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British Troops Set to Hand Frontline Afghanistan Role to US
Three and a half years after British troops first arrived in Helmand the towns that line its infamous "green zone" have become household names - for all the wrong reasons.
On June 11, 2006, the town of Sangin claimed its first British life when Captain Jim Philippson was shot trying to rescue an injured comrade. Two months later Musa Qala claimed its first victims when a rocketpropelled grenade destroyed an armoured car. By September Kajaki was on the map as well: Lance Corporal Mark Wright was killed in an unmarked minefield.
All three towns, and the poppy fields around them, have become synonymous with British casualties. The bulk of Britain's 243 dead and the hundreds more who have suffered life-changing injuries fought in the upper reaches of the Helmand valley.
It is these killing fields that British troops may be on the verge of leaving.
As thousands of Americans pour into southern Afghanistan as part of President Obama's surge, defence chiefs are considering plans to cede control, such as it is, to US Marines so that the British can concentrate on securing the centre of the war-torn province.
Most of Helmand's population lives in the five districts around Lashkar Gah. This is the area British troops were supposed to focus on when they first deployed to Helmand in 2006, but they abandoned the plan under pressure from President Karzai, who was eager to see his Government's flag flying in towns as far apart as Now Zad and Garmsir. Since then, the violence has increased and government control all but evaporated outside the embattled district centres.
Under the new counter-insurgency strategy of the US General Stanley McChrystal, Nato troops are shifting their focus from fighting the insurgents back towards protecting the population.
"There is now a mismatch between the proportion of Nato forces, between the US and the UK, in Helmand, and the proportion of the population that they are trying to protect," said William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who was briefed on the plans during a two-day visit to Afghanistan. "The British [have] one third of the forces but they [are] trying to protect 70 per cent of the population."
Military officials said British commanders were prepared to leave Kajaki, home to a massive hydroelectric power station to which they brought a turbine in a memorable and daring operation in 2008; and Musa Qala, which was the scene of a botched peace deal in 2006. But they are uncomfortable leaving Sangin because of the district's symbolic importance. The area around Sangin's district centre, at the junction of two rivers in the deadly green zone, has exacted the highest toll of British Forces. Senior military officers are also concerned that handing responsibility for Sangin to the Americans would echo the British withdrawal from Basra, which precipitated a massive US and Iraqi operation to clear the city of insurgents, the Charge of the Knights - an operation the British were almost entirely frozen out of.
Cabinet ministers have been briefed about the Helmand plans and a decision is expected within the next six weeks.
At present there is a company protecting the dam at Kajaki and a battlegroup in and around Musa Qala. If both districts were handed over to the Americans it would free approximately 1,100 troops for the centre of the province.
The timetable for the redeployment will depend on the availability of thousands of US Marines, deploying as part of Mr Obama's 30,000-strong surge, as well as the Afghan forces who would accompany them. But if it is approved British Forces could leave for the last time when the current six-month deployment starts to leave this spring.
That would mean them returning to the areas first envisioned more than four years ago, when conventional forces went into southern Afghanistan for the first time since the doomed Anglo-Afghan wars of the 1840s.
"The plan was basically very simple," said Minna Jarvenpaa, a Finnish consultant, who was one of its architects. "The idea was you secure Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and the road in between them and you create a general area of security there."
This plan was agreed by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. But within weeks of taking over from a handful of Americans who had been hunting Osama bin Laden, Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade was pinned down in positions strung out along the length of the province.
Under pressure from Kabul and the provincial governor, British troops found themselves protecting government outposts from swarms of Taleban insurgents. The first mission into Sangin was to rescue government officials besieged by the insurgents.
"The whole idea is that you focus on the urban centres and you create the space for improving governance," Ms Jarvenpaa said.
"We were saying it back then as well. The only way for this to work is for the Afghan Government to be in the lead and at the moment there isn't much of an Afghan Government, so you have to incubate it.
"Sangin was meant to be a 72-hour operation. That has been extended until now. It was like a honeypot. By putting all those troops in northern Helmand it drew the Taleban from all around - and it created more Taleban, because every cousin and uncle you killed, more people felt aggrieved. The Taleban just exploded."