One Hundred U.S. Soldiers


by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Kabul for The Guardian

22 August 2016


More than a hundred US troops have been sent to Lashkar Gah to help prevent the Taliban from overrunning the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in what is thought to be the first US deployment to the embattled city since foreign troops withdrew in 2014.

Since late July, the Taliban have seized new territory across Helmand, defying a series of about 30 US airstrikes, and raising concern of an attack on the capital. The militants have also stepped up attacks in the country’s north, closing in on Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year.

“This is a big effort by the Taliban. This is probably the most serious push we’ve seen of the season,” Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters on Monday.

Cleveland called the US reinforcement in Helmand a “temporary effort” to advise the Afghan police, though he declined to say how long it was expected to last, citing “security reasons”.

“They’re not about to go out and conduct operations or something like that,” Cleveland said.

Neither did he specify the exact number of troops, but said they numbered “about a hundred”. Sources in Helmand believe about 130 US troops have arrived at the airport where they will be based.

The most significant Taliban advances have been Nawa and Nad Ali districts, a stone’s throw west of Lashkar Gah, where the government retain control of only a few administrative buildings.

The situation has become so bad that civilian elders of Nawa, traditionally one of Helmand’s most peaceful districts, have asked the provincial governor for weapons to join the fight, said Wali Mohammad, a villager from that district.

The Taliban also continue to block parts of the main highway leading north from Lashkar Gah, said Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, spokesman of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps. He said the road would take days to clear because it had been heavily mined.

In recent days, the Taliban have also closed in on Baghlan province, as well as Kunduz, the northern city they seized for two weeks last year, where a US airstrike destroyed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma centre.

On Saturday, government forces were briefly pushed out of the nearby Khanabad district. Fighting has already forced families to flee, as they did barely one year ago.

In Helmand, MSF has relocated part of its international staff from Lashkar Gah.

The uptick in violence has caused the Afghan army to send senior commanders around the country in a flurry to boost morale. Efforts have concentrated on Helmand, where government forces have reportedly fled the battlefield when faced with attacks, despite vastly outnumbering the Taliban.

Meanwhile, as soldiers and police are looking to commanders for military guidance, the political leadership in Kabul is on the brink of disaster as well.

In a rare public outburst, President Ashraf Ghani’s government partner, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, recently lashed out at the president for neglecting him, calling him “unfit” to rule the country.



Two Helmand Schools Now ANA Forts


by Sune Engel Rasmussen

in Nad Ali

The Guardian

April 16, 2016


Two schools in Helmand that were refurbished using British aid money are now being used as bases for the Afghan army, the Guardian has learned.

In another sign that intensified fighting between the resurgent Taliban and government forces threatens to reverse some of the most significant gains of the past 15 years, the Helmand schools are now occupied by Afghan national army soldiers.

Pupils still attend one of the schools, in Sayedabad, Nad Ali district, which received about £100,000 from the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Soldiers have built a rudimentary watchtower on the roof and walk heavily armed through the schoolyard.

The other school, in Chahe Anjir, also in Nad Ali, was renovated by the British government for £450,000. It was abandoned six months ago and turned into an outpost for the army.

Civilian casualties are on the rise in Afghanistan, and when schools become part of the battleground, children risk being caught in the crossfire. Every fourth civilian injured or killed in the conflict is a child. In Helmand, where a majority of British soldiers died, the frontline now slices through areas that only months ago were relatively peaceful.

Soldiers in Sayedabad were nonchalant about their presence in the school, which is the only one in Helmand to allow mixed-gender classes beyond age nine, according to the provincial education department. Though many families have fled the village, hundreds of children were still in school when the Guardian visited, about half of them girls.

“Why would the students be afraid?” said Farhad, an army commander who goes by one name. “Afghan children are not scared.” Inside, pupils agreed they were not afraid. “No way!” one class shouted with one voice, before arguing whether boys or girls were the bravest.

“They have got used to it,” said Sakina, the teacher. “But there is no doubt they are afraid. The Taliban probably knows the army is here, and they might fire rockets.” On more than one occasion, she said, gunfire had sent her students scrambling for cover under tables.

