Sangin district in Helmand has again, this year, seen heavy fighting, this time between the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taleban. With dozens killed and thousands displaced following an insurgent assault involving hundreds of fighters, the Taleban leadership is once again showing how much it values this strategic crossroads and poppy-producing hub. Guest author Julius Cavendish,* who reported on fighting in Sangin in 2010 and 2011 and is following what’s happening in the region closely since, has been looking into the background of one of the most contested districts in the country. He reveals how ISAF repeatedly squandered the chance to build a durable political settlement in the district, including bombing a meeting of Taleban while they were discussing going over to the government. He argues that institutional dysfunction and competing agendas within the coalition helped ensure that the generals and bureaucrats overseeing the campaign in Helmand repeatedly undermined efforts to build a lasting peace. (With additional reporting by Muhib Habibi in Kandahar.)
On 20th November 2010, Taleban commander and shadow district governor Mullah Abdul Qayum met all afternoon with other disaffected insurgents in his high-walled garden in southern Afghanistan. According to local elders and British officials, the men — incensed by months of brutality by out-of-area insurgents — were plotting to hand one of Afghanistan’s most violent districts over to government control. It was a brazen double-cross that would, Qayum and his accomplices hoped, finally bring peace to their valley. Now, following months of secret correspondence with Afghan and British officials, they wanted a demonstration of government good faith. That is when a NATO bomb slammed into the meeting.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force hailed the strike as a triumph. The top ISAF commander in the region, the American Major General Richard Mills, told the author that “a very significant target” had been taken down. Qayum “was holding a shura with his buddies,” explained Mills. “He was kind of telling them what he wanted them to do — and he ain’t telling ‘em anymore.” For the US Marine Corps General, Qayum’s death was a tactical victory, pure and simple – no matter that the dead insurgents had actually been ready to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Taleban that would have stripped them of one of their most totemic strongholds. Mills was “an old, Cold War guy,” an ISAF official later explained. “I think he probably saw … [it as] ‘We got … these bastards.’”
Other coalition figures were furious, however, at the missed opportunity to quell violence in Qayum’s constituency — a heavily fought-over district called Sangin where 121 British and American troops had already died and more would soon follow. “It was a disaster,” a British civilian working for ISAF said of the failure by senior coalition figures in Helmand to grasp — or, even worse, their indifference to — the political consequences of the coalition’s targeting. An opportunity of this kind was unique, and squandering it so casually made a mockery of ISAF’s counterinsurgency strategy, which expounded the importance of public works and political bargaining over airstrikes and foot patrols. (1) If hundreds of renegade gunmen and the communities they hailed from wanted to switch sides in the Taleban’s own backyard, then cutting a deal with them was the whole point.
As it turned out, killing Qayum was just one of several occasions when ISAF’s actions in Sangin appeared to jeopardize its own objectives. The account that follows explores how infighting and internal agendas repeatedly undermined the coalition’s broader goals. “The whole sorry recent history of Sangin encapsulates so well our failings in Helmand, and Afghanistan in general,” said a former British diplomat, “each branch of ISAF with its own agenda, its own imperatives and, more than anything else, its own egos.” As fierce fighting once again consumes the district — with dozens killed and thousands displaced (see here and here) – this article reveals how the NATO-led coalition squandered the chance to build a durable political settlement in the district that might have spared Sangin its ongoing violence. With the international intervention in Afghanistan winding down, even despite rising levels of violence and civilian casualties, to a chorus of ‘mission accomplished’, this piece also contributes to broader analyses of how this war became so unwinnable.
It looks at how three key figures – the Taleban shadow district governor Abdul Qayum, the 75-year-old Sangin district governor Muhammad Sharif, and a local pir or holy man, Agha Badar, were able to galvanise local fighters and communities to turn against the Taleban cause. In particular, it sets out to understand why, when large constituencies in Sangin were actually ready to side with the government, peace remained unattainable; why military agendas — the airstrikes, the night raids — continually trumped ISAF’s political efforts to secure the district despite the purported primacy of political ends; why the British civil servants handling political outreach showed so little interest in potential political breakthroughs; and lastly, whether ISAF’s internal priorities had in fact become more important to its decision-makers than mission success.
