Marines with Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215 look out over the Sangin Valley Jan. 27 during an operation near Forward Operating Base Nolay, Afghanistan. (Cpl. Joshua Young / Marine Corps)
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The former top commanders of NATO troops in southwestern Afghanistan have shed light on troubling reports that emerged late last year in Sangin, a hard-fought district in Helmand province where Afghan security forces purportedly handed over security checkpoints to the Taliban.
Speaking Thursday at the Pentagon, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Walter “Lee” Miller Jr. and British Brigadier Paul A.E. Nanson indicated that although the Afghans lost control of some checkpoints they’ve been successful in taking them back.
“In the early stages of a number of the operations up there, the Taliban were able to amass significant strength to overmatch the checkpoints and take checkpoints — mostly, I have to say, Afghan Local Police checkpoints,” said Nanson, who served as Miller’s No. 2 at Regional Command Southwest throughout 2013. “That was unfortunate; however, the positive was that the [Afghan National Security Forces] reacted quickly and particularly well, and every time retook the checkpoints within a matter of three or four hours.”
Many times, he added, NATO commanders were unaware checkpoints had fallen to the Taliban. As NATO troops continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, they’re receiving less information about the situation on the ground, he said.
Nanson said Afghan security forces “defeated” the Taliban in September. However, media reports about the checkpoints emerged three months later, first via Marine Corps Times and subsequently The New York Times, which reported that a local Afghan commander in Sangin arranged to cede control of checkpoints.
Those reports angered troops who’ve sacrificed immensely to wrest control of Sangin from the insurgency. Indeed, Sangin has experienced some of the Afghan war’s most vicious fighting. During 2010 and 2011 alone, more than 50 Marines were killed there and at least 500 suffered severe wounds.
“The question now as we left is, ‘Can they hold the gains that they made into [April presidential] elections and obviously the fighting season in 2014,’ Nanson said. “Our view is: It will be difficult because the Taliban will come back; they will want to retake that area. But at the moment, it’s looking good for the ANSF to hold that back.”
The fighting in Sangin was a “real gut check” for all the Afghan security forces as they took the lead of operations, said Miller. Overall, Afghan troops and police are a capable fighting force, he said, but they need more training in areas such as logistics.
“One-on-one, the Afghan National Security Forces will win every fight,” he said. “It proved it this summer. The key is going to be in their ability to sustain themselves for the long term, and that’s where they still need a lot of work. That’s not so much in training mechanics. It’s a lot about getting parts from Point A to Point B.”
Because they are in the lead, Afghan security forces saw a 7 percent increase in casualties from 2012 to 2013, but so far the Afghans are able to make up for those losses through recruiting, officials said.
Miller does not believe the Taliban will defeat the Afghan security forces by inflicting heavy losses. “I have a very positive view of where the Afghan National Security Forces are heading,” he said. “They’re going to come out on top and they’re going to buy the space for the government to become popular with the locals. That’s going to happen. They just need the time.”
“It’s not a McDonald’s society,” he added. “It’s the East, don’t forget that. It’s not the West. It’ll take time, but they’ll get there.”