In 2015, the UN documented military use of 35 schools, compared with 12 the year before, said Danielle Bell, human rights director with the UN in in Afghanistan, which will release a report on schools and medical facilities at risk next week. In 2015, 139,000 students were affected by school closures due to conflict, Bell said.

The actual numbers are almost certainly higher due to the UN’s lack of access to volatile areas. For instance, the two Helmand schools discovered by the Guardian do not figure in the UN report.

Ahmad Shuja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, urged the Afghan government to protect its schools and live up to the safe schools declaration ratified last year. “Failing to protect schools will risk setting back what Afghanistan’s international donors justifiably consider to be one of their landmark achievements in Afghanistan – the dramatically increased access to education for Afghan boys and girls,” Shuja said.

In addition to endangering children, he said fighting “damages Afghanistan’s already lacking education infrastructure at a time when funds to rebuild and expand schools are decreasing.”

The office of the president, Ashraf Ghani, did not respond to requests for a comment. A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office (FCO said: “We are concerned about reports of schools in Helmand being used as military bases.

“We expect the Afghan government to do its utmost to ensure that any schools being used for military efforts are returned to their original purpose when they are considered safe to do so. The spokesperson added that responsibility for the violence ultimately lay with the insurgents.

In the other school renovated with British support, in Chahe Anjir, there are no more children. When the Guardian visited, Taliban fighters had draped large pieces of black cloth across the gravel road about 100 metres away to allow them to cross undetected. Within a stone’s throw of the school building, white Taliban flags had been planted in the fields.

Inside the classrooms, which appeared to have been stripped of desks, chairs and most other essential school equipment, a company of 20 soldiers had stacked ammunition cases underneath blackboards and spread out sleeping bags on bare concrete floors.

The inside wall, pockmarked with fist-sized holes, showed signs of a recent battle when the army had to recapture the school from the Taliban.

The company commander, Haji Mahboub, acknowledged that fighting in the school harmed children in the area, and said he hoped to find an alternative. But the school was already all but destroyed. Helmand’s director of education, Abdul Matin Jaffar, said the students had moved to another school east of the Helmand river.

Soldiers did not seem to have second thoughts about fighting in the school. “Do you want us to stand out on the road?” Ruhollah Amini, 26, said in between volleys of crackling gunfire from a fellow soldier shooting erratically, machine gun over his head.

In Sayedabad, where students were still in class, officials claimed their presence was intended not to harm but to defend the school.

“If there was no army base on the school, the Taliban might burn the school down,” said Gholam Sakhi, commander of the Afghan local police in Sayedabad. He also hinted at another possible reason for the school seizure: “It’s the highest building in the village.”


Additional reporting by Abdul Rauf Mehrpoor.



Corrupt Leaders Blunt Afghan Army


by Richard Sisk

Jan 20, 2016 (nearly a month ago)


The Taliban has taken over “some” districts in Afghanistan’s flashpoint Helmand province as Afghanistan National Army (ANA) units struggle against their own corrupt leadership and desertions in the ranks, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul said Tuesday.

The fight in Helmand, center of the poppy and heroin trade and a main source of funding for the Taliban, has resulted in the loss of several areas to the enemy but Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner repeatedly declined to name them.

When asked several times where the lost districts were, Shoffner said it was “hard to specify exactly how many at any given time. But there are some that — where the Taliban have control.”

“Again, those districts that we’re talking about, things change rapidly. And I’ll leave it that they are contested. It’s difficult to pin down an exact number that are under Taliban control at any given time. They do go back and forth,” Shoffner said.

Earlier, Shoffner had been specific in discussing Afghanistan as a whole. “Afghanistan has 404 districts in total. We assess that right now, the Taliban have control of only nine of those districts. We assess they have influence in about 17 others.”

In Helmand, “the area in and around Marjah remains a contested area, and that’s as far as I’ll go there,” said Shoffner, deputy chief of communications for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and main spokesman for Army Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander.

