‘You don’t want to end up on a bracelet or on a fucking T-shirt. If you see people that need to die, kill them,’ said the US Marine Corps sergeant, briefing the convoy about to leave. It was night and we were setting off along the main road out of Sangin. Highway 611 had recently reopened — one of the successes here trumpeted by Nato — but no one would call it safe. ‘If you need to fire your weapon, that’s between you and Jesus. Good to go? Let’s do this shit.’
As the armoured vehicles rumbled into the pitch black, I remembered a friend’s account of a dinner party in Kabul at Christmas. Two visiting American newspaper editors were holding forth about the UK’s ‘failure’ in Sangin. The only British guest found herself on the defensive as they joked about how the US marines had accomplished more in a few months than the ‘wimpy Brits’ had managed in years. The received wisdom of the East Coast chattering classes is a bitter pill for the UK forces to swallow, having lost more than 100 men in Sangin.
And yet, things are certainly different in Sangin since the US took over. The main base, once under daily attack, did not take a single incoming round while we were there. The US commander is about to let his men patrol the town’s bazaar without helmets. Until recently, that would have been unthinkable. How has this been achieved?
The US marines I spoke to were carefully on-message about how they were building on the successes of previous units and they were also full of genuine praise for British sacrifice and British skill at arms. But the commander for the whole of Helmand, a Marine Corps general called Richard Mills, gave me an honest critique: ‘A change was needed and that change was to free up forces to manoeuvre against the enemy. The tactics before I got here were focused a little bit too heavily on the local areas. I wanted to regain the momentum of the attack… I wanted to put the pressure on the Taleban.’
The Americans have more helicopters and more air cover from fast jets than the British soldiers did. But it is their change in tactics, they believe, which has led to the breakthrough. The UK forces had strung out a series of small patrol bases along Highway 611. The Americans closed many of them, making more forces available to pursue the Taleban.
This has come at a high cost. The marines’ battalion in Sangin, the 3/5 or ‘dark horse’, has had some 26 killed in four months. The British rate was a third of that. Among those killed was the son of a US Marine Corps general. An email from the general was tacked up in the main base: ‘He went quickly and, thank God, he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets.’
We joined a platoon in a mud-walled compound on the fringe of territory the Taleban still consider their own. Halfway through their tour, the platoon had sustained 20 per cent casualties: two killed and nine seriously injured out of 56 men. Most casualties are from IEDs, improvised explosive devices. When I met them an interpreter in the company had just been killed by an IED. ‘There wasn’t anything left from below his waist to pick up,’ said one marine.
Out on patrol, we waded through freezing canal water rather than use the IED sown paths. ‘Rather cold feet than no feet.’ Ten minutes out from the base, the lead marine’s metal detector picked up an IED. Nearby were two broken corn stalks making an arrow, a sign to locals to beware. The marine scraped the soil off the bomb and backed away, but the metal detector went off again: another IED just to the side. Then another, then another; five in all and probably more they had not spotted.
Then the Taleban started shooting from a few hundred metres away, bullets whining overhead. It was an attempt to make the marines panic and run into the mines. But the marines didn’t flinch. ‘Yeah! Come on, bitch,’ said one, raising his rifle in the direction of the insurgents.
The marines’ historian, Bing West, was on the patrol. He said: ‘The reason they have pushed out from Sangin so fast, more quickly than anyone thought they could, is because they are being aggressive and because the high command is letting them be aggressive.’ He went on: ‘I don’t think the British [soldiers and marines] were doing something wrong. But something happened in the British spirit about casualties — I mean right at the top — that prevented them from doing what the [US] marines are doing.’
Returning to base, the marines set fire to piles of corn set aside by the farmers. The Taleban used them to hide weapons caches, they said. As the piles blazed away, they met the farmer. ‘You burned the maize for my cows,’ said Abdul Hamid. The marines wrote him a chit to get compensation. Could they help with anything else, they asked? ‘More water, so I can grow my opium crop,’ he said.
Opium is the key to understanding the future course of events in Sangin. Much faith is being put in a peace deal with the Alikozai tribe, who previously fought against the coalition. But don’t they just want peace so they can move heroin up and down highway 611, I asked a British special forces officer who’d fought in their area. He agreed with a rueful smile.
Some Sangin Taleban are ‘irreconcilables’, hardliners sent from Pakistan. Most are local farmers, criminal gangs and drugs traffickers operating under a Taleban flag of convenience and the great hope is that these will be persuaded to switch sides. Is that a real possibility? If the marines can convince them that Nato will be the eventual winner of this contest, it might yet happen. But as one member of the ‘dark horse’ battalion said: ‘We cannot fight their war for ever.’