Crisis and confusion in Helmand

The British SAS have returned to Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, ostensibly to tackle a resurgent Taliban offensive. Local dynamics belie this simplistic analysis, as Mike Martin explains.

Mike Martin will be on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Afghanistan: Time for Truth’ on 7 January 2016 at 8pm:

The news seems to have gone quiet about Sangin district in Helmand. Before Christmas there was an intense media storm that the district was about to fall to the ‘Taliban’. There were reports of the SAS being deployed, and the day after, the story of multiple Taliban commanders being killed in a night raid. As I have written before, it is impossible to separate everyone with guns in Helmand into two groups: the ‘government’ and the ‘Taliban’, so it is difficult to see whom the SAS were targeting, and whom they were supporting.

As any sixth form army cadet will tell you, military operations must be based on a sound intelligence assessment of the the battlespace. So, what do we know about Sangin?

Sangin is one of the more contested districts in Helmand. The basis of this contest are the strangely gerrymandered 1964 district boundaries, which brought together an odd collection of tribes: mostly Ishaqzai and Alikozai, but also good doses of Alizai and Noorzai.

These tribes are all well represented elsewhere in Helmand or in neighbouring Kandahar, but none of them have pre-eminence in Sangin. This has led to a dispute over control of the district centre. Why? The group or individual that controls the district centre controls the market where the local drug dealing occurs (which they can tax), but it also results in control of the police. This is important in southern Afghanistan: the group that is the police is able to protect their own role in the drugs trade and persecute others’ roles, including manipulating government drug-eradication policies to pursue their own tribal enemies.


In Sangin, the contest has historically been between the Ishaqzai and the Alikozai. During the Jihad (the war between the mujahidin and the communist government in the 1980s), these two tribal groups (and the multiple constituent sub-tribes) allied themselves with different jihadi groups. This enabled them to continue their inter-tribe feuding under the cover of holy war. Much the same is going on today.

When the Taliban arrived in 1994, they actually kicked out both the Ishaqzai and Alikozai warlords, although the Ishaqzai warlord’s men immediately began working for the Taliban. Once the Taliban fell, Karzai reinstated the Alikozai warlord—Dad Mohammad—and US special forces allowed him to conduct a reign of terror over the Ishaqzai communities to the south of Sangin district centre. The US were not being vindictive or mischievous in their behaviour; they were just completely ignorant of the dynamics—something I suspect may be happening today.

The US were so blind to local dynamics that when two of their special forces soldiers were killed in 2003, Dad Mohammad managed to convince them that the killers were in the Ishaqzai community. Shortly after, the US established a firebase in the compound of Lal Jan—an Ishaqzai smuggler. This base then got handed over to the British—becoming FOB Jackson—and it is now the ANA in base in Sangin. Lal Jan has been trying to get it back ever since.

Finally, let’s look at the comments of Hashim Alikozai, a Helmandi senator. He paints the conflict as a government–Taliban, good–bad, black–white dichotomy, except with the added twist that the Taliban were mostly from Pakistan. When western media interview Afghans, they usually look at the job title. But looking at his name, we can see he is Alikozai, so he is likely to have a bias when talking about Sangin.

This is the story of Afghanistan recently: the Afghan government is desperate to have the Americans (and to a lesser extent) the Europeans involved. This is because the US helps them in all the various micro civil wars involving their local allies (in this case the Alikozai) that are taking place all over the country. Afghan government figures will repeatedly state that the situation is dire and can only be resolved with western help; viz the much-hyped (by the Afghan government) ‘rise’ of ISIS in Afghanistan recently.

So what is going on in Sangin?

It is likely to be a variation on local tribal groups, arranged around smugglers, who are trying to control the district centre. This is because they want to tax the local drugs trade, and to control the police. And why does the UK government want to be involved in this local spat between drug dealers? Because ten years ago we went there by mistake, and now we are still pretending we didn’t make a mistake. That is why we claim it is strategic, even though it is a collection of mud huts surrounded by poppy fields.


Mike Martin is a Pashto speaker who spent almost two years in Helmand as a British army officer. During that time, he pioneered and developed the British military’s human terrain and cultural capability: a means of understanding the Helmandi population and influencing it. He also worked as an advisor to several senior British officers in Helmand. His previous publications include A Brief History of Helmand, required reading for British commanders and intelligence staff deploying to the province. He holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. His latest book is An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict.

On Twitter: @ThreshedThought

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