Marjah in central Helmand was the focal point of the U.S. Marine offensive in 2010 that took back control of the area from the Taliban. Marjah was also the scene earlier this month of the battle in which Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Q McClintock was killed as a U.S. Special Forces team went to the aid of Afghan forces.

In a video briefing to the Pentagon from Kabul, Shoffner said efforts to counter the Taliban’s offensive in Helmand, which began last October, have been hampered by the poor morale and leadership of the ANA’s 215th Corps, the main unit in the province.

“I can tell you that in the 215th Corps, the corps commander has been switched out, two of the brigade commanders in the 215th Corps have been changed out, as have several members, key members, of the staff,” Shoffner said.

As for the previous leaders of the 215th Corps, Shoffner said “we had some individuals who were corrupt” in how they handled pay for the troops and equipment.

In discussing the 215th Corps, Shoffner ran through a litany of organizational, equipment and leadership problems that U.S. advisers have been attempting to address within the ANA since the U.S. entered Afghanistan in force in late 2001.

In the 215th Corps, “they had problems with equipment maintenance. They had problems with units that had been attrited. They had problems with poor leadership. What we have found when units have an issue with attrition, it typically is traced back to poor leadership,” Shoffner said. Overall, the ANA was short about 25,000 troops because of desertions, he said.

“These are important changes, and those new leaders are still going through the process of establishing themselves,” Shoffner said of the 215th Corps.

Overall in 2015, the first year in which the ANA was on its own in the fight against the Taliban, the ANA had “mixed results” in its operations, Shoffner said.

The ANA did “fairly well” in operations that were planned beforehand, but had difficulty in responding quickly to a crisis, he said.



British Deploy A Few More To Helmand


by Lynne O’Donnell

Kabul, Afghanistan

Associated Press via ABC News

Dec 22, 2015


When Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani took office, it ushered in a period of hope for the country’s traumatized people that decades of violence would soon end. But just one year later, a mood of crisis prevails: British troops are being sent to help the army maintain control of a strategically important district and many Afghans believe the Taliban are winning.

The announcement that British soldiers are being dispatched to Helmand Province came hours after a Taliban suicide bomber killed six U.S. troops near a major military base in the deadliest single attack on American troops in the country since 2013.

A British Ministry of Defense statement late Monday said “a small number of U.K. personnel” were being sent to Helmand in “an advisory role.” The U.K. has 450 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s training mission.

Security has worsened across the country as the Taliban test the mettle of Afghan security forces following the end of the international combat mission last year. While they don’t typically hold any territory they win for more than a few hours or days, the Taliban have dealt a massive blow to the confidence of the over-stretched Afghan forces, who are fighting the insurgency almost alone for the first time. Officials have said casualties, as well as attrition and desertion, have taken a toll on numbers of government forces, while the Taliban strength seems never to diminish.

Fighting has raged between Taliban and Afghan forces in Helmand’s Sangin district, where an official said the district’s army base was the only area that had not fallen to the Taliban. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The spokesman for the Helmand governor, Omar Zwaq, said government troops were able to deliver supplies to those holed up inside mid-afternoon Tuesday. But, he added, there was no let-up in the fight for Sangin.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf said the siege continued “and the government will soon announce their defeat.”

Helmand is important to the Taliban. The lush southern province is home to endless poppy fields and the source of almost all the world’s opium, which helps fund the insurgency. The head of Helmand’s provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control.

There are currently about 13,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 9,800 Americans, with a mandate to “train, assist and advise” their Afghan counterparts. That’s compared to 140,000 foreign troops at the peak of combat operations in 2011.

Officials see no traditional winter slowdown in the insurgents’ quest to overthrow the Kabul government, especially in the warmer southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. They expect tough fighting in 2016 as what the Pentagon last week called an “invigorated Taliban” steps up its fight.

At the same time, Ghani’s government appears paralyzed by indecision and a lack of political intelligence that sees him use public appearances to deliver lectures but remains incapable of permanently filling vital security posts such as defense and intelligence, both of which are run by acting ministers.