In exploring these questions, this piece draws on Afghan and British government documents and more than 50 interviews conducted between 2010 and 2014 with ISAF troops and officials, western diplomats, Afghan government representatives and Sangin elders, many of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity. It also brings in interviews with diplomats, soldiers and academics with experience in Afghanistan to help contextualise what happened in Sangin as symptomatic of broader problems. Ultimately, this is a story that is as much about British and American military and political cultures as it is about Afghanistan, and the failure of the former to comprehend the latter. Its origins, however, are distinctly Afghan, and to start with, it is necessary to travel back to almost the earliest days of the Afghan war, when the slow, steady rise of the Taleban insurgency began.
Peace overtures in an embattled district
Flying north over Afghanistan’s Helmand valley the land suddenly becomes spectacularly green. Irrigation ditches radiate off the great jade snake of the Helmand river, feeding pomegranate groves and fields of corn and poppy. The origins of the Mullah Abdul Qayum’s conspiracy lie here, in a dispute between the Alikozai – an aristocratic tribe with the best land in the area – and their rivals on the desert fringes, who had long looked covetously in. Some time in the early years of the insurgency, the Taleban linked up with these disgruntled neighbours and usurped the Alikozai, seizing control of their lucrative revenues from poppy cultivation. Tit followed tat, and when 500 Alikozai gunmen ejected the outsiders in 2007, the Taleban put the revolt down mercilessly, chaining the leader of the uprising behind a pick-up truck and dragging him to the next province. Some Alikozai elders managed to escape to the relative safety of Lashkar Gah, but for the most part, Sangin’s Alikozai communities reluctantly aligned themselves with the Taleban. They were “given the option… of you’re either with us or we’ll kill you,” said Phil Weatherill, a British civilian working for the PRT’s District Stabilisation Team in Sangin, which was located on the main ISAF Forward Operating Base in the town.
British forces had first deployed to Sangin in 2006, but it was only as their presence grew over the next two years that officials mapping the district’s fault-lines realised how deep the ill will ran, and set out to exploit it. (2) Signs that they were succeeding emerged in late 2009, when, according to Afghan and ISAF sources, Taleban die-hards beat up farmers for accepting government hand-outs, inflaming sensitivities and unleashing a cycle of violence and retribution. On 29th May, 2010, the discontent turned into a full-blown mutiny. In a letter drafted on Taleban letterhead and addressed to the district governor, Muhammad Sharif, eight Taleban Alikozai commanders, nominally aligned with the insurgency but actually bitterly resentful of it, invited Afghan national forces to establish bases in some of the district’s bloodiest enclaves. They said out-of-area Taleban gunmen were blighting the lives of local villagers. “The foreign [Taleban] fighters are powerful and we are weak,” their letter continued. “We are happy for government patrol bases to be built.” The signatories – including three of the fiercest rebel leaders in Sangin – asked for a new road, for repairs to a network of irrigation canals, and for schools and wells. “We wish no confrontation with you and will not attack you,” they wrote. “Our cooperation will be with you and your cooperation will be with us.” The offer, which gave ISAF everything it wanted in the place where it had bled most deeply, was political dynamite.
The PRT “never really understood rural Afghans …”
The significance of the breakthrough appeared to wash over coalition officials in the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) headquarters in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Busy with an array of governance programmes, counter-narcotics initiatives, democracy promotion and the other staples of ‘stabilisation’, it had its attention fixed particularly on a district called Marja. In the spring of 2010, ISAF had launched a much-trumpeted assault on this sleepy backwater 55 miles southwest of Sangin, hoping to transform it from a Taleban stronghold into a model community. It was a huge gamble – and now the onus lay on fulfilling the fanfare. “The central effort was seen to be the only effort,” claimed one member of the PRT. Officials in Sangin felt that they “didn’t have political support from [the] PRT.” Despite its notoriously high body count, the district had become a sideshow.
