Britain to hand over violent Afghan area to US troops

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British troops will hand over control of the violence-wracked Sangin area of southern Afghanistan to US forces by the end of the year, Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced on Wednesday.

British forces have suffered their heaviest losses in Sangin with almost 100 deaths in the market town and surrounding areas -- almost a third of their total casualties since military involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001.

Fox said the NATO-led ISAF force would restructure its operations in southern Afghanistan "so that it can consolidate a US Marine brigade in northern Helmand which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin later this year.

"This will simplify current command arrangements and enable UK troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand," he told the House of Commons.

About 1,000 Royal Marines are expected to leave Sangin and be redeployed to central Helmand by the end of the year.

Fox stressed that the move was a logical redeployment, and not a withdrawal, because there were now more US troops in the area following President Barack Obama's troop surge.

He argued that British troops had made "huge progress in the face of great adversity" in Sangin, a particularly hazardous town because it is a battleground for tribal rivalries and a major opium-growing centre.

But Fox added that he and Prime Minister David Cameron had argued when they were in opposition that British troops in Helmand were "too thinly spread and we had insufficient force densities for effective counter-insurgency.

"That is why we welcome the arrival of over 18,000 US marines whose presence is allowing us to deliver a better and more realistic distribution of tasks within the international coalition," Fox said.

Cameron told lawmakers that 2010 was the "key year" for the mission in Afghanistan and reiterated his wish to see British troops return home within five years.

He said: "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.

"Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there in a combat role or in significant numbers in five years' time? No, I don't.

"This is the time to get the job done and the plan we have envisages making sure that we won't be in Afghanistan in 2015."

Britain has 8,000 troops in Helmand, the lion's share of its 9,500-strong force in Afghanistan, which comes under the command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The contingent makes Britain the second largest contributor of forces to the Afghan war effort after the United States.

Anti-war campaigners Stop The War Coalition said the Sangin re-deployment was a tacit admission that the war in Afghanistan was failing.

"The British government and army will try to deny that it is a retreat, but it is hard to see it in any other way," the far-left group said.

Citing the British casualties in Sangin, they said: "Many people will be asking what exactly they died for."

© 2010 AFP

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