This week, a senior official said he was unable to reach Ghani and resorted to Facebook to warn of the Taliban’s encroachment on Sangin. Hundreds of Afghan security forces have been killed fighting the Taliban across the province in the past six months, Helmand’s deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar said.

It wasn’t the first time an official used social media to send a message to the president — former intelligence agency chief Rahmatullah Nabil used his Facebook page earlier this month to resign.

Political analyst Haroun Mir said such incidents were an indication of “how remote the political elite have become from the reality on the ground,” obsessed with infighting and intrigue rather than fixing the country’s problems.

The cry for help from Rasulyar finally galvanized the government into action. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called the Helmand situation a “top priority” and commandoes and special forces were sent to save Sangin from an insurgent takeover.

It also appears to have prompted Britain’s Ministry of Defense to announce the deployment of its own troops to the region to help fight for Sangin, where Britain lost more than 100 of its 456 fatalities during its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan. It was not clear if U.S. troops were involved in the effort to protect Sangin but a NATO official said there had been no U.S. airstrikes on Sangin throughout December.

Mir compared Helmand to Kunduz, the northern Afghan city that the Taliban took over and held for three days in September, sending shockwaves across a country that had come to believe the insurgents were not strong enough to take urban areas.

Now, people are starting to believe the Taliban are indeed stronger than the government. With insurgents on the outskirts of Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, and districts across the province either in Taliban hands or threatened with takeover, “it’s time for the president to recognize that he is not an academic anymore, he is a war president and he has to tell the people what he can do. And do something,” Mir said.

The Afghan Ministry of Interior confirmed Tuesday that British troops had arrived at Camp Shorabak, formally the U.S. Marines’ Camp Leatherneck.

Afghan forces “need to strengthen their capacity and improve coordination,” Sediq Sediqqi, the ministry’s spokesman told reporters.

He said the main reason for the delay in sending reinforcements to the area was because of its remoteness and, during the summer months, the punishing climate.

“Taking on the responsibility for security from NATO and other international troops was a huge challenge for us,” Sediqqi said, speaking of the Afghan troops who now shoulder full responsibility for the country’s security.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell said recently that the Afghan forces were still challenged by practical issues such as logistics, as well as lagging confidence.

“There are some places in Helmand they do think the Taliban are 10 feet tall, that they are better trained, they got better weapons,” Campbell told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month. “It is a confidence thing.”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Monday suicide attack on U.S. troops that killed six near Bagram Air Field near Kabul. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were also wounded when the bomber drove his explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol.

The Department of Defense released a statement announcing the deaths and gave their identities:

Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, of Plymouth, Minnesota. She was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 9th Field Investigations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, of Mercedes, Texas. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 816, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Georgia. He was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Technical Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, of Bronx, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, New York. He was assigned to the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.

Monday was the deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan since May 2013, when five were killed by a roadside bomb in the country’s south and two killed by an Afghan soldier in an insider attack in the west. Before Monday’s attack, the most recent American casualties in the country were on Aug. 22, when three contractors were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul.


Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Humayoon Babur in Kabul and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this story.



Some Schools Reopen In Helmand


by Mohammad Ilyas Dayee & Abubakar Siddique

Gandhara News

November 23, 2015


In a rare show of cooperation, the Afghan Taliban have allowed the government to reopen schools in territories it overran after bloody battles earlier this year.

Afghan officials say they have struck an informal agreement with Taliban insurgents to reopen 51 schools in two districts of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Abdul Mateen Jaffar, Helmand’s director of education, says the insurgents recently sent him a letter expressing their willingness to let his department reopen 51 schools in Helmand’s Nad-e Ali and Marjah districts. The Taliban overran large parts of the two districts earlier this year.

Jaffar says the schools are expected to reopen later this week. “I hope all of Helmand’s schools will reopen. If we succeed in these two districts and the insurgents remain true to their commitments, then a single school will not remain shut across Helmand,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Jaffar says the next step will be to open all of the 150-plus schools across seven Helmand districts. A violent Taliban offensive aimed at grabbing territory in Nad-e Ali, Marjah, Nawzad, Sangin, Washir, Kajaki, and Musa Qala districts prevented tens of thousands of students in these regions from attending schools since the spring.

