UK troops to withdraw from Afghan highlands
Reuters – August 22, 2006
Britain's troops in southern Afghanistan are pulling back from mountain redoubts to focus on safeguarding reconstruction in lowland valleys, a senior British commander said on Tuesday.
The change in tactics follows months of unexpectedly bitter fighting in the mountains of Helmand province, which the commander said had dealt a big blow to Taliban guerrillas.
"They have blended into the hills a little bit, and their leadership has gone to have a rethink," said the commander, who was authorised to speak to reporters under condition he not be named.
"It is not in our campaign interest to get focussed on head-to-head tactical contact with the Taliban, but it has been necessary in recent weeks."
The commander said the battles were necessary to prove to locals that British forces could take on the Taliban, but were a distraction from the main mission of providing security for reconstruction in "development zones".
A new unit of Afghanistan's national army has been assembled ahead of schedule and was now ready to take control of forward bases in the mountain towns, with troops in the lowlands on standby to support them as needed.
"We've got to reposture in order to deliver what we want to do," he said. "It isn't a question of withdrawal, it's a question of replacement."
Britain sent the first large foreign force to Helmand, Afghanistan's biggest drug-producing province in the south, this year as part of an expanding NATO peacekeeping mission.
Western commanders now say leaving large parts of the country such as Helmand empty of international troops after the Taliban government fell in 2001 allowed guerrillas to regroup and mount a threat to President Hamid Karzai's government.
Over the past few months troops moved into remote mountain towns such as Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Kajaki, where they came under attack from Taliban groups. Commanders have acknowledged the fighting was heavier than they expected.
The government has already had to increase its initial force in the area by about 1,000 troops to 4,500. The British has little slack for further reinforcements for Afghanistan while it also keeps 7,000 men in Iraq.
The NATO commander in Kabul, David Richards, who is also a British general, has said he would be able to operate more quickly and efficiently if he had extra backup troops and aircraft.
The British commander in London denied NATO was abandoning the mountain towns in Helmand because it lacked the forces needed to hold them while still securing the lowlands.
"That is factually inaccurate," he said. "If we had infinite forces we would be able to do lots of things concurrently, but very few military commanders have ever approached that sort of military Nirvana."
Last updated 08/09/2006