LONDON (Sept. 20) -- British forces today handed over responsibility for security in one of southern Afghanistan's deadliest districts to the U.S. Marines, marking the end of the U.K.'s four-year-long combat mission in the area.

Sangin district -- which sits on a key opium trafficking route in the north of the troubled Helmand province -- has been the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan conflict. When British troops were first deployed there in 2006, with the aim of rescuing an Afghan official, they were only supposed to stay for 72 hours. But the soldiers were drawn into a turf war between rival drug gangs, notes The Times of London, "with one side resembling the [Taliban] and the other resembling the government."

British soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol in Sangin District of Helmand province in Afghanistan. Abdul Malik, AFP / Getty Images In this Dec. 2, 2009, photograph, British soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force patrol in Sangin District of Helmand province. U.S. Marines are replacing British troops in this violent district. Improvised explosive devices and skilled Taliban snipers have taken a heavy toll on the British forces. Over the past four years, the military has lost at least 106 soldiers in Sangin -- almost a third of the 337 deaths Britain has suffered in Afghanistan since 2001. And in early June, the Taliban shot down an American helicopter that had been sent in to evacuate wounded British troops, killing four people.

British officials have been keen to portray the handover as a routine operational measure, and not as an admission of defeat. Defense Secretary Liam Fox said in a statement that the 1,000 Royal Marines stationed in Sangin should be "very proud of the achievements they have made in one of the most challenging areas of Afghanistan." He added that "the level of sacrifice has been high and we should never forget the many brave troops" who lost their lives to defend the security of Britain and its allies.

Under a new NATO deployment plan announced in July, the U.S. will take control of the northern and southern sections of Helmand, which remains a fiercely contested battleground, despite the deployment of tens of thousands of extra troops this year under President Barack Obama's surge plan. Britain's 9,500 troops -- the second-largest foreign contingent in Afghanistan, after the U.S. -- will focus on the province's heavily populated central areas, together with Danish and Estonian forces.

Sponsored Links Maj. Gen Gordon Messenger, a former commander of Britain's Helmand task force, now a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, told BBC radio that the Americans would continue the good work of the Royal Marines, who had wrested control of the town of Sangin from the Taliban. "We are seeing real and positive progress in areas that only a year or so ago were in a very different state," he said.

Beyond Sangin town, though, large swaths of the district are still under Taliban control. Some military experts argue that British commanders were never given the manpower they needed to wipe out the militants in Sangin. "We spread our small resources thinly and that inevitably made the small number of British soldiers like flies in a honeypot and we got into this cycle of fighting," former army chief Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt told the Financial Times in July.

British troops also appear disappointed that, after losing so many of their comrades in this dusty hellhole, they're walking away before the fight is over. Royal Marine James Kelly told the BBC that he was sure the "Yanks" would defeat the Taliban, but added, "I do feel a little hollow that we didn't break this place, we didn't bring it to our way of thinking. I feel a little heartbroken that we didn't finish it."

But Sangin is far from the only disappointment facing NATO forces in Afghanistan. Many observers are also calling Saturday's parliamentary election -- a key test for the country's young and fragile democracy -- a failure, following reports of widespread voting fraud. The independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said in a preliminary report published today that its 7,000 observers had seen thousands of cases of ballot-stuffing, proxy voting, underage voting, the use of fake voter identification cards and repeat voting.

Election officials also noted that although 5,355 polling centers opened on Saturday, some 1,200 remained shut because of poor security. NATO has said that at least 22 people were killed in voting day violence.

President Hamid Karzai, however, hailed the poll as an unqualified success. "President Karzai congratulates the nation of Afghanistan on its successful parliamentary election," read a statement from his office. "This has been another positive step in strengthening democracy in our country."