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2 sides focus on Afghan district

To the Taliban, Sangin is a narcotics staging center. For the West, it's a strategic key.

January 23, 2011|Laura King

British troops who have served there tend to depart from standard military terminology when they talk about what kind of place it is. They use words like "spooky," "eerie," "haunted." Or they might invoke a short, sharp profanity.

They are speaking of Sangin, an enclave in Helmand province that is perhaps the Afghan war's most dangerous district.

As a rule, a place so deadly is also strategic, and Sangin is no exception. In a province that supplies most of the world's opium, the district is an epicenter for narcotics processing and drug transport — activities that blur the already ambiguous line between the insurgency and criminal gangs. For the Taliban, Sangin is a perfectly positioned staging ground for attacks not only across Helmand, but in neighboring Kandahar province, another key battleground.

The district lies just south of the Kajaki hydroelectric dam, a project closely associated for years with Western aspirations for governance and stability in that part of Afghanistan. The insurgents very well know that; they turn the electricity off like a spigot, often by disabling power lines that run through Sangin. Route 611, a major commercial pathway through the district, is also hit by frequent Taliban attacks that can render it all but impassable.

Sangin's tribal politics are among the most complicated in the south of Afghanistan, and that is saying a great deal.

Shifting allegiances and rivalries among the tribes often echo those within the Taliban, which itself is an ever-changing mix of local men and outside fighters. That makes it difficult to strike any kind of durable accord with the insurgents, because an agreement with one faction means nothing to others.

Nonetheless, Western commanders have pinned considerable hopes on an accord struck at the beginning of the year between elders of the Alokozai tribe and local Taliban in an area of Sangin known as Sarwan Qala, encompassing about 30 villages.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of all Western forces in Afghanistan, touted the pact this month, in talks with visiting Vice President Joe Biden, as a harbinger of potential gains across the south.

But some local people say the agreement, tenuous to begin with, is already unraveling.

Within days, assailants gunned down one of the pact's chief negotiators, an elder named Haji Badar Agha, on his way to morning prayers. Days later, two of the local Taliban who had agreed to cooperate with Western and Afghan forces were abducted and believed killed by what locals described as "outside ones" — fighters based in Pakistan.

"No one knows what will happen," said Haji Akhtar Mohammed, an Alokozai elder. "The Taliban come in the night and kill people who join the government. And the government can't keep control of their offices in even one district. How can they take care of the people?"

Taliban fighters are deeply enmeshed in the life of the district, which was one of the first areas where the insurgents regrouped after being scattered by the U.S.-led invasion a decade ago.

"Things haven't gotten better since the Marines arrived," said Mohammed, the tribal elder. "Because there is more and more fighting, and when that happens, it is the ordinary people who suffer."

laura.king@latimes.com

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