British troops are to withdraw from one of the deadliest areas of southern Afghanistan where its forces have suffered heavy casualties, and hand control to the United States, reports say. British servicemen will be pulled out of Sangin district in the north of Helmand province, the Guardian newspaper and the BBC reported. US forces, who now outnumber British troops in Helmand, will then be put in charge.
Of 312 British service personnel to have died in Afghanistan since operations began there in 2001, about a third were killed in Sangin. The area is particularly dangerous because it contains a patchwork of rival tribes and is a major centre for the country's opium-growing trade. The British defence secretary Liam Fox was expected to announce later today that the country's forces will refocus their efforts on Helmand's central belt, leaving the north and south to the US, said the reports.
It is understood the withdrawal of British troops, which number about 1,000 in Sangin, will not begin for several months. The decision followed Britain handing over command in Helmand to an American general last month. It also came as US President Barack Obama's troop surge pumps greater numbers of US forces into Helmand - there are now some 20,000 American marines in the province. Britain's Ministry of Defence refused to confirm the reports. A spokesman said: "Any changes to force lay down affecting UK personnel will be announced in the usual way."
While policymakers will strive to present the changes as simply a reorganisation of international forces in the province, observers voiced fears the move could be seen as a retreat and used as propaganda by the Taliban. "People will assume ... that this is preparing the ground for the eventual withdrawal in 2015 and it is bound, of course, to be interpreted in that way by the Taliban," said the former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell.
He added that people would think back to events in Basra, Iraq, "where the moving of British troops was somehow presented as if they had created some kind of retreat". Britain has 8,000 servicemen in Helmand province, the lion's share of the their 9,500 forces in Afghanistan, which are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Britain is the second largest contributor of forces to the Afghan war effort after the US.