In an attempt to catch the attention of those at the PRT headquarters, Sharif and Weatherill now demanded more proof of good faith from the turncoat commanders. By putting their names – or thumbprints, as some had – to paper, the signatories had already potentially signed their own death warrants. Now they went further, feeding the names of Taleban bomb-makers and the escape routes they used following ambushes on ISAF troops to the British battle group in Sangin, in messages they addressed to district governor Sharif, a 75-year-old former teacher known to many of the insurgents and respected for his integrity. (3) That summer, the number of violent incidents plummeted by 80 per cent, according to British military statistics, as the mutinous commanders reined in their men. In return, the Alikozai leaders wanted some proof of the coalition’s good faith -development projects, such as a new floodwall at the village of Kang, and the deployment of Afghan government troops to help guard against Taleban reprisal. But as weeks turned to months, nothing came. “It was a good plan and it should have worked,” an elder who mediated contacts between the two sides said. “But it never happened.”
I wanted to ask Lindy Cameron, head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team at the time, why, with $500 million earmarked by ISAF for stabilisation work in Helmand, such a minor expenditure with, potentially, a big political pay-out, never got the green light. How much attention had she given the matter? Was she worried about being seen to be negotiating with the Taliban? Was she deciding strategy or did the matter go higher? Unfortunately Cameron’s schedule did not permit her to respond to inquiries, a foreign office spokesperson said. (I requested an interview in 2013 and twice more in 2014.) Another PRT member who was wiling to speak, albeit on a confidential basis, said the PRT lacked either the nous or determination to drive the deal through. “The problem was that the PRT politicals never really understood rural Afghans, and certainly not what was expected of negotiations,” he said. (4)
By August it was too late. The mutiny had initially caught the Taleban leadership in Quetta off-guard, but as the summer wore on, the movement mounted a counter-offensive, dispatching emissaries and fighters to rein in the dissenting gunmen. One of the mutinous rebel commanders was rotated to a new district. Others received threats in the form of a quiet word over tea. The emissaries’ job was made easier by ISAF’s failure to deliver any meaningful infrastructure projects, or the government patrol bases the mutineers had requested to guard against Taleban reprisals. “You made a deal with the devil and what’s happened?” one source remembered a Taleb agitator saying. “Of course, nothing has happened.” In fact, according to one source, one of the conspirators had almost been killed in a drone strike.
Resuscitating the deal
So things might have remained, had a religious teacher called Agha Badar not returned to his home district of Sangin in early October 2010 and joined the cause. Badar was a pir, a holy man outside the tribal structure, able to say things that would get others killed, making him the perfect intermediary. Agha Badar was the key person,” said one of the Afghan interpreters assisting ISAF in the talks. The other important personality at this time was, of course, the Taleban commander already introduced, the young and charismatic Mullah Abdul Qayum whom the Taleban had installed to oversee Sangin. Also known by his Taliban call-sign ‘Tandar’—the Pashto for ‘thunder’—Qayum was cast from a different mould to his predecessors, whose intransigence had seen them driven out by angry villagers. Tribal elders described him to the author as a consummate diplomat, whose pragmatism now seemed a better ticket. He was also said to be a teenage friend of the Taliban’s supreme military commander, Qayum Zakir.
Yet Qayum “was not as loyal as Quetta liked to believe,” Weatherill said. Qayum had, I subsequently discovered, studied under Muhammad Sharif in the days when the district governor had been a schoolteacher in Helmand, and it was rumoured that he had friends close to Karzai. Playing a dangerous game, Badar canvassed Qayum throughout November 2010, relaying letters from Sharif and Weatherill. “The first time I handed over a letter from Phil,” Agha Badar recalled, “Qayum smiled at me and asked if I thought he would kill me… And I told him I didn’t care, but that I needed his help. And eventually he promised to make peace with the government.” Half a dozen rebel commanders followed. Radio traffic intercepted by ISAF revealed that the conspirators had declared a 14-day ceasefire while they tried to strike a new agreement with the coalition.
