The United Kingdom will withdraw parts of its forces from the hotly contested Helmand Province in Afghanistan later this year. The region around the town of Sangin, notorious as a Taliban powerbase and a center of the opium trade in the south of the country, has seen heavy fighting in recent months, demanding several casualties on the British side.
British and Canadian troops established a forward operating base on the outskirts of Sangin during the summer of 2006. The Siege of Sangin which lasted between June 2006 and April 2007 became emblematic of the difficulty of the mission being carried out by British in Afghanistan who nicknamed it “Sangingrad,” in reference to the 1942-1943 Battle of Stalingrad.
Defense Secretary Liam Fox, announcing the withdrawal before Parliament, also promised the temporary deployment of reserve troops currently stationed in Cyprus to reinforce the country’s presence in Helmand. American forces are expected to take over in the months ahead. The reinforcement will likely bring British troop numbers up to 10,000, the highest it has been since the war started in 2001.
The United Kingdom is already the largest contributor to ISAF besides the United States with 9,500 soldiers currently deployed.
The Helmand offensive was designed as a test case for the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by General Stanley McChrystal who resigned last month after disparaging comments of his about the political leadership in the war appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. The strategy will be continued by his successor, General David Petraeus however in spite of mounting dissatisfaction among the troops on the ground. They feel that their security is being jeopardized in favor of minimizing civilian casualties.
The withdrawal of British forces from Sangin is politically sensitive. To many Britons it seems as though the military is yielding ground gained at a heavy cost in British lives. Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats now in government with the Conservative Party, disputes that notion in The New York Times. He stresses that the hand over of command to the Americans represents “a replacement, not a reinforcement.” Britons are skeptical though. The Liberal Democrats in particular are hard pressed to defend the decision because their voters are largely tired of the Afghan war. What’s more, the Taliban is likely to portray the move as a retreat in either event. “If we are not careful our enemies will big this up and make it look like a defeat when it isn’t,” said Patrick Mercer, a Conservative member of parliament.
The British government has been sending mixed messages on the Afghan war effort in recent week. Where Defense Secretary Fox warned against a “premature” withdrawal of forces and predicated that Britain might be among the last of ISAF nations to leave the country, Prime Minister David Cameron, at the G8 summit in Toronto, Canada last week expressed his intention to have all British troops home before the next general election in 2015. “We can’t be there for another five years, effectively having been there for nine years already,” said Cameron. Foreign Secretary William Hague also hinted at an exit from Afghanistan within the next four years. He told the BBC on July 1 that while Britain is “committed to the Afghans being able to conduct their military operations and security” he would be “very surprised if that took longer than 2014.”
With over three hundred soldiers dead, the vast majority of the British public is now opposed to the war. Nearly three quarters of voters view the conflict as “unwinnable” and more than half say they do not understand why British troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.