The planned deployment of 1,700 British combat troops into Afghanistan in the coming days marks a significant expansion of Britain's military role in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on a mission that goes well beyond the mandate of the British-led International Security Assistance Force currently in Kabul.
Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says 1,700 British combat troops will start arriving at the Bagram air base north of Kabul in the next few days as part of an expanded role for the United Kingdom in Afghanistan.
Hoon made the surprise announcement yesterday in London during a speech to the British parliament.
"The United States has now formally requested that the United Kingdom provide forces to join in future military operations against other remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan. I have, therefore, authorized the deployment to Afghanistan of a full United Kingdom infantry battle group built around 45 Commando Royal Marines. This group will join a U.S.-led brigade forming a potent force ready to undertake such operations."
Unlike the 1,800 British troops already serving in Afghanistan as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the new arrivals will not be restricted to Kabul.
They also will operate under entirely different rules of engagement than the ISAF troops, who are tasked with providing security assistance for Afghanistan's interim administration but are not allowed to serve as a combat force unless requested to do so by Kabul.
The British deployments come just as the United States has announced the conclusion of Operation Anaconda -- a nearly three-week-old battle that has been the largest ground mission for coalition forces so far against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
The U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Major General Frank Hagenbeck, announced the completion of Operation Anaconda today from the Bagram air base.
"The world is a safer place than it was on the 2nd of March when we inserted several thousand coalition forces, including soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, who put their lives on the line to confront Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. Hundreds of terrorists died. Unfortunately, 11 of our coalition warriors and heroes also died."
Hagenbeck also noted that the new British deployments will not be the first special forces from the United Kingdom to work in Afghanistan with U.S. combat troops.
"The British forces that are coming in will be an increase in the numbers that we've used before, but we've been using some special forces' personnel with the British already. We're just working in conjunction with them."
Ian Kemp, news editor at the London-based journal "Jane's Defence Weekly," told RFE/RL today it is no accident that the fresh British troops are being sent into Afghanistan just as U.S. special forces are pulling out of their battle in southeastern Paktia province.
"The United States Army and the U.S. Special Operations Command would be looking to establish some sort of rotation or some sort of burden-sharing with its allies. In [Operation] Anaconda, the suggestion is that there's been up to 300 Special Forces involved from other NATO allies. And the sort of personnel that are moving in now -- the Canadian battalion group which has been in action for the past week or so, [and] the Royal Marines who are moving in now -- are very high-quality infantry. And that's exactly the sort of thing that the United States would be seeking for [future] mopping-up operations."
In fact, Operation Anaconda relied heavily on more than 1,000 Afghan fighters from rival ethnic groups -- ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panshiri Valley and Pashtuns from Paktia province.
The introduction of so many Panshiri fighters into a mostly Pashtun region has contributed to growing tensions in Afghanistan between the rival ethnic groups.
Unlike the use of Afghan troops, a stronger reliance on soldiers from other NATO countries in future operations could help prevent U.S.-led military operations from contributing to domestic political tensions in Afghanistan.
The Afghan fighters who participated in Operation Anaconda had also received decidedly hurried training from U.S. troops, which lasted only about a month. Kemp says the use of additional NATO forces would allow future coalition operations to be coordinated more smoothly.
"The Canadian forces and the Royal Marines are forces which could integrate almost seamlessly with the United States. There would be no command-and-control problems. They are used to 50 years of working together in NATO operations, working together in operations outside of the NATO context such as the Gulf War. And of course, there is the commonality of language and operating procedures."
Kemp said he does not consider the deployment of British combat troops to mark a major policy shift for London. Rather, he said London is merely making good on its earlier promises to Washington. He notes that the British government has always viewed a combat role and the ISAF mission as two entirely separate matters.
"As for the war-fighting commitment, I think it has been clear since the beginning of the campaign that the U.K. was prepared to provide whatever ground troops the United States requested. Initially, of course, those were only Special Forces -- the special air service regiment and the special boat service. There have been [Royal] Marines poised off the coast -- shipboard -- almost since the start of this operation and now they are being called forward, particularly because the Royal Marines have expertise in mountain warfare."
Kemp also says that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's refusal so far to expand the British ISAF contingency in Kabul does not reflect a lack of commitment to fighting terrorism.
"The U.K. has made it clear from the beginning that they saw their involvement in the [ISAF] effort to be more limited -- a major role, but a role that was going to be restricted. Ideally, [Britain's leadership of ISAF] was going to be just for three months. But there has been a problem in identifying which nation is going to succeed the UK in command. So it's clear that the peacekeeping commitment is more likely to run on to five or six months."
Remarks from U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday in Washington indicate that he also is expecting the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan to last longer than initially announced. "I feel like we've got a lot more fighting to do in Afghanistan. First of all, we were successful in Operation Anaconda. [But] there are more Al-Qaeda killers in Afghanistan and perhaps in Pakistan [who are] willing to come back into Afghanistan."
In a suggestion that there are battles yet to come, Bush said that U.S.-led combat forces in Afghanistan will keep up relentless pressure on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban until they are eliminated.