“Out wreaking havoc in the boon docks …”
On 20th November, Qayum met with representatives from all the major constituencies in Sangin — the Alikozai tribe, the Nurzai tribe, the Barakzai tribe, even the vehemently anti-establishment Ishaqzai tribe – to discuss going over to the government en masse. Those rebel commanders who had written to Muhammad Sharif with their peace plans in May were now traveling up the Sangin valley with Agha Badar to join the discussions. According to the latter, tribal representatives from districts across Helmand province were watching, eager to see how this anti-Taleban revolt panned out. Also observing proceedings were ISAF special operations forces – “out wreaking havoc in the boon docks,” as General Mills put it. At 4 pm, they called in an airstrike. Qayum and 11 co-conspirators were killed instantly.
“Qayum feared he would be killed by his superiors,” said Badar. “But then the Americans assassinated him.” It really damaged the talks, he said, “The local Taleban commanders believed the same fate awaited them if they continued talking to ISAF.” Many elders and rebel commanders peeled away, unsure of the government’s trustworthiness and stung by the possibility that they had been duped. Badar battled to keep the talks alive, telling jittery commanders “to think with their heads, not their hearts,” and “making them agree to another meeting.” But events were unfolding that would test their patience further.
Since relieving the British of responsibility for Sangin in October, the US 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had adopted aggressive tactics, patrolling relentlessly and calling in heavy bombardment when they were attacked. Helicopter gunships and F/A-18 warplanes would attack Taleban positions within a few hundred metres of the district centre. Two-hour barrages of guided artillery rounds, Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs were not uncommon. Allegations of civilian casualties shot up. “A lot of people were being killed as they were coming in to talk to us,” Weatherill said. With negotiations on a knife-edge, a spate of civilian casualties left government officials, not to mention the turncoats themselves, incredulous at the seeming inability of the Marines not to kill people. Night after night and meeting after meeting, news came through of fresh slayings. Meanwhile, triumphant talk by Marine officers – that the very fact of the talks showed that ISAF was winning – left those Taleban emissaries still seeking peace incandescent. “The fighting can restart at any time,” one delegate thundered after a summit.
Striking a deal
But some commanders, even if they were sceptical of ISAF, felt they had a duty to their communities to persevere. Sharif also played a role in winning back their confidence. In one instance, as related by an ISAF official, the district governor won over an influential Alikozai commander, whose family had been murdered by government officials some years previously, with a sly combination of provocation and reassurance. In one meeting, Sharif coyly asked the man what people in the Upper Sangin Valley would think if he reinstated some former elders, who had long since fled Sangin for the safety of the provincial capital, losing whatever legitimacy they once had in the process. The commander’s face turned to thunder, “Bring them back if you want a slaughter,” he growled. “Bring them back if you want the war to continue.” Sharif patted the man’s arm. “I can see you’re a troubled young man,” he said, “so I’ll be your uncle from now on.” The commander was convinced. In meetings up and down the valley, he now vouched for Sharif’s intentions, and even – according to Agha Badar – ordered his fighters to defend US forces from less friendly insurgents.
On 17 December 2010, the rebel commanders of the Upper Sangin Valley struck a new peace agreement with the government. Abdul Ali Shamsi, one of Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal’s chief aides, had led the negotiations on the government side and now agreed with the Alikozai Taleban mutineers on a list of small public works that would take place in the Alikozai heartlands. Shamsi and Mangal had kept the US Marines and the PRT informed on the talks throughout December and on 1 January 2011, General Mills, the new PRT chief Michael O’Neill, Mangal, district governor Sharif and several mutineers staged a ceremony publicly announcing the deal. Shortly afterwards, General Mills explained that, although the deal was “primarily an Afghan brokered agreement” it had been “arrived at in close consultation with local Coalition Forces”. O’Neill said he shared “General Mills’ cautious optimism” that the deal might have “the transformative effect in northern Helmand which we all want to see.” He said the PRT stood “ready to assist Governor Mangal with follow-up, and [was] already working with the District Governor and US Marine colleagues in Sangin on stabilisation projects in the Upper Sangin Valley, including irrigation, canal clearance and small infrastructure projects” (Correspondence with Regional Command SouthWest Public Affairs office).