“We are now reaching out to the senior Taliban commanders in these districts. Our aim is to persuade them to let us open every school,” he said. “I am very grateful to them [the Taliban] for pushing all our teachers to regularly teach in schools in parts of Kajaki district, which they control.”

The Taliban have not commented on the cooperation but in recent years have distanced themselves from targeting and destroying schools.

The unprecedented cooperation is a rare piece of good news for Helmand’s estimated 1 million residents. The region has witnessed a dramatic uptick in violence since the beginning of this year when insurgents ramped up their attacks against fledgling government forces.

The strategic province of Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest, shares a border with Pakistan and is in close proximity with Iran. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of NATO and Afghan troops, the region has remained a key battleground for the past decade.

Observers say the region’s status as the top global producer of opium fuels violence in the province. Helmand has served as the main recruiting ground for the Taliban since their emergence two decades ago.

Locals say that after the departure of most NATO troops last year, Afghan government control in most restive Helmand districts has been limited to district centers.


Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.



Taliban Offensive In Helmand


Gandhara News Analysis

July 2, 2014


Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused “foreign interests” of being behind a Taliban offensive in Helmand Province, while other Afghan officials are specifically blaming Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

In a statement issued by Karzai’s office after the Afghan president met with Pashtun tribal leaders from Helmand Province on June 26, Karzai said “foreigners were the motive” behind the Taliban offensive and “have been seen” fighting on the side of the Taliban.

Karzai called on Afghan Taliban “who consider themselves as children of Afghanistan to have mercy upon their own nation and stop fighting for foreign interests.”

Karzai in the past has often used the term “foreign interests” to describe Pakistan without specifically naming the country.

Meanwhile, Helmand Province Governor Mohammad Naim told RFE/RL on June 26 that plainclothes members of the ISI and other Pakistani nationals have been seen fighting as part of Taliban units.

Naim said since the offensive was not organized by the Afghan Taliban, but rather, was “a major plan designed in Quetta [Pakistan]” by the Taliban’s supporters and “frankly, the ISI.”

When asked to elaborate on the source of information behind that claim, Naim’s spokesman Omar Zwak told RFE/RL that the reports came from Afghan intelligence officers who are in the battle zone and from many civilians who have fled the fighting.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told RFE/RL most of the militants in the battle are “Pakistani military personnel or militia forces” who have donned the black turbans and black pants and shirt (shalwar kameez) typically worn by the Taliban.

Afghan officials on June 25 said more than 800 militants launched an offensive on June 20 along the northern arc of the Helmand River in a bid to retake territory recently vacated by U.S. troops and handed over to the control of Afghan government security forces.

More than 2,000 families have fled the fighting in the districts of Sangin, Nowzad, Kajaki, and Musa Qala.

Zwak told RFE/RL that fighting in the area was beginning to subside on June 26 and that government forces were beginning to regain control of areas seized by the militants since June 20.

That battle zone is notorious as one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest areas of fighting for British and U.S. troops who have been deployed in Helmand Province since late 2001.

It encompasses valleys and agricultural land along the Helmand River and tributaries between the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and the strategic Kajaki Dam.

The area also is known as one of the biggest opium-producing areas that has funded the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The last U.S. Marines withdrew from the northern arc of the Helmand River in early May.

Security there is now the responsibility of four brigades in the 215th Afghan National Army Corps.

At a wartime peak during the 2010 U.S. military surge there were 21,000 U.S. Marines deployed in Helmand Province and other parts of southwestern Afghanistan.

About 4,500 U.S. Marines remain in Helmand, along with about 2,500 British troops, 800 Georgians, and smaller contingents of Estonians, Danes, and Jordanians.



Afghans Clear Sangin Valley


Story by Cpl. Joshua Young

1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade

Regional Command Southwest

February 8, 2014


CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Afghan National Army soldiers with 2nd and 3rd Brigades, 215th Corps, teamed with the Afghan Uniform Police and other Afghan National Security Forces to conduct a completely Afghan-led operation called Oqab 144, with only advisor-related help from coalition forces.

