It’s one of the most critical operations in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. 20 Members of Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion 5th Marine regiment have been killed in Helmand province’s Sangin district since the beginning of October. Three of those deaths occurred this past week.
“We haven’t seen such fighting really since the early days of the Marjah battle,” said MajGen Richard Mills, Commanding General of NATO Regional Command Southwest.
While insurgents may have given up the fight in other parts of the region, Mills says they’ve decided to make Sangin their last stand.
“He is fighting with a growing desperation with the realization if he loses Sangin he’s lost the fight in Helmand Province,” said Mills referring to Taliban fighters.
Sangin is a historically volatile area and a key source of opium producing poppies used to buy weapons and bomb making materials for insurgents.
British forces sustained heavy casualties there before transferring authority to San Diego based Marines over the summer. Marines and Sailors with the 3/5 are repeatedly coming under attack as they make slow advances in the area.
“We are running into prepared defenses and troops that are willing to fight to death to hold onto the ground that they have,” said Mills who added insurgents are relying more heavily on their most lethal weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device (IED).
“He plants his weapons at night. He carefully hides the pressure plates that set them off and then he runs back to his hiding places and awaits people to walk on them.”
The IED threat is what prompted Mills to request high powered and sophisticated M1A1 Abrams tanks be deployed to Helmand province.
“The tank is one more tool that we can provide to the third battalion 5th Marines who are fighting and extraordinarily gallant fight in Sangin,” said Mills.
He was quick to point out the tanks will offer a lot of advantages but they alone won’t be the silver bullet that stops the insurgency. He said the true victory lies in the hands of each Marine and Sailor on the front lines.
“They’re the greatest generation we’ve ever raised,” Mills said. “They’re volunteers, they know the threat, they don’t have to be here. 99.9 percent of their friends don’t come over here and yet, they have the courage to take the step forward and do the job that has to be done. I stand in awe of them."