Less robust than the initial offer in May, the deal still laid the foundation for peace and was, indeed, a decisive propaganda victory – suggesting as it did that the government and ISAF could defeat the Taleban in one of its most notorious strongholds not through force of arms but because the insurgency’s own gunmen preferred what the government had to offer. If it panned out, there was every reason to believe the various constituencies scared off by Qayum’s death would return to the table. There was even a sense among some of the coalition officials interviewed for this article that a successful peace accord might trigger anti-Taleban uprisings in other parts of Helmand. Only three things now mattered: how the Taleban leadership in Pakistan reacted; whether the Alikozai fighters were true to their word; and the extent to which the US Marines and the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team delivered their side of the deal.
Marines “could not identify a peaceful solution … as a victory”
The assassins came for Agha Badar before dawn, opening fire as he made his ablutions in the freezing gloom outside his house and wounding him in both legs. He fought back, putting his attackers to flight and within days was out of hospital and back in Sangin championing the peace accord. The Taleban’s ruling council was equally determined to wreck it. An ISAF official told the author that the word from anyone with a line to Quetta was that the movement’s leaders were panic-stricken.
It was unfortunate that, although the coalition subscribed in public to the idea that the war in Afghanistan could only be resolved politically, military expediency usually trumped political necessity in practice. Qayum’s assassination had already illustrated how the coalition’s kill/capture policy took little heed of political concerns (see AAN research on its failures here). Now a similar division opened up over the extent to which Marine operations were undermining the détente. The problem, one British official remarked, was that the Marine leadership “could not identify a peaceful solution, developed by civilians, as a victory.”
The hard-charging attitude reinforced mutual suspicions between the Marines and the Taleban mutineers. Unconvinced that the rebel commanders could deliver the security they had promised, the Marines sought to test the deal by sending convoys and patrols deep into the Alikozai heartlands. In mid-January, 2011, Colonel Paul Kennedy led a patrol to a place called Garm Ab, where a villager called Zabit , who according to Agha Badar had mental problems, smashed the US Marine commander’s nose with a rock and was gunned down by his bodyguards. To the Marines, it looked like an unprovoked assault. Locals felt differently. They saw the patrol as a needless affront and the shooting of a man they saw as a ‘simpleton’ as a trigger-happy over-reaction. (5)
Criticism of the PRT
Despite the way misunderstandings between the Marines and the Sangin villagers complicated things, they still might have been surmountable had the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah acted differently. Internal PRT documents from this time emphasised the importance of rolling out “essential” public works – such as dredging and reconstruction work on the Kotizai and Chakka canals, repairs to sluice gates on the Galgay canal, and a mosque refurbishment in Khanan village – in order “to ensure the population are convinced that they have made the correct choice.” But multiple sources claimed there was little genuine appetite to deliver the aid and infrastructure projects that the agreement promised and which communities in Sangin were now waiting for. I asked district governor Sharif, for example, what help the PRT had provided. “Not very much,” he said. What assistance he could point to had come from the Marines. A former PRT member of staff also said the public works underpinning the peace accord “were not delivered.”
Indeed, while the mutineers, local elders and government officials were convening assemblies to cement the deal and establish a body that would oversee development projects, it seems that, according to several former members of staff at the PRT, the dawn of the new British financial year in April 2011 actually provided the PRT with an opportunity to do very little in Sangin. ISAF was then shifting towards an exit strategy and, said one source, “Everything [was] chang[ing] from ‘stabilisation’ to ‘transition.’” He added, “So it was no longer about funding projects, but teaching the Afghans how to deliver [them].” Sources said funding streams were also being re-routed through the Afghan provincial government from April and so the promised projects stuttered and halted. Several angry former members of staff pointed out that the PRT should surely have known of the impending changes when its officials began drafting fresh stabilisation plans to support the peace accord. Yet one PRT source privately derided these plans as a feint — “to make it look like we wanted to deliver without having to.”
O’Neill rebutted the allegations in a January 2014 interview. There had been no “lack of enthusiasm or support,” he said. “Whether that translated into projects happening on the ground as quickly as some people would have hoped or expected – that’s a different question. But I don’t recall us ever being asked or volunteering ‘No, you can’t do that.’” Understandably, given coalition forces’ unhappy record of marching into local quarrels they little understood, O’Neill said he had advocated a hands-off approach that left dialogue with local insurgents to local elders and did not entangle the PRT in negotiations that, as an alien party, it could never fully grasp. “It was never and should never have been an ISAF or PRT lead,” he said. Yet he was also equally insistent that the PRT had been unstinting in its material support to Afghan efforts at “quiet reintegration” and that problems in project delivery were down to the difficulties of operating in an environment like Sangin.
