British hand over Sangin after four years of bitter war
The handover of Sangin yesterday was an occasion of symbolism and resonance for the British mission in Afghanistan.
The ceremony, in a morning of dusty Helmand sunshine, brought to a close a four-year operation in an area where UK forces have been involved in ferocious fighting — this tiny stretch of land claiming almost a third of the 337 British lives lost so far in this war.
The US Marine Corps, whose strength in Helmand is already double that of the UK force, took over yesterday from 40 Commando Royal Marines, who will redeploy to central Helmand.
The British exit from Sangin has led to criticism from some quarters and analogies being drawn with Basra, from where British troops pulled out, forcing the US Marines to take over.
There are also likely to be complaints that “blood and treasure” (lives and financial investment) expended by the British forces have been wasted.
Sangin is the last of the formerly British-controlled towns like Musa Qala, Kajaki and Garmsir to have passed into the American sphere of operations. These places, too, had provided some of the most significant chapters for the British deployment.
Musa Qala was taken over by the Taliban after a controversial deal with local elders. Garmsir changed hands repeatedly in bloody fighting. But Sangin had totemic resonance because of the sheer scale of the violence.
The British could, theoretically, have divested themselves of Sangin, and the losses that came with it, earlier. But here a sensitive chapter in Anglo-American relations came into play.
There is little doubt that senior officers in the US military were critical of the way UK forces conducted themselves towards the end of their deployment in Iraq — letting militias impose a brutal regime in Basra and then withdrawing altogether.
So holding Sangin, one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, was, some in the UK military hierarchy felt, recompense for what happened in Basra.