US MARINES deploying to Afghanistan‘s violent Helmand province this summer have refused to take orders from the British headquarters in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Instead they will report directly to a regional headquarters in Kandahar, a Nato general said yesterday, effectively sidelining Britain’s Taskforce Helmand.
Senior Nato officials have confirmed US plans to double the number of troops in Helmand, where the Taleban-led insurgency is fiercest.
More than a quarter of the 17,000 extra US troops, pledged by Barack Obama, the US president, will be deployed in the poppy-rich province, where Britain is nominally in charge.
It means American troops will outnumber the British-led force in Helmand. But unlike the Danish troops fighting alongside UK forces, they will not be under British command.
The snub comes after months of discontent in Nato’s Kabul headquarters, which culminated in generals questioning whether Britain had any long-term plan.
UK commanders have been accused of treading water as the insurgency gained ground.
Major-General Mart de Kruif, Nato’s commander in southern Afghanistan, said: “The insurgents see Helmand as their heartland, and from a military point of view central Helmand is their top priority.
“From a security point of view you just need to have more boots on the ground to deliver security 24/7 to the people.”
He said the Americans would probably take over huge parts of the province, slashing the remit of Britain’s overstretched force.
Nato’s top general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, said in December that troops were locked in a stalemate.
Although Britain has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, there are only around 4,500 in Helmand, where the Taleban are fighting hardest.
Only a small fraction of them are front-line fighting troops, the rest are in support.
“I think we’ll see the number of troops at least double,” Maj-Gen de Kruif added.
Violence has soared in Helmand since the UK troops took charge of “peacekeeping” there in 2006. The province produces almost half Afghanistan’s illegal poppy crop, most of it beyond the lasting reach of UK forces.
Although UK troops win every battle, they are unable to hold ground once they win and the insurgents re-infiltrate as soon as they leave.
There is already a 2,000-man US task force based at Camp Bastion in Helmand, which reports directly to Kandahar. Most of their troops are stationed in neighbouring Farah province.
They also have a 30-man mentoring team in Musa Qala, alongside the British garrison, and a company in Now Zad, which the US marines call an “Alamo”.
The town has been abandoned and the soldiers come under almost constant attack whenever they leave their base.
Maj-Gen de Kruif said Britain’s lead role would be confined to reconstruction.
US troops have been wary of accepting UK command after Nato’s International Security Assistance Force was led by General David Richards in 2006. He oversaw a botched deal which effectively handed the town of Musa Qala back to the Taleban, and his interpreter was arrested on charges of spying for Iran.
Most incoming US marines are expected to deploy in southern Helmand, around Garmsir, to control Taleban infiltration routes in and out of Pakistan.
Unlike mountainous eastern Afghanistan, southern Helmand is mostly desert. The marines in Farah are already protecting Helmand’s north-western flank, while troops from the US army’s 2nd Infantry have set up in Maiwand, west of Helmand, in Kandar province – controlling the main road in and out of the province.
“It looks as though the Americans are trying to hem in Helmand,” an analyst in Kabul said. “Fighters will find ways around, but the bulk of the drugs have to go on the roads. If the Americans can control them they might hurt the insurgents’ purse.”
• Four US special forces soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were killed in Helmand yesterday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.
It was the deadliest attack on international forces this year. The soldiers were believed to have been patrolling Garmsir, doing reconnaissance before more US marines arrive