The British withdrawal from Sangin

Professor Michael Clarke, Director of the Royal United Services Institute, on today's Sangin announcement:

"The handover of operations in Sangin to US forces is not in any sense a withdrawal or a defeat for British troops - but it is a political hot potato that raises the 'Basra spectre' over British operations in Afghanistan.

It never made much military sense to put troops into the northern areas of Sangin, Musa Qala and Kajacki in the first place; but in 2006 they were sent there at the insistence of President Karzai, and once established, any pullback would have represented a victory for the Taliban. If the 99 British troops killed in Sangin have died  for a minor military objective,  they nevertheless died to uphold the military credibility of the whole British operation in Helmand. And now that the Americans are arriving in force, the British find themselves occupying almost 70% of  Coalition territory in Helmand with less than 30% of the troops that will be in place by the end of August. It would be  crazy not to reorganise the force and take the opportunity to reinforce the British units in the central belt of Helmand, making them more effective - and safer - with larger numbers.

Musa Qala was handed over to US forces in March, and was by then in pretty good order after some tough times; Kajacki was handed over in June, not as stable as commanders would have hoped, but certainly better than it had been. Sangin will probably be handed over in October sometime; and it will still be the badlands. The British will have achieved  two out of three (or perhaps one and a half out of three) in coping with these barely tenable outposts. For the lads on the ground that rates as a score draw away from home. They'll settle for that and get on with the next bit of the campaign.

But the political fall-out is unpredictable. The end of British operations in Basra last year represented a similar gritty score draw away from home, but the mechanics of it came to look like a furtive retreat, with precious little gratitude from the Iraqi government. The image at home that Britain was giving up a job it could no longer handle, was impossible to shake off. And 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. Getting out of a forward base the troops should probably never have been in at all, and for which they have sacrificed so much of their blood and sanity, is never going to be easy. But it is militarily right that it should be done."

Listen to Professor Michael Clarke on BBC Today programme > 

Notes for editors

1. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.

2. For any enquiries please contact: Daniel Sherman, RUSI Press Office: or +44 (0)20 7747 2617


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