It should also be noted that the Helmand PRT did carry out projects in very tough conditions. In a 2011 teleconference with US reporters, O’Neill himself highlighted the example of the 611 – the road linking Sangin southwards to central Helmand and north to Kajaki, the site of an enormous dam. It was a notoriously lethal route, the clearing, levelling and reconstruction of which nonetheless became one of ISAF’s most visible achievements in northern Helmand.
However, many in ISAF told the author that, with the departure of the last British troops several months previously, the UK-led PRT had lost interest in the district. The Marines were among those who believed the PRT was dragging its feet in Sangin. In his book Little America, US journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported that many Marines also believed the PRT was “hopelessly disconnected from the war.” Yet at the same time, some Marines also did not trust the local British officials actually based in Sangin either; they suspected them of being out of control and far too ready to negotiate with local fighters. Some Marines even spoke of the “treachery” of talking to the Taleban. There was unfortunate history here.
Three years earlier, two European diplomats had been thrown out of Afghanistan over efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taleban in the neighbouring district of Musa Qala. The government, accusing them of posing a threat to national security, claimed the talks had been unauthorised. One of the men, Michael Semple, then acting representative of the European Union, said he alone had been talking to the Taleban and had had government authorisation; he blamed local politics for the expulsion of himself and Mervyn Patterson, a British worker with the United Nations. The effect of the incident may have been to emphasise to the PRT leadership the downsides of being seen to be talking to ‘the enemy’. According to one former member of staff, the civil servants at the PRT in Lashkar Gah “were terrified” by the potential for allegations of “treachery.” “Everybody,” he said “wanted deniability.”
The view among the majority of the Western diplomats, analysts and ISAF officials interviewed for this article was that the British-led PRT set too much store on extricating the UK from Sangin, where a third of its war dead had fallen, and with keeping relations with the Americans on an even keel, to want to capitalise on the peace deal — no matter how much blood had been spilt to reach it. Although the PRT had publically promised to support the deal in December 2010, nothing really happened. The accord “drew too much attention back to Sangin,” as one source put it, and increased the probability “that the US-UK relationship would blow up in their faces,” as another said. The PRT “wanted to wash their hands of it,” a third source claimed. At the end of January, Phil Weatherill, the British stabilization advisor with unparalleled knowledge of Sangin, was recalled by his PRT superiors and dispatched to another district until his contract expired. Weatherill was “too aggressive for what the PRT wanted,” said one source. Weatherill’s colleague John McCarthy, a shrewd operator with years of experience in Central Asia, received similar treatment three months later. To many observers it looked as though the PRT was clearing its house.
O’Neill denied that there was anything unusual about Weatherill’s and McCarthy’s departures. “I can’t talk about individuals [but] we never moved anyone out of some moral or political disapproval,” he said. Staff deployed to remote and dangerous places, such as northern Helmand, would be rotated for their own welfare. “I don’t think it was either healthy for individuals or right in terms of our duty of care to leave people in places like that for too long,” O’Neill said. More generally, he added, the PRT was almost by default the subject of much unjust criticism. “One thing everybody would have in common is the easiest whipping boy would be the PRT because we’re down in Lashkar Gah,” he explained. “It’s always easy to blame the people who aren’t there and by definition have a more limited understanding. They probably also have, by definition, a better big picture — but less understanding of the detail. And any bureaucracy is frustrating — it’s just a feature of life… We didn’t like British troops getting killed, didn’t like American troops getting killed, didn’t like Afghans getting killed. [Helmand governor Gulab] Mangal wanted this to happen. What possible reason could we have had for not wanting [the peace accord] to go ahead?” he said.
