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Taliban Take an Afghan District, Sangin, That Many Marines Died to Keep

The Taliban captured the strategic district of Sangin in the southern province of Helmand on Thursday, according to local officials. It was the culmination of a yearslong offensive that took the lives of more combatants than any other fight for territory in Afghanistan.

While spokesmen for the central government denied claims by the Taliban that the district had fallen to them, some conceded that the insurgents had overrun the district center and government facilities. But local Afghan government and military officials said there was no doubt Sangin had finally fallen to their enemy.

A spokesman for the American military, Capt. William K. Salvin, played down the development, saying Afghan security forces were still in the district and had merely moved its seat of government. "They repositioned the district center," he said. "This move to a new district center has been planned for some time."

More British troops and, later, American Marines died in Sangin than in any of Afghanistan's roughly 400 other districts, until the international military coalition began turning it over to Afghan military forces in 2013. Since then, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police officers have lost their lives defending Sangin, while American Special Operations soldiers and aerial bombing tried to prevent the collapse of the district, apparently without success.

The district, a center of the lucrative opium trade, is strategically situated between the Helmand River and the border with Kandahar Province. "Sangin's location is very, very important," said Gen. Abdul Jabar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani's personal military envoy to Helmand Province, who recently offered his resignation over widespread corruption that he says is undermining the government's efforts there.

"By capturing Sangin, the Taliban are now able to connect Helmand with Kandahar," General Qahraman said, referring to Afghanistan's second-largest city. "Abandoning Sangin is a mistake, but the government is no longer able to keep forces there."

Because of its strategic importance, the international coalition has invested heavily in defending Sangin, even after the American withdrawal of most combat forces from Afghanistan. In the years before then, it was the site of substantial losses for both British and American forces.

"This district was one of the most dangerous not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world," Robert M. Gates, then the United States defense secretary, said in 2011 in Sangin, addressing the 3/5 Battalion of the United States Marines, which was deployed there. Those Marines had just "suffered the heaviest losses of any battalion in this 10-year-long war," Mr. Gates said.

"In the five months since you've arrived here, you've killed, captured or driven away most of the Taliban that called this place home," Mr. Gates said. By the end of the battalion's full seven-month deployment in Sangin, 29 members had died.

Officials in the Afghan central government adamantly denied Thursday that such sacrifices had come to naught.

"It is not true," Maj. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said of the reports of Sangin's fall. "We relocated an army battalion in Sangin, we moved them to a newly built garrison. Whenever we move our forces in Sangin, they claim that they capture Sangin."

Local government and military officials, however, said Thursday that the remaining battalion of Afghan National Army soldiers defending the town of Sangin and the district's government and military bases had pulled out overnight. That was followed by heavy aerial bombing by the American-led coalition, to destroy vehicles, weapons and heavy equipment that the soldiers had abandoned, the officials said.

Hajji Mirajan, a member of the district shura, or government advisory body, in Sangin, said he did not understand why the soldiers had left, as no major attack had been underway. "There were no big threats to the district yesterday, and we do not know why the district is abandoned," he said.

Bashir Ahmad Shakir, head of the Helmand Provincial Council's security committee, said the withdrawal had been planned for the past two months, after a long winter campaign by the Taliban to take the district.

"Officials were leaning toward the idea of leaving the district to the Taliban because of the constant threats," he said. "I did not agree. We should stick to the idea of holding the district at least nominally."

The shift of the defenders to a regimental base outside the district center meant the district had been conceded to the Taliban, Mr. Shakir said.

Captain Salvin, the United States military spokesman, said that the American military had helped move Afghan soldiers by airlift to the new district center and that everyone had been relocated safely.

"Excessive damage by the Taliban to the area in the bazaar made it impossible for the people to see the government leaders and made it difficult to provide necessary services," he said. "Once that was complete, the U.S. assisted in destroying the buildings that were no longer usable and also destroyed inoperable vehicles that were left in place so that they would not be a safety hazard."

The Taliban had long dominated most territory in Sangin except for the district center, which was home to the government and police headquarters as well as the army base. According to Mr. Shakir, the insurgents now hold seven of Helmand Province's 14 districts; in five of the others, he said, the government holds only the district centers. Only two districts and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, are completely under government control, he said.

Several of Helmand's districts have repeatedly changed hands, and it was possible that could happen in Sangin as well. But the Taliban have been determined to take the district, fighting almost constantly over it for the past eight years, and analysts said they would be unlikely to give it up easily.

In 2009, Sangin was the responsibility of the British Army and Royal Marines, which suffered a total of 106 deaths there, out of 455 British losses for the country's entire time in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, the president at the time, and American military commanders expressed dissatisfaction with the British record, and the United States Marines were brought in to replace them. Twenty were killed in Sangin in the first 90 days of their deployment.

By 2013, as Western troops reduced their numbers in Afghanistan and began transferring authority to Afghan forces in Helmand, the Taliban launched an offensive to retake Sangin, killing 120 Afghan police officers and soldiers that summer. By the spring of 2014, the last American Marines left Sangin and turned it over to Afghan forces. That summer, another Taliban offensive killed 230 Afghan police officers and soldiers, and wounded more than 400 – again, just in Sangin.

By 2015, Afghan officials had stopped releasing casualty statistics in Helmand, but they were reported to be still higher. United States Special Operations troops and airstrikes came to the aid of Afghan forces defending Sangin in December.

By 2016, four districts in Helmand were under Taliban control, but a series of attacks on Lashkar Gah took some of the pressure off Sangin.

Then, this past winter, the insurgents seemed to redouble their efforts to take the district. In late January, the American military confirmed making 10 airstrikes in and around the town of Sangin over 24 hours. The insurgents had tunneled under the Afghan battalion's base there, setting off a huge explosion that killed more than 40 Afghan soldiers, one of the military's biggest losses of life in a single attack. American air support prevented the insurgents from overrunning the center. (Officials variously put the death toll at 10 and 25 at the time.)

In response to the worsening situation in Helmand Province over all, the American military has announced plans to redeploy 300 Marines to the area this spring, the first time Marines will have been deployed in Afghanistan since leaving Sangin in 2014.

[Source: By Taimoor Shah and Rod Nordland, The New York Times, Kandahar, 23Mar17]

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