[The Brits are no longer part of the Big Picture in Afghanistan, since the govt. failed to hold British courts accountable to American CIA whims. British troops will be relegated to the “clean-up crew,” filling Canada’s former role. SEE: It’s over: MPs say the special relationship with US is dead; UK releases ‘US torture evidence’]
British forces are to be withdrawn from Helmand and replaced by United States Marines under controversial new plans being drawn up by American commanders.
By Toby Harnden in Kabul
The proposal, which would have to be approved by a new British government, is facing stiff resistance. Whitehall officials fear that a pull-out from Helmand, where nearly 250 British troops have been killed since 2006, would be portrayed as an admission of defeat.
Under the plans, British forces would hand over their remaining bases in Helmand to the US Marines as early as this year.
Such a move could bring back unhappy memories of the 2007 withdrawal from Basra in southern Iraq, which provoked jibes about British forces being bailed out by the Americans.
The proposal is linked to a reorganisation of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces that will split the current Regional Command (South) in two after an American-led offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar this summer.
A senior American officer in ISAF said that “the Marines will be the primary force in Helmand and Nimruz” while “British forces will go to a combination of Kandahar and Uruzgan and Zabul”.
British officials opposed to the move argue that the ground-level expertise and knowledge of local power brokers in Helmand, which they have built up over many years, would be squandered in apparent contradiction of the “know the people” counter-insurgency doctrine put in place by the Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal.
But while acknowledging the political sensitivities, a senior British officer in ISAF said that a new role outside Helmand would be central to Gen McChrystal’s campaign strategy, which is based on protecting the main Pashtun population centres.
“Through the microcosm of the UK media lens, a lot of people will say, ‘We fought, we’ve spilt British blood in Helmand and now we’re withdrawing’,” the official said.
“Completely wrong. We’re going to where the main effort is.”
Under Gen McChrystal’s plan, Helmand and Nimruz will come under a new Regional Command (South West) while Kandahar, Uruzgan and Kabul will constitute Regional Command (South East).
The US Marines have a strong tradition of independence and a determined preference for operating alone in a single area, as they did in Iraq’s Anbar province. Nato has agreed that Major General Richard Mills of the US Marines – who for 18 months commanded ground forces in Iraq’s Anbar province – will take command of the new south-western area of Afghanistan.
In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, Gen McChrystal stressed that Kandahar was of “tremendous moral importance” to the Taliban because it was their former capital and the birthplace of their leader the one-eyed Mullah Omar.
Asked whether British forces would move to Kandahar, he responded carefully: “There’s a lot of politics involved in where forces go, so rather than start a political debate about where forces are what I’d rather do is just move on with where things are now and let things develop.”
Canadian forces, 2,500 of which are currently based in Kandahar – where British forces won a decisive battle in 1880 that brought the Second Afghan War to an end – are due to withdraw from Afghanistan next year. Some 2,000 Dutch forces in Uruzgan are due to be pulled out by August.
British forces first deployed to Helmand in significant numbers in spring 2006, when 3,300 members of 16 Air Assault Brigade arrived. Their mission was to restore security so that reconsstruction could begin and the illegal opium trade be disrupted.
But they faced an immediate upsurge in Taliban activity and this has continued ever since, leading to regular calls for greater troop numbers. There are currently around 10,000 from the UK in the region, and 248 soldiers have been killed there.
This would leave a vacuum in south-eastern Afghanistan at a time when US Marines are pouring into Helmand as part of President Barack Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops, which will soon bring American forces to a level of 100,000, double what they were a year ago. About 20,000 US Marines will be in Helmand by this summer, more than twice the number of British troops there.
Some senior American officers believe the British have become too attached to “Helmandshire” and have developed tunnel vision.
Although British troops have been praised for their valour, the consensus within the American military is that control of the province has slipped away because of inadequate numbers, poor equipment and thin logistical support.
Senior American officers also believe the British became distracted by defending bases in outlying areas like Musa Qala, Kajaki and Sangin when they should have concentrated on the more-populated central Helmand.
A Washington defence source said that, under the new plan, “Helmandshire will become Marine-istan.”
The main British logistics base in Afghanistan is already at Kandahar airfield – a factor that makes a shift from Helmand more feasible. Nato forces in southern Afghanistan are currently commanded by Maj Gen Nick Carter from his Regional Command (South) headquarters at the airfield.
Mark Sedwill, formerly British ambassador in Afghanistan and now Nato’s Senior Civilian Representative, acknowledged that withdrawal of British forces from Helmand would make “a lot of sense” when viewed from a “purely military perspective”.
This was because “the challenges in Kandahar are very well suited to the resources we can bring and the capabilities” British troops have.
“Could we end up with the Brits in Kandahar?” he said. “I guess theoretically we could and certainly I wouldn’t rule it out because from the ISAF perspective we need to look at what is the sensible force deployment as the Canadians draw down after 2011 and given how central Kandahar is to the entire campaign.
“But any shift of that kind is not just an ISAF decision, it would have to be agreed with the British government of the day. There would be enormous political sensitivities to manage just because of the amount of investment of blood and treasure that has gone into central Helmand.”
Maj Gen Gordon Messenger, senior British military spokesman, said that there was “no thought at the moment of doing anything other” than “a job which is utterly, utterly needed as part of the coalition force in central Helmand”.
He added: “How that function changes over time is clearly being looked at … and there are any number of options. But it would be unwise to view moving and conducting ground-holding in Kandahar as one of them.”