KABUL, Afghanistan — Britain, the United States' staunchest ally in Afghanistan, has suffered its worst single battlefield loss in six years, testing a strained coalition's commitment to ensure that Afghan security forces can take over the task of fighting the Taliban.
Six British troops were presumed dead after a massive blast destroyed their heavily armored vehicle in Helmand province, Western military officials said Wednesday. The fatalities mark a grim milestone, pushing British deaths in the 10-year war above 400 — second only to American losses of more than 1,900 troops.
Prime Minister David Cameron called their deaths "desperately sad." The BBC reported that the six had arrived in Afghanistan only a month earlier.
In London, Cameron, who is to meet next week with President Barack Obama, told the House of Commons that his White House visit would be "an opportunity to make sure that Britain and America . . . are absolutely in lockstep about the importance of training up the Afghan army, training up the Afghan police . . . so that the Afghans can take responsibility for the security of their own country and we can bring our forces home."
The training mission, however, has been complicated by an intensifying pattern of "green-on-blue" shootings — attacks carried out by members of the Afghan security forces or their affiliates — which have left at least 11 Western soldiers dead so far this year, including six Americans. Moreover, talks remain bogged down over terms of an agreement governing any long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO combat role is to come to an end.
About half of Marines to leave: Marines will lead the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan this year, reducing by about half their numbers in the key province of Helmand as Afghans move fully into the combat lead there, a top U.S. general said Wednesday.
Helmand, which has seen some of the fiercest American and allied fighting in the past two years, is transitioning to Afghan control faster than most other Taliban-contested areas of the country.
Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who has commanded the Marine contingent in Helmand for the past year, told the Associated Press in a phone interview that the number of Marines is likely to shrink by 8,000 to 10,000 from the current total of 17,500 by the end of September.
That is the target date for the overall U.S. force in Afghanistan to drop to 68,000 from the current 90,000.
The U.S. troop withdrawal is to be completed by the end of 2014.
Information from Associated Press was used in this report.