The Taleban fight-back
Unaware of ISAF’s internal frictions, the Taleban leadership in Quetta continued to treat their reversal in Sangin as a calamity. Although the mutineers had driven hard-core Talebs off their lands, the onset of spring and the lush foliage that makes Sangin such excellent guerrilla terrain signalled their return. As well as Afghan fighters from other districts, according to am ISAF official, they also included Chechens, an Arab and about 25 Pakistanis. Several local bands were also acting as spoilers. Marshalling them all was a Kandahari Taliban commander called Maulawi Hassan, also known by his call-sign ‘Faroqi’. In the recollections of both ISAF officials and local representatives, his men set about intimidating Alikozai elders and launching hit-and-run attacks on the Marines in the hope that they would retaliate disproportionately, hitting civilians.
The fighting was fiercest around areas called Jusalay and Kotozay, where elders blamed “Hassan’s people” for a spate of Marine casualties. The risks faced by the Marines were pronounced. A single platoon took 19 casualties in four days in early June. On 22 June 2011, a team leader called Gurpreet Singh was shot in the head and killed. On 28 June, Lance Corporal John Farias was also shot and killed. ”We are in fire-fights every day,” the 20-year-old had said shortly before he died. But if the feint and counter-feint of combat revealed anything, surely it was the futility of thinking ISAF’s military means alone could ever enforce peace in a place like Sangin. “In Afghanistan, [in] any limited war, what does it mean that you can patrol more?” asked one former soldier. “What do you own? That’s the question — what do you actually own, what can you stand on and say, ‘When I leave, this bit of ground in half an hour’s time is still mine?’ You can’t.”
Yet as the hot summer days went by, Marines and Afghan civilians continued to die. And as had happened elsewhere in Afghanistan, the failure to fulfil promises of development assistance amid high expectations continued to erode trust. “Projects didn’t materialise,” a member of ISAF said. Elders appointed to oversee the accord slowly stopped coming to meetings. One man, who had been abducted by Hassan’s gunmen, said he was bitterly indignant that he had risked his life to side with the coalition for no discernible gain. “They don’t value us,” he said of the Marines as an explosion thudded somewhere in the distance. “[They think] we are worthless people … [Our communities] ask us why we sided with the government. They don’t respect us, the violence is ongoing and [the Marines are still] killing us.”
The end of peace opportunities
If there was a decisive moment when the peace deal finally slipped away, it was the arrest of Agha Badar by US special operations forces in August 2011. (6) In a village called Shahzada, about an hour’s walk from Badar’s home, raiders scooped up the chubby cleric along with two locals. They hooded them and flew them to an ISAF airbase called Camp Bastion. Thence Badar was taken to Bagram, a jail near Kabul, where he would spend the rest of his detention. They kept asking “why I had access to such high-ranking Talebs in Sangin,” Badar said, “but they didn’t realise that I am a pir, a person people listen to, whose words are a binding promise. And for that reason only they kept me in prison for almost two years …” Released on or around 1 June 2013, Badar limped home to Helmand a broken man. Although his captors had treated him well, the wounds to his legs continued to hurt him. He was also plagued, he said, by thoughts of Sangin villagers dying in the violence he had failed to tame.
Throughout Sangin, elders and the turncoat commanders saw Badar’s imprisonment as proof of American treachery. “Killing Qayum and imprisoning Agha Badar sent a message to [the local Taleban] commanders that they would receive the same treatment,” said one of the intermediaries who had originally helped broker the talks. “Arresting Agha Badar was not helpful,” Mohammed Sharif, the district governor, said. By late 2013, those same commanders were battling government forces on the outskirts of Sangin town itself. Afghan officials warned that the district centre was in danger of falling to the Taliban and there was an irony to the news that Afghan army officers had cut a deal with the insurgents to limit the fighting. It was almost an exact inversion of the proposal local insurgent commanders had made to ISAF two and a half years before.
Little in a guerrilla war is unambiguous and it is impossible to say if the peace deal might have worked. Even if it had, there is no way to tell if it would then have led to wholesale uprisings across Helmand that some of its proponents hoped for. Yet it is the manner in which ISAF’s internal politics undermined any chance of a lasting political settlement in Sangin that stands out and which multiple former diplomats and members of ISAF characterised as symptomatic of the mission.
