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troung
23 Jul 06,, 02:36
Commanders want to withdraw troops from Afghan outposts

By Tom Coghlan in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, and Sean Rayment/Daily Telegraph

(Filed: 23/07/2006)

British troops are set to be "tactically withdrawn" from isolated military outposts in Afghanistan following a series of sustained attacks from Taliban fighters, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

The proposed move, described by commanders as a "rebalancing" of British forces, is to allow them to concentrate their force into a smaller area so that vital reconstruction work can begin.

Lt Gen Richards: Withdrawal

British troops have engaged Taliban fighters on more than 110 occasions since arriving in Helmand two months ago. Most of the attacks, in which six soldiers have died, have taken place close to the military outposts.

Commanders believe that the decision to place troops in a series of small, isolated outposts was a mistake because it gave the "military initiative" to the Taliban by allowing insurgents to concentrate their forces against the British.

Military commanders want the Afghan Army and the police to take control of the outposts in order to allow more troops to take part in combat operations against the Taliban.

Lt Gen Richards, the most senior British commander in Afghanistan, is understood to be a supporter of the "withdrawal" plan, but sources in the Ministry of Defence fear that the proposal faces "significant political resistance" because the Afghan government is keen to have British troops based in the country's remote and lawless areas.

Details of the proposed withdrawal emerged at the same time that Lt Gen Richards told a conference in London he believed that the country was close to "anarchy".

British troops initially deployed to the outposts, which are fortified Afghan police stations, at the behest of the provincial governor of Helmand, who feared that a series of towns in the north of the province were at risk off being overrun.

The original British plan has been described in terms of spreading "inkspots" of influence. According to the theory, security was to be imposed by British troops, maintained with the help of Afghan security forces, and popular support won through concentrated quick impact development work, leading to longer-term development.

Last night one senior officer in the Ministry of Defence said that the British forces were being asked to do "too much with too little". He said: "We have limited forces here. We can't be everywhere at once. It may be necessary to rebalance British forces; sometimes it is necessary to trade ground for influence. It is a mistake to develop an obsession with holding ground, though the Taliban will try to present this as a reverse for us."

British intelligence officers believe there are now up to 2,000 Taliban fighters operating in Helmand, an area approximately the size of Wales.

British commanders have admitted that they probably underestimated the tenacity of the Taliban and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, conceded two weeks ago that the deployment of 900 emergency reinforcements to the province would "energise" Taliban resistance.

Last night Patrick Mercer, the shadow homeland security minister, said: "Lt Gen Richards is trying to abide by one of the main principles of war: concentration of forces. If the political imperative is followed rather than the military one, then there will be more casualties."