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British forces hand Afghanistan's Sangin district to Americans

By Melissa Gray, CNN
British troops patrol in the Sangin district of Afghanistan in December.
British troops patrol in the Sangin district of Afghanistan in December.
  • British troops to leave Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province
  • U.S. Marines will take over in Sangin, British defense secretary says
  • British forces will move to central part of Helmand
  • NEW: Analyst says move is not a defeat and that it makes sense
  • Afghanistan
  • United States
  • NATO

London, England (CNN) -- British troops will pull out of the notorious Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province to allow U.S. Marines to take over, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said Wednesday.

The British forces will redeploy to the central part of Helmand, leading the task force with Danish and Estonian troops there, while U.S. troops are positioned in the northern and southern parts, Fox said.

"This will simplify current command arrangements," Fox told the House of Commons. "The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-size forces."

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) closely consulted Britain about the plan, and British officials "fully support" it, Fox said.

"In Sangin, UK forces have made huge progress in the face of great adversity," he said. "The district center has been transformed. Helmand as a whole is a safer place as a result of our endeavors and sacrifices there."

The switch of command in Sangin is in no way a defeat for British troops, but simply works well militarily, said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, an independent defense and security think tank in London.

"It never made much military sense to put troops into the northern areas of Sangin, Musa Qala and Kajacki in the first place," Clarke said, "but in 2006 they were sent there at the insistence of (Afghan) President (Hamid) Karzai, and once established, any pullback would have represented a victory for the Taliban."

With the arrival of 18,000 U.S. Marines in the region by the end of August, it makes sense for the British troops to reorganize themselves and reinforce their numbers in central Helmand, Clarke said. It will make the British force more effective and safer, he said.

The political fallout of the move, however, is unpredictable, Clarke said. When the British ended operations in the southern Iraqi city of Basra last year, it was under similar circumstances, but still appeared as a "furtive retreat," he said.

"The image at home that Britain was giving up a job it could no longer handle was impossible to shake off," Clarke said. "The same may attach to Sangin. This war is as much about image and perception as it is about who controls the ground in Afghanistan."