U.S. Marines who recently inherited this lush river valley in southern Helmand province from British forces have tossed aside their predecessor's playbook in favor of a more aggressive strategy to tame one of the most violent places in Afghanistan.
U.S. commanders say success is critical in Sangin district — where British forces suffered nearly one-third of their deaths in the war — because it is the last remaining sanctuary in Helmand where the Taliban can freely process the opium and heroin that largely fund the insurgency.
The district also serves as a key crossroads to funnel drugs, weapons and fighters throughout Helmand and into neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and the most important battleground for coalition forces. The U.S.-led coalition hopes its offensive in the south will kill or capture key Taliban commanders, rout militants from their strongholds and break the insurgency's back. That will allow the coalition and the Afghans to improve government services, bring new development and a sense of security.
"Sangin has been an area where drug lords, Taliban and people who don't want the government to come in and legitimize things have holed up," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The unit took over responsibility for Sangin in mid-October nearly a month after the British withdrew.
That withdrawal — after more than 100 deaths over four years of combat — has raised concerns among some in Britain about the perception of U.S. Marines finishing a job the British couldn't handle. Many claimed that happened in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2007.
U.S. commanders denied that's the case in Sangin and said the withdrawal was just the final step in consolidating British forces in central Helmand and leaving the north and south to the Americans. Sangin is located in the north of the province.
But one of the first things the Marines did when they took over Sangin was close roughly half the 22 patrol bases the British set up throughout the district — a clear rejection of the main pillar of Britain's strategy, which was based on neighborhood policing tactics used in Northern Ireland.
The bases were meant to improve security in Sangin, but the British ended up allocating a large percentage of their soldiers to protect them from being overrun by the Taliban. That gave the insurgents almost total freedom of movement in the district.
"The fact that a lot of those patrol bases were closed down frees up maneuver forces so that you can go out and take the fight to the enemy," Morris said during an interview at the battalion's main base in the district center, Forward Operating Base Jackson.
As Morris spoke, the sound of heavy machine gun fire and mortar explosions echoed in the background for nearly 30 minutes as Marines tried to kill insurgents who were firing at the base from a set of abandoned compounds about 500 feet away.
The Marines later called in an AC-130 gunship to launch a Hellfire missile, a 500-pound bomb and a precision-guided artillery round at the compounds, rocking the base with deafening explosions that shook dirt loose from the ceilings of the tents. Tribal elders later said the munitions killed seven Taliban fighters.
The battalion has been in more than 100 firefights since it arrived, and the proximity of many of them to FOB Jackson illustrates just how much freedom of movement the Taliban still have in Sangin.
The Marines have worked to improve security by significantly increasing the number of patrols compared to the British and by pushing into areas north and south of the district center where British forces rarely went. That process started when the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment deployed to Sangin in July and fought beside the British until the current battalion took over.
Even though the battalion has slightly fewer forces than the 1,200-strong British Royal Marines unit that was here previously, commanders say they have been able to step up the number of patrols because they have far fewer Marines stuck guarding bases.
But some analysts have speculated that the coalition would need at least one more battalion in Sangin if it wanted to clear and hold the whole district. Some Marines said privately that more forces would be necessary, especially in the Upper Sangin Valley where coalition troops had not gone in years until recently.
The battalion's current area of operations is roughly 25 square miles and contains a mix of lush fields around the Helmand River, dense clusters of tall mud compounds and patches of barren desert. It contains some 25,000 people, but many of Sangin's residents live outside the area in which the Marines operate. The entire district is roughly 200 square miles, and district governor Mohammad Sharif said it houses about 100,000 people.
The battalion has gotten help from a pair of Marine reconnaissance companies operating in the Upper Sangin Valley and a company of Georgian soldiers based on the West side of the Helmand River. There are also several hundred Afghan army and police in Sangin, but they are fairly dependent on the Marines for supplies and logistics.
In addition to conducting more patrols, the Marine battalion has adopted a more aggressive posture than the British, according to Afghan army Lt. Mohammad Anwar, who has been in Sangin for two years.
"When the Taliban attacked, the British would retreat into their base, but the Marines fight back," said Anwar.
Insurgents fired at members of 1st Platoon, India Company, during a recent patrol near the battalion's main base, and the Marines responded with a deafening roar of machine gun fire, grenades, and mortars. They also tried to launch a rocket that turned out to be a dud.
"The Taliban like to engage us, and I like to make it an unfair fight," said India Company's commander, Capt. Chris Esrey of Havelock, North Carolina. "If you shoot at us with 7.62 (millimeter bullets), I'm going to respond with rockets."
But Taliban attacks have taken their toll. Thirteen Marines have been killed and 49 wounded since the battalion arrived. Most of those casualties have come from IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, that the insurgents hide in compounds, along trails and in dense fields where they are hard to detect.
The Marines believe their operations are beginning to improve security, and they say tips have started to trickle in from locals on the location of IEDs.
But some villagers have complained about the increased number of patrols since the Taliban often plant IEDs along the routes the Marines travel.
"You should open more bases and patrol less because when you patrol on foot, the Taliban bury IEDs that threaten children and other civilians," local landowner Tuma Khan told a Marine during a patrol.