The operation, which took place Jan. 27 – Feb. 4, means “Eagle 144,” in English. It is a process to eliminate hostile threats from the Sangin Valley, Helmand province, Afghanistan, prior to the upcoming national election in order to offer a better environment for potential voters and the local populace.

The operation was conducted weeks before the Afghan presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place April 5. The current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is not eligible to run for re-election due to term limits, making this the first transfer of the presidency since his inauguration in 2004 and the first democratic transition of power in the history of Afghanistan.

“They’re sharing stories about the election and belief in their government,” said Col. Christopher Douglas, the team leader of Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215. “I believe this gives people the opportunity to see that the future is bright because these operations are being executed for Afghans by Afghans with no coalition presence visible to them during the operation.”

The ANSF partners are working together to build trust within the local populace to achieve a more stable and secure environment for the election as well as the future of Afghanistan, Helmand province, and Sangin Valley.

“This shows that it’s an Afghan election process,” said Douglas, whose team is stationed out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. “We’re not driving it. It shows faith in the system, now they’re gaining more of that confidence. We can’t force them to do something, so it comes down to inspiring them.”

During May 2012, the Afghan and U.S. governments agreed a contract needed to be created to establish how many, if any, American forces would remain in Afghanistan following the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in 2014. Without such a contract, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, the U.S. must pull all forces out of the country by the end of the year.

The two governments began working on the agreement Nov. 15, 2012, which would allow a contingent of U.S. troops to stay in the country in an advisory role.

Despite the approval of the Loya Jirga, or “grand council” on Nov. 24, 2013, and increasing support from Afghanistan and the international community, President Karzai has yet to sign the agreement.

Due to the hesitation from President Karzai, the next president of Afghanistan may be responsible for signing the agreement. This places the fate of the BSA in the hands of the voters —the people of Afghanistan — as they choose their next leader.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said Maj. Paul D. Tremblay, deputy team leader, SFAAT 2-215. “It’s an election where the people can choose a leader who’s going to take them the rest of the way.”

The operation to clear the Sangin Valley of hostile threats was met with resistance and casualties, but also several milestones of success.

Seeing only Afghan uniforms during the operation helped build the locals’ confidence in the ANSF. In turn, some locals provided the forces with information on insurgent movements and known locations, as well as locations of improvised explosive devices and explosives labs.

“As (the operation) went on through the Sangin area with 2nd and 3rd Brigades, they were approached by some locals who advised them they missed some IEDs during the clear,” Douglas said. “That was a great surprise. It showed confidence in the ANA’s ability to work with the locals and them feeling comfortable enough to come up to members of the ANA or the police and work with them to create a more secure environment in their community.”

When they first entered the Sangin Valley in 2006 after the resurgence of the Taliban, the coalition forces had the lead role in all combat operations. During the course of the campaign, the lead has steadily been turned over to Afghan forces as the coalition took on an advisory role.

Oqab 144 marks one of the first operations in the region during which the populace hasn’t seen a coalition force presence. Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215 played a silent role in the operation, offering only advisory assistance and minimal relief in casualty evacuations.

“They’re in the lead,” Douglas said. “We’re here and able to watch through some of our assets, but the big thing is seeing their excitement for how well things are going for them and hearing their stories of sharing a big success together. Now they’re out there doing it.”

“We’re kind of like father figures, and we’re watching our children grow and flourish,” Tremblay said. “They have it, you can see it in their eyes. They just need to continue to grow and mature. Once they get in the highest leadership positions, they’ll be unstoppable.”

“They have an incredibly capable staff,” Tremblay said. “They have all the enablers and they’re learning each and every day. This operation is certainly demonstrating their capacity to take independent action and learn and grow as they progress.”

“It’s one of the most complex problems I’ve ever seen in my 18 years in the Marine Corps,” Tremblay said. “It’s fascinating to study and the more you do, the more you learn about the intricacies at play here and what can potentially be done in the future.”

The SFAAT considered the operation to be a success and is dedicated to helping the ANA in the region become completely sustainable and self-sufficient.

