US weighs reinforcements for troubled Afghan province: Gates

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The United States is weighing sending US reinforcements to Afghanistan's troubled southern Helmand province, where British troops are "in the thick" of fighting, officials said Tuesday.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he spoke to his British counterpart about deploying additional US troops to assist British forces stationed in the Sangin district, a centre for the opium trade in Helmand.

"The question of whether there need to be additional American forces there to help was discussed," Gates said at a press conference with British Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

British troops in Sangin are "in the absolute thick of the fight," he said.

But he said that it was up to the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to assess whether US troops are needed to complement the British units in Helmand.

"Fundamentally, this is an issue that needs to be evaluated by General McChrystal," he said.

Both Gates and Fox said it was highly unlikely that British troops would be pulled out of the area, as some media reports had suggested, and sent to neigbouring Kandahar province.

US commanders have portrayed Helmand as the scene of relative progress where substantial forces are already in place, after a US-led offensive in February in the Marjah area, southwest of Sangin.

Amid a troop buildup, McChrystal and his officers are increasingly focused on Kandahar, launching a make-or-break operation to push back the Taliban from their spiritual homeland.

But deploying possible reinforcements to Helmand raised questions about the course of the war as well as London's plans for its Afghan mission, which has become increasingly unpopular in Britain.

It was unclear if the option for US reinforcements reflected setbacks in Helmand or a way to prepare the way for the eventual drawdown of British forces.

Gates said the Sangin district, which British troops dubbed "Sangingrad" after intense fighting three years ago, is "one of the toughest areas in all of Afghanistan."

With a dam in the area needed to provide electricity to the local population, Gates said the district -- which lies on the eastern edge of Helmand province -- carried strategic importance.

It was an area that "we cannot turn our backs on," he said.

Fox said British troops had suffered heavy casualties over the years in Sangin but had developed an "expertise" for the area and it would make little sense to withdraw and deploy to Kandahar.

© 2010 AFP

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