US troops to take over from British forces in Musa Qala

Afghan strategy changes in 'rebalancing' process as UK soldiers go to Helmand

A town which played an iconic and controversial part in the British mission in Afghanistan is to be handed over to the Americans in a move signalling a major change in Western strategy.

Musa Qala, where 23 British soldiers died, will be the first of a number of areas which will be transferred from UK to US control, reflecting the new military balance in Helmand where American troops now outnumber the British force.

A number of other areas currently under UK command will also go to the Americans as part of a "rebalancing" process. Sangin is expected to stay in British hands, but with the addition of an US contingent.

The 500-strong British force in Musa Qala, along with the troops withdrawn from other places under the plan, will move to the population centres of central Helmand. In effect this will mean that they will be concentrating on providing security for reconstruction projects while the US forces take on more offensive operations against the Taliban.

What took place at Musa Qala had come under repeated scrutiny and led to bitter recriminations involving the British, the Americans and the Afghan government.

Under a deal in 2006, British forces withdrew in return for local elders pledging to keep out the Taliban. But the claims followed from the US and the Afghan president Hamid Karzai that the area had been handed over to the insurgents. The open Taliban control of the town saw the Islamists levying taxes and imposing a brutal version of Sharia law. Musa Qala became a centre for mass production of opium with much of the proceeds going towards funding the insurgency.

It was recaptured at the end of 2007 in an operation by British, US and Afghan forces. However, the UK commander in charge of the operation, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, later left the Army early after criticising British government policy in Afghanistan.

Sizeable investment in reconstruction has followed.

The replacement force of US Marines will be larger than the current British force in Musa Qala by around 200. They will be accompanied by up to 800 Afghan soldiers and police.

Major General Gordon Messenger, the Ministry of Defence spokesman on Afghanistan, insisted yesterday that is was a "success story" but acknowledged that "lessons had to be learned".

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