One of the obstacles the SFAAT and the ANA face in the region is the annual fighting season, tied to the weather and poppy harvest.

The Sangin Valley is known by many as a hotbed for nefarious and illegal activities. It’s strategic in its relevance to major corridors such as Route 1 and Route 611.

Drug runners and insurgents often use Route 1, which runs all the way through Afghanistan from Pakistan to Iran. The two routes are a crossroads for both trade and drug trafficking. Much of the Taliban’s funding comes from the profits of the poppy harvests. Black-tar heroine is extracted from the poppy plants and the drugs are shipped all over the world.

The Taliban control much of the heroine trade and are dependent on the industry. When the weather cools off, the insurgency turns toward facilitating the poppy planting. When planting begins, fighting almost instantly ceases.

“It’s a constant disruption mentality,” Tremblay said. “Whether it’s Marines, British or Afghans, their ability to consistently disrupt the activity of the insurgents by projecting combat power prevents the insurgent from feeling comfortable enough to go in and interact with the populace, plant an IED or set up a firing position.”

The progress that has been made since the coalition first entered the Sangin Valley can be measured by the success of Oqab 144 and the relationship building between the ANSF and the local populace.

“Without this group we would not have reached this stage,” said Col. Abdul Hai Neshat, executive officer, ANA 2nd Brigade. “Due to the Marines’ hard work along side us, we can lead our units. They’re very helpful and useful.”

Success in the region did not come easily. Many service members from coalition forces and the ANSF have paid the ultimate price to bring stability to the war-torn area.

“I don’t think we could ever put a number on the blood, treasure and heartache that has been poured into this area,” Tremblay said. “The blood, sweat and tears, the brothers we’ve lost, the horrific injuries sustained and the invisible ones that keep you up at night are beyond description. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to capture what has been sacrificed to get us to this point. Especially when you read in the media what’s going on in certain areas in Iraq, it’s hard not to question: ‘Has it been worth it?’ In my opinion, the answer is absolutely, ‘Yes.’ All of that sacrifice has led to an opportunity we’re seeing start to grow and gain momentum today.”

With all the progress that has been made in the past eight years, there is still more to be done.

“I’d like to say, on behalf of my personnel and soldiers, thank you to the Marines and the U.S. in a common (effort) for helping Afghanistan,” Neshat said. “Without U.S. support, we would not be able to stand as a country. Hopefully in the future the U.S. will continue the support and help Afghanistan and not leave. All people in Afghanistan want peace in this country and to live a normal life. It’s very important to help us. These are the wishes of all of Afghanistan.”

Following the operation, Maj. Gen. Sayed Malook, commanding general, 215th Corps, traveled to Camp Leatherneck via Route 611 to show his confidence that the Sangin Valley had been cleared, said Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, commanding general, RC(SW). “Every day is a step in the right direction.”


