British troops 'unlikely' to move to Kandahar, says Fox

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The Independent Online

Britain will almost certainly turn down proposals to move troops in Afghanistan from their centre of operation in Helmand to the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and neighbouring Uruzgan.

The planned deployment was part of the strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, to turn the tide of war against the Taliban. The Independent has learned that the Americans were so keen for British forces to make the switch that Washington offered to underwrite a sizeable part of the substantial costs involved.

But Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, declared yesterday it was "highly unlikely" that a transfer would take place, stressing: "It is certainly not something that we will be proposing."

The two most senior British commanders in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Nick Parker, the British deputy Nato commander based in Kabul, and Major-General Nick Carter, were said to be in favour of the proposed transfer – while the head of the military, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, felt it would be a mistake.

General Sir David Richards, the head of the Army, was said to have been "keeping an open mind" on the matter. He and a number of commanders would have liked a feasibility study to be undertaken so that various options could be considered.

The plan to move the 9,500-strong British contingency has been necessitated by the refusal of the Canadian government to extend the mandate of its 3,000 troops in Afghanistan when it runs out next year.

The Dutch force in Uruzgan are also due to leave, creating yet another "hole" that Nato has to fill at a critical juncture in the war. The British troops, the US commanders said, would have provided "real fighting force" in what is seen as the crucible of the insurgent jihad.

However, appearing before the media alongside Robert Gates, his American counterpart, Dr Fox, talking about a possible Kandahar move, said: "It is highly unlikely we would want to accede to that particular change. British forces have been in Helmand for some time and we have borne a very high cost in life and limb. We have developed an expertise in understanding the terrain.

"I think it would be quite a leap for us to leave Helmand to be redeployed in Kandahar, not taking into account the enormous cost there would be likely to be in making such a change. So I think it is highly unlikely that that will happen. And it is certainly not something that we will be proposing."

Mr Gates said he had discussed the dispatch of more US forces to Helmand, where they already outnumber the British by two to one. "In the Sangin area, British soldiers are in the absolute middle of the thick of the fight," he said. "This is one of the toughest areas in all of Afghanistan."

Sangin has recently passed under US control as part of a restructuring plan, under which command in southern Afghanistan has been split in half, with British troops answering to an American general.