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British Forces To Withdraw From Deadly Afghan District

A British patrol in Sangin in December 2009

A British patrol in Sangin in December 2009

British troops are to withdraw from one of southern Afghanistan's deadliest areas and hand responsibility over to U.S. forces.

Britain's defense secretary, Liam Fox, announced the pullout of 1,000 soldiers from the district of Sangin in Helmand Province starting later this year. Sangin, a valley in northern Helmand, has accounted for 99 out of 312 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan since military operations began there in 2001.

Fox told Parliament that British forces in Helmand had been spread too thinly to mount effective counterinsurgency exercises, but presented the withdrawal as part of reorganization of NATO troops in the province.

"ISAF intends to restructure its forces in Farah and Nimroz provinces so it can consolidate a U.S. marine brigade in northern Helmand, which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin, later this year," he said in a reference to NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "This will simplify current command arrangements and enable U.K. troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand. The theater reserve battalion will then withdraw."

Fox said the withdrawal was enabled by the recent arrival of more than 18,000 U.S. Marines and would result in a "coherent and equitable division" of allied forces in Helmand's main population areas.

British forces account for about a third of foreign troops in Helmand, but are responsible for protecting a larger share of its population. Some 8,000 of Britain's 9,500 troops in Afghanistan are stationed there.

Britain is the second-largest contributor to the NATO war effort in Afghanistan after the United States.

'Flies In A Honey Pot'

British commanders have described Sangin as the most problematic area for its forces. It's seen as particularly dangerous because it contains a patchwork of rival tribes and is a major center for Afghanistan's opium-growing trade.

Some U.K. officials are said to have suggested British intelligence had been unable to get a grip on the area's tribal structure, making it hard to reach agreements with key actors and therefore leaving troops exposed to attack.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is understood to have been skeptical about the deployment in Sangin and to believe that the resulting casualty toll was undermining public support for the Afghan war effort.

But Fox insisted British military efforts in the area had not been in vain, saying the forces in Sangin "have made huge progress in the face of great adversity. The district center has been transformed. Helmand as a whole is a safer place as a result of our endeavors and sacrifices there."

Fox spoke after Cameron had told members of Parliament that he envisaged U.K. troops being withdrawn from combat roles in Afghanistan by 2015.

Britain has already turned over other mountain valleys in Helmand to the U.S. Marine contingent after it arrived in large numbers in the province last year.

More U.S. forces are moving into southern Afghanistan as part of a surge strategy that will bring the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan to 150,000.

The former head of the British army, Richard Dannatt, now an adviser to Cameron, said soldiers in Sangin and other areas of Helmand were attracting enemy attacks "like flies in a honey pot" and warned that the number of British fatalities would probably reach 400.

"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," he told the BBC.

"We have got to make sure that the general public in this country understand why we are in Afghanistan, what we are doing, and that the cost -- while very, very tough for the families who lose loved ones -- is worth the price we are paying."

But some politicians in Britain voiced fears today that the Sangin withdrawal 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," former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said.

with agency reports