LONDON (AFP) – British troops are to withdraw from one of the deadliest areas of southern Afghanistan, where they have suffered heavy losses, and hand control to the United States, reports said Wednesday.
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox was expected to announce later Wednesday that British forces will be pulled out of Sangin district in the north of Helmand province, the BBC and many newspapers reported.
US forces, who now outnumber British troops in Helmand, will then take charge.
Of 312 British service personnel to have died in Afghanistan since operations began there in 2001, 99 were killed in the market town of Sangin and the surrounding area.
It has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting the British military has endured since World War II.
The area is particularly dangerous because it contains a patchwork of rival tribes and is a major centre for Afghanistan’s opium-growing trade.
Fox was expected to announce that British forces will refocus their efforts on Helmand’s central belt, leaving the north and south to the United States, 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.
“UK forces continue to make real progress across Helmand including in Sangin, one of the most contested and challenging areas in southern Afghanistan,” a spokesman said.
“Any changes to force laydown 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 insurgency.
“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 former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell.
Meanwhile, former armed forces chief General Richard Dannatt told BBC radio: “The intention when we went into southern Afghanistan was to try to get the country on its feet economically. We all know it didn’t turn out that way.
“We spread our small resources thinly and that inevitably made the small number of British soldiers like flies in a honey pot and we got into this cycle of fighting.”
Britain has 8,000 servicemen in Helmand, the lion’s share of 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 United States.