The White House seems to be singing from a different song sheet about the situation in Sangin than America’s military brass, evidenced by its reluctance to rubber stamp the Pentagon’s position that the key district in southern Helmand province was not overrun by the Taliban recently. This could be a case of simple miscommunication or a sign that – hopefully – Donald Trump will have the common sense to question dubious marching orders from his generals.
On March 23, Taliban fighters drove Afghan troops out of Sangin and took over the district’s center, which forced an evacuation of security forces, TOLO News reported citing high-level government officials. However, the US-led NATO Resolute Support mission issued a statement claiming that the move was a long planned event and not a retreat. Even Trump senior advisors found the military’s abject refusal to deny reality hard to support.
Nearly a week after the incident, Trump’s Deputy Assistant for Strategic Communications on the White House National Security Council, Michael Anton, still would not regurgitate the U.S. military’s assessment.
“We continue to closely monitor developments in Sangin District and Helmand province,” Anton explained in a March 29 interview with Sputnik. “We have seen conflicting accounts, but there is no doubt the security situation in the province remains challenging.”
Anton added that the White House was in the middle of conducting a “comprehensive” review of its strategy in Afghanistan, contradicting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who, during a briefing with his UK counterpart in London on March 31, indicated that the Trump Administration did not even have a strategy to review.
“On the question about the more forces for Afghanistan, the suggestion and recommendations coming in to us from the NATO commander in the field have been received and we are reviewing those right now. Our chairman of the Joint Chiefs is reviewing them,” Mattis told reporters. “We have not made a decision yet. I’ve not put a recommendation forward to our president at this time.”
Again there certainly is too much ambiguity to make much of this but it either signals a senior White House spokesperson being misinformed, or that Trump really is reviewing strategy and doesn’t need to wait on his generals for options.
With respect to Sangin, the “conflicting” versions emanate from several stakeholders: the U.S. and Afghan militaries, the Afghan government, local residents, and the Taliban. American officials claim Afghan security forces left “on their terms” and left nothing for the Taliban except “dirt and rubble.”
Afghan Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Abdullah Khan Habibi rejected the notion that the district had fallen and asserted that security forces had “tactically repositioned” forces to prevent casualties, according to Pajhwok Afghan News.
Yet the Taliban released an infographic detailing their “spoils of war” which included 30 armored personnel carriers (APCs), 30 other vehicles, 1 bulldozer, several generators, and “other important stuff.” Local government officials seemed to corroborate the spirit of the Taliban’s account.
“The Taliban took over everything,” Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a member of Helmand’s provincial council, said as quoted by Stars and Stripes. “This will create threats to more districts in Helmand in the weeks and months ahead.”
An unnamed resident of Sangin told Pajhwok that Afghan forces had no plans to recapture the district.
“If the Afghan forces really had any plan, why have they destroyed all their facilities?” the source wisely asked.
The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio was disgusted by Resolute Support’s claims which he described as “not credible,” especially considering the fact security forces had to be airlifted out of the district in the middle of the night. He mentioned that typically the Taliban inflate their battlefield victories but this time it was the coalition that “could not be trusted.”
“Resolute Support’s false bravado is not only shameful, but counterproductive to the overall mission,” Roggio wrote on March 23. “It would have been far better for Resolute Support to sweep this loss under the rug rather than defend the indefensible. Their spin cycle only served to create a bigger mess.”
It is hard to argue with Roggio’s take. The U.S. military has obvious motivations for downplaying the loss given Sangin was considered to be one of the most strategic districts in the country which hundreds of coalition troops lost their lives to defend.
Afghan defense officials believe forthcoming units of U.S. marine contingents will reverse these losses anyway. And they argued that losing Sangin is more of a symbolic victory for the Taliban and will have little significant long-term impact.
Be that as it may, it is still concerning that the American military would go to such lengths to promulgate such an obviously false narrative – and one so blatant that even the White House implicitly concedes that the situation is, to put it into Trumpian Tweet terms: “Sad!”