These are hard and painful times for British forces in the relentless conflict in Afghanistan. The death toll now stands at 312, with the former head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, saying it is likely to go beyond 400 before it is over. Both sides are anticipating a summer of ferocious fighting as the endgame approaches.
Against this background the withdrawal from Sangin – where 99 British soldiers were killed, almost a third of the total – has particular resonance as US forces take over. To a greater extent than ever before, this is America's war. There is little doubt that the new British Government would like to bring the troops back from a war it has inherited, and one which is proving increasingly costly in both human and financial terms.
David Cameron has said he wanted troops back home by 2015, the time of the next election, while Foreign Secretary William Hague has talked about 2014. The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, initially stated they should be out as quickly as possible from what he described as a "13th-century state", but has since stressed they should stay for as long as it takes. Yesterday he announced that 300 extra troops, from a reserve battalion based in Cyprus, 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment will be sent on a temporary basis.
General Dannatt, who is now a government adviser, stressed that the failure to reinforce in the past had led to small numbers of British soldiers attracting attacks like "flies in a honeypot" and an adequate force must be maintained.
There have been predictable cries that the withdrawal from Sangin has been a waste of the "blood and treasure" which have been invested and a betrayal of those who had fallen. Yesterday Major-General Gordon Messenger, the military's official spokesman on Afghanistan, said in a moment of quiet reflection: "I accept the attachment to Sangin. It is born of spilt blood, a great deal of endeavour and some pretty tough sacrifices. There will always be a bit of Sangin in the bloodstream of the Army and the Royal Marines."
But the reality on the ground is that Helmand, and southern Afghanistan as a whole, is now very much an American show. There are already twice as many US troops as British ones in Helmand and that number will rise by another third when the full complement of the "surge" is in place by next month.
Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Mr Fox said that the result of the British forces being moved from Sangin into central Helmand will be "a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-sized forces, with the US in the north and the south, and the UK-led Task Force Helmand, alongside our outstanding Danish and Estonian allies, in the central population belt".
In plain language this means that two American brigades will be in charge of just under three quarters of the territory in Helmand and the British the remaining area, mainly the urban population centres in central Helmand.
This, again, reflects the respective strengths on the ground. Until now the British, with 31 per cent of the Western forces, were supposed to be covering 70 per cent of the population. It was an untenable situation that resulted in areas being taken from the Taliban, often at a cost of life and limb, only to be abandoned because there were not enough "boots on the ground".
The 1,400-strong 40 Commando Royal Marines battlegroup will withdraw from Sangin in the autumn. Their replacements, a battlegroup led by the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, will be partly deployed in a belt from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, to Nad-e-Ali and Gereshk. The new ratio would be 31 per cent of the troops providing security for 32 per cent of the population.
The idea is that this will reinforce a "security envelope" where reconstruction is taking place. But the broader aim, as the Prime Minister made clear again yesterday, was to hasten the departure of the troops. "2010 was the key year for the mission in Afghanistan," said Mr Cameron, and time for concerted military and political pressure. But he stressed: "Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there in a combat role in significant numbers in five years' time? No, I don't. This is the time to get the job done and the plan we have envisages making sure that we wouldn't be in Afghanistan in 2015."
General Dannatt talked of past failures and future pitfalls. "The intention when we went into southern Afghanistan was to try to get the country on its feet economically," he said. "We all know it didn't turn out that way. We spread our small resources thinly and that inevitably made the small number of British soldiers like flies in a honey pot. We got into this cycle of fighting.
"We have got to make sure that the general public in this country understand why we are in Afghanistan, what we are doing, and that the cost – while very, very tough for the families who lose loved ones – is worth the price we are paying. I don't want to see the figures get to 400 but realistically they probably will."
The former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "At out peril, we fail to understand and estimate the sophistication of these people and their ability to turn facts into propaganda," he said. "People will assume from this that this is preparing the ground for the eventual withdrawal in 2015 and it is bound, of course, to be interpreted in that way by the Taliban." And Sir Menzies added: "The political context of course has got to be what the Prime Minister said following his visit to Toronto and the G20 – namely that he expected British troops to be out by 2015."
But Afghanistan has shown that meticulous plans made in the offices of London and Washington often do not survive contact with harsh reality on the ground. For the moment, bringing the troops home by 2015 remains an aspiration – and nothing much more.
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