Barnett Rubin, among others, has noted that “the divisions, rivalries and fragmentation of authority of the UN system and the rest of the ‘international community’” constituted one of the biggest obstacles to ‘peace building’ in Afghanistan. Noah Arjomand has explored how ISAF’s internal imperatives, not its mission criteria, were instrumental in deciding strategy in northern Helmand (see AAN analysis here). Matt Waldman has detailed the ways US decision-makers lacked the ‘strategic empathy’ necessary for an effective understanding of the challenges they faced in Afghanistan and shown how the decision-making apparatus itself was prone to ‘system failure’. (7) A former senior British diplomat interviewed for this article identified the absence of “moral courage” at the highest levels of ISAF, Whitehall and Washington, DC as one of the determining factors in ISAF’s failure in Afghanistan. Hundreds of decision-makers, he said, refused to jeopardise their careers by confronting the campaign’s abundant failings. Describing the institutional culture at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, Mike Martin, a former British soldier interviewed for this article, said: “It’s weird. They live in a world that’s so process driven that anything that goes against the process is deemed as the worst thing in the world. And because… they all sit in air-conditioned offices and deal with things on email — nothing has any reality.” (8)
Some of these failings may sometimes come across as abstract, but as the history of the Sangin peace deal shows, they had real consequences. “To have the timidity we had of just being scared of anything that might damage careers when other people were losing their limbs — it was obnoxious that that attitude should exist,” a British official said. “Any chance — any chance — should have been leapt on. But instead, I would suggest that we brought Whitehall diplomacy to Pashtun land.”
* Julius Cavendish is a freelance journalist. Between 2008 and 2011, he lived in Afghanistan reporting for the Independent and Time magazine.
(1) See for example: Gerry Gilmore, Afghanistan’s Solution Primarily Political, Not Military, General Says, American Forces Press Service, 1 Oct 2008, here and Anonymous, Stirrup: Afghanistan needs political solution, the Daily Telegraph, 26 October 2007, here. The US Army’s counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, notes “the primacy of political considerations.”
(2) Multiple interviews with multiple ISAF officials. See also Ministry of Defence, Royal Marine witnesses progress in Sangin, Gov.uk, 27 July 2010, here. “Amongst those delivering the civilian stabilisation effort is Andy Corcoran, who deployed to Sangin as a district political officer in October 2008. His civilian role was a critically important piece in the overall jigsaw, helping military commanders to understand the local political situation.”
(3) Even though Sharif came from the Alizai tribe, the reputation he had garnered over decades of teaching, including in Kajaki and Sangin, and also during a stint as deputy district governor in Garmsir, helped ensure that the Alikozai mutineers trusted him not to play a tribal game in which he rewarded other Alizai at the expense of everyone else. Sharif’s predecessor, called Faizal Haq, was generally thought to see things in purely tribal terms and never won the trust of the mutineers.
(4) Cf International Development Committee, Afghanistan: Development progress and prospects after 2014, House of Commons, London, 2012, here, which criticises DfID for poor staffing policies in Afghanistan and a lack of expertise.
(5) Interviews with Sangin elders and an Afghan interpreter working for the PRT. Agha Badar’s case is also illustrative. For several months after he was shot by Quetta’s assassins, the holy man continued to visit Sangin district centre for care. But, according to one of the Afghan interpreters working on the deal, “The US Marines weren’t inclined to help him. Sometimes they’d give him pills and a plaster. [But they] were not very happy to help him.”
(6) Neither Agha Badar nor the British officials whose interviews this description is based on could provide a specific date for Agha Badar’s arrest, but all stated that it took place in August.
(7) Barnett Rubin, Peace Building and State-Building in Afghanistan: constructing sovereignty for whose security?, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp 175 – 185, 2006. Matt Waldman, Strategic Empathy, New America Foundation, April 2014, and Matt Waldman, System Failure, International Affairs 89: 4 (2013) 825–843.
(8) Interview with Mike Martin. In 2014, the MoD tried to ban An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, a history of Helmand that Martin had written under its aegis because, Martin said, the book provided an embarrassing account of US special operations forces’ activities in Helmand between 2002 and 2005. “Such a litany of incompetence you have not seen in your life,” he said.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020