Two Marine Generals Fired For Security Lapses In Afghanistan


~~~                                                                                             U.S. Marine Harrier Jets

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post

September 30, 2013


The commandant of the Marine Corps on Monday took the extraordinary step of firing two generals for not adequately protecting a giant base in southern Afghanistan that Taliban fighters stormed last year, resulting in the deaths of two Marines and the destruction of half a dozen U.S. fighter jets.

It is the first time since the Vietnam War that a general, let alone two, has been sacked for negligence after a successful enemy attack. But the assault also was unprecedented:

Fifteen insurgents entered a NATO airfield and destroyed almost an entire squadron of Marine AV-8B Harrier jets, the largest single loss of allied materiel in the almost 12-year Afghan war.

The commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, said the two generals did not deploy enough troops to guard the base and take other measures to prepare for a ground attack by the Taliban. The two, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said.

“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.

The incident brings into stark relief the unique challenges of waging war in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops over the past two years has forced commanders to triage, sometimes leading them to thin out defenses. The U.S. military also has been forced to rely on other nations’ troops, who often are not as well trained or equipped, to safeguard American personnel and supplies.

The attack occurred at Camp Bastion, a British-run NATO air base in Helmand province that adjoins Camp Leatherneck, a vast U.S. facility that serves as the NATO headquarters for southwestern Afghanistan. Because Leatherneck does not have a runway, the Marines use Bastion as their principal air hub in the country. Several hundred Marines live and work on the British side, and dozens of U.S. helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are parked there.

The British are responsible for guarding Bastion, which is ringed by a chain-link fence, triple coils of razor wire and watchtowers from which sentries can scan the horizon for any potential attackers. British commanders had assigned the task of manning the towers to troops from Tonga, which has sent 55 soldiers to Afghanistan.

On the night of the attack, the Tongans left unmanned the watchtower nearest to the Taliban breach, according to an investigation by the U.S. Central Command.

Other aspects of the U.S.-British security plan were “sub-optimal,” the investigation found, with no single officer in charge of security for both Bastion and Leatherneck. The security arrangement created command-and-control relationships “contrary to the war-fighting principles of simplicity,” Amos wrote in a memo accepting the investigation.

Troop reductions also affected security measures. When Gurganus took command in 2011, about 17,000 U.S. troops were in his area of operations. By the time of the attack, in September 2012, the American contingent had dropped to 7,400 because of troop-withdrawal requirements imposed by President Obama.

In December 2011, 325 Marines were assigned to patrol the area around Bastion and Leatherneck. In the month before the attack, that number was cut to about 110.

Gurganus did seek permission in the summer of 2012 to add 160 troops to protect Bastion and Leatherneck, but his superiors in Kabul rejected the request because the military had reached a limit on forces set by the White House.

Even so, Amos said Gurganus should have reallocated troops from elsewhere to protect the encampments. “The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces,” Amos said. “Regardless of where you are in a [troop] drawdown, you’re required to balance force projection with force protection.”

Despite the overall troop reduction, several officers stationed at Leatherneck at the time said that many Marines with idle time could have been assigned to guard duty. Instead, some of them took online college classes and others worked out in the gym twice a day.

In an interview with The Washington Post this year, Gurganus characterized the attack as “a lucky break” for the Taliban. “When you’re fighting a war, the enemy gets a vote,” he said.

Amos said that when he informed Gurganus that he was being relieved, Gurganus told him, “As the most senior commander on the ground, I am accountable.”

Two Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, were killed trying to fend off the attack. Raible, a Harrier squadron commander, charged into the combat zone armed with only a handgun. Eight other Marines were wounded in the fighting. The cost of the destroyed and damaged aircraft has been estimated at $200 million.

Although Gurganus ordered a review of security on the bases after the attack and a British general conducted a brief investigation for the NATO headquarters in Kabul, the Marine Corps waited eight months to ask the Central Command to initiate a formal U.S. investigation. Amos’s decision followed inquiries from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, congressional staff members and a front-page article in The Post that detailed the unmanned watchtower and the reduction in troops patrolling the perimeter.

Amos said Monday that he wanted to wait for reports from NATO and the Central Command before requesting a formal investigation.

Before seeking the investigation, Amos had nominated Gurganus to receive a third star and serve as the Marine Corps staff director, the service’s third-ranking job. His nomination was placed on hold once the inquiry began.

Since his return from Afghanistan, Sturdevant has been serving as the director of plans and policy for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Amos said the decision to fire the generals was the most agonizing choice he has had to make as Marine commandant. Gurganus and Sturdevant are friends of his, he said, and their collective time in uniform totals almost seven decades.

In a statement Monday evening, Gurganus said, “I have complete trust and confidence in the leadership of our Corps and fully respect the decision of our Commandant.”

Gurganus and Sturdevant will be allowed to retire, but Amos said it will be up to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to determine their final rank. If allowed to retire as major generals, they would be eligible to receive an inflation-adjusted annual pension of about $145,000.

The last two-star general to be fired for combat incompetence was Army Maj. Gen. James Baldwin, who was relieved of command in 1971 following a North Vietnamese attack that killed 30 soldiers at a U.S. outpost, said military historian Thomas E. Ricks.


Afghan Army Struggles in District Under Siege


by Azam Ahmed

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.”

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.


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