British troops to withdraw from south Afghan area
LONDON – British troops will withdraw from a volatile district insouthern Afghanistan where they have sustained nearly 100 deaths, turning over responsibility to U.S. forces, the country’s defense secretary said Wednesday.
Liam Fox told the House of Commons that U.S. Marines would replace British troops in the Sangin district of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province later this year.
He said that, until the changes are made in October, Britain will bolster its 10,000-strong force in Afghanistan, temporarily deploying about 300 extra troops from a reserve battalion kept on standby in Cyprus.
Under the new NATO plan, the U.S. will operate mainly in the north and south of Helmand, with British, Danish and Estonian troops working in the heavily populated central areas.
The changes would mean Britain will provide “more manpower and greater focus for the key terrain of central Helmand” and simplify the command structure in northern Helmand, where Sangin is located, Fox said.
“The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand,” he said.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 U.S. general in Afghanistan and the operational chief for the allied forces, told reporters Wednesday that the British move is part of his effort to consolidate and better organize forces in Helmand.
“This is done to clean up the command and control,” structure, Rodriguez said, giving U.S. and British forces clearer areas of responsibility.
Rodriguez rejected the notion that the U.S. is bailing out British forces, noting that British forces have taken high losses in Sangin and will remain there through what may be the highest period of violence of the war this summer.
The move will concentrate British forces “where we need them most,” Rodriguez said during a press conference. He spoke to reporters at the Pentagon by remote video from his office in Afghanistan.
The Sangin valley has been one of the deadliest for British forces, accounting for 99 of the 312 soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
“In Sangin, U.K. forces have made huge progress in the face of great adversity,” Fox told lawmakers.
Lt. Col. George Wilson, operations division coordinator for Regional Command South based in Kandahar Air Field, said during a field visit in the Kandahar province, which neighbors Helmand, that the decision to turn over control of Sangin was the right tactical move.
“There is a lot of emotion tied up in that place, but you can’t let that cloud your judgment,” Wilson told The Associated Press.
Fox has previously discounted a suggestion that British troops could be switched to the rural Kandahar province when Canada withdraws its force next year, but made no reference to the option in his speech Wednesday.
He also offered backing to Gen. David Petraeus, who replaced the dismissed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“We can be confident that Gen. Petraeus will build upon the considerable success of Gen. McChrystal,” Fox said.
Prime Minister David Cameron earlier told lawmakers that he did not believe “significant numbers” of British troops should remain in the country beyond 2015.
“We have set out very clearly what we want to achieve in Afghanistan, this is the key year where we surge up the military forces, we surge up political pressure,” he said.
Associated Press Writers Heidi Vogt in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report