. They roared past the foot patrol as they pulled out of the market.
Suddenly a loud explosion ripped through the air, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust near the road. A rocket-propelled grenade aimed at the convoy had missed. The turret gunners aimed their weapons in the direction of the boom while the drivers sped off.
Seconds later, the real ambush began — against the patrol left behind at the bazaar. A 10-minute firefight raged in the heart of the market district, claiming at least two soldiers, one shot through the eye. The Taliban, for all anyone knew, suffered zero casualties.
The soldiers visiting the wounded in the brigade hospital, a clean facility manned by a single medic, offered words of comfort to their comrades. But a sense of fatalism had already gripped the base.
Still, Colonel Neshat seemed temporarily jolted from the complacence that has plagued his men. He swore to search and clear the area where the ambush was staged.
“We have to, we have to,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “If we don’t find them my plan is to put a good post in place to disrupt them.”