Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
Britain’s recent overseas adventures haven’t gone swimmingly. Basra’s collapse into fighting, while British troops conducted ‘over watch’ from the airport until finally departing, was a national embarrassment. Britain’s legacy in Helmand also seems to be in ruins. You may be reading about the continuing battle for Sangin, in Helmand. Sangin is a key strategic town, a centre of political power but also dominant in the illegal opium trade. It is where a quarter of British soldiers died. The environment is austere, dry, complicated – and lethal.
As we watch the deeply saddening collapse of the Afghan government in Helmand to the Taliban, we should look at how we expect operations to unfold in the future when fighting insurgents and terror movements. Syria is an example of how Britain has become embroiled in a fight it doesn’t understand, hasn’t committed the right resources and doesn’t have the stomach or the mind-set to truly deal with such a complex environment. Sangin is a guide for us on how not to operate in the future: sadly the recent vote to bomb ISIS in Syria by Parliament shows our defence policy has learned none of these lessons.
The Afghan national army and police, at this very moment fighting for their lives from a resurgent Taliban, were expected to hold the territory without any support after the end of British operations in 2014. While many criticised Britain’s withdrawal, arguing there was a need for ongoing military support, the reality is that Sangin’s pending fall to the Taliban is due not to a lack of military power, but a lack of any effective strategy in Helmand. We risk making the same mistakes today in Syria.
Amongst the other 1,100 soldiers of 2 Rifles battle group, I served in the town from April-October 2009 as the education and media operations officer. I photographed the soldiers of carrying out extraordinary activities, and aimed to tell the world of their bravery and professionalism. Despite the brilliant soldiering and command of the battle group, Sangin was doomed from day one of the British deployment by terrible defence policy, poor strategy, a lack of resources and, most importantly, a complete lack of understanding of the mission. The saddest thing is that British commanders and leaders nearly succeeded despite these issues. They were failed by tactical short-termism and a lack of political effort.
Back in 2006, Mohammed Daoud, the then Governor of Helmand, claimed towns were about to be overrun and asked the Commander of 16 Brigade, Brigadier Ed Butler, to deploy his troops to the towns of Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad, which resulted in 600 Paras being spread over a 600 mile square area. Having a Special Forces background, he used a much-hailed “platoon houses” approach, which was designed to push the military into areas close to the population centres, but which simply left them isolated and vulnerable. He didn’t have the right troops or resources to fight the campaign.
Sangin was a staging ground for the narcotics industry, and that what looked like fighting between Government forces and Taliban was actually a struggle between two rival drug cartels, one linked to the police and the other relying on the Taliban. By supporting the government in Sangin, Britain sided with one narcotics network over another. Britain was warned about this by international agencies, and yet still flex into the mix. With troops surrounded, Britain responded with airpower, and lots of it. When I arrived in 2009, the scars of the air campaign littered the landscape. Local industry and commerce had been destroyed and the economy was in tatters.
In 2009, a significant proportion of soldiers were deployed from Sangin to fight a large kinetic operation further south, leaving troops in Sangin overstretched. British losses spiked, with an area called Wishtan being particularly lethal, with five soldiers tragically killed in one incident. This period of lethality continued through the winter, as 3 Rifles struggled to regain the initiative in the region.
Many of the local issues were caused by Pakistani Taliban, who were deeply unpopular locally. An incident in the upper Sangin valley resulted in a mini-uprising and a cry for help from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government. A potential peace deal was built, which would reject the Pakistani influence in Sangin while giving space for the Afghan National Army to provide protection to Afghans fearful of retribution. The peace deal could have worked if the local leader hadn’t been targeted and killed by ISAF.
Stanley McChrystal had become commander of ISAF and instituted a policy of targeting leaders. Such operations have been known to be counter-productive, with hard-line replacements taking control. Sherard Cowper-Coles, the then British ambassador, was opposed to air-strikes, saying: “I would stop immediately all these extra-SF strikes, I would try to eliminate all of the ordinance dropped from the air”. The targeting of leaders ended any chance of peace that the upper Sangin valley uprising brought, killing the moderate Afghan leaders who wanted to end the conflict.
Our current actions in Syria are almost identical to those which caused failure in Sangin. Overstretched troops, a reliance on drone and airstrikes and the targeting of leaders (many of whom could be negotiated with), leaving people little other choice than to turn to more extreme elements out of desperation.
The Conservative Party needs to change policy if it wants to succeed in destroying ISIS and creating stability. It must invest in relationships with NGOs, local intelligence agencies and better diplomacy, rather than resorting on airstrikes and drone strikes as a cheap and simple way to be seen ‘playing its part’. Max Hastings wrote that to defeat ISIS he wouldn’t bomb them, he would start a social media campaign. He’s not wrong. Sangin was a problem not because the Taliban were strong (we estimated there to be only 300 Taleban fighters in 2009, if that), but because we did not have the resources to significantly improve the economy, bring about a peaceful political resolution and fight the Taliban’s message. ISIS in Syria and Iraq is strong not because it is strategically clever, or well-resourced or even brave. It is strong because their messaging is more effective than ours.
We are failing against ISIS – looking to bomb and kill leaders which will result in more destroyed economies and the death of any moderate leaders who could arrange a peace deal. Peace in Syria requires education, economic growth and a removal of political inequality. Bombing cannot achieve this. Sangin is a hard lesson from which we would be wise to learn and not repeat.