The first of 1,700 British troops who will fight alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan arrived in the early hours of this morning. The British armed forces minister visited their base and explained why Britain is willing to risk the lives of its soldiers in Afghanistan.
Bagram, Afghanistan; 3 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the early hours of this morning, two Hercules military transport planes flew into the Bagram air base, about 30 kilometers north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Bagram is the headquarters of the American-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The passengers were 120 troops from the 45th commando unit of the Royal Marines. They are the first of an eventual deployment of 1,700 elite troops that Britain is sending at the request of the U.S.
A spokesman for the marines, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Haradine, said the men who arrived have been aboard a British naval vessel in the Arabian Sea since February. They disembarked at the Pakistani port of Karachi and flew to Bagram. Around 200 more will fly from Karachi and the remainder of the unit -- around 1,200 men -- will fly from their home base in the Scottish town of Arbroath.
All should arrive at Bagram within the next few days.
Haradine said the troops will need several days to acclimatize to the altitude at Bagram, which is around 2,000 meters above sea level. He said it is possible they will be fighting in some of Afghanistan's mountain ranges at altitudes of 4,000 meters. They will also carry out further preparations for about 10 days before they go into combat.
"Clearly they need time to sort out weapons, do some shooting, some physical training, they need intelligence briefings. All of that needs to go on before we can declare the force operational in mid-April."
He said the British troops, led by Brigadier Roger Lane, will be under the overall command of U.S. General Tommy Franks. But he said that all operations will be jointly planned. Haradine explained why the Americans had particularly asked for the Royal Marines.
"The Americans specifically asked, in their request for forces, for Royal Marine commandos. They are absolutely suited to this mission because, firstly, they are commandos -- they do the longest infantry training in the world, 30 weeks. Thereafter in their commando units, such as 45, they will specialize in mountain and extreme cold-weather warfare. This year, for example, [unit] 45 spent almost a month doing mountain training in the cold, wet mountains of Scotland. Historically, they have spent many winters in Norway in the January-February-March period in the Arctic Circle. So they're well accustomed to extreme cold weather and they have the right equipment to deal with it. And we are the right troops for the terrain."
Today the troops were settling into their new home at the sprawling Bagram air base, which was the largest Soviet base during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Much of the area is still infested with mines planted over two decades, not only by Soviet forces but by the numerous Afghan factions which, at different times, held the base during the prolonged civil war that followed the Soviet occupation. In fact, American and British mine experts say Bagram is the most heavily mined area in the world.
The area where the British troops have pitched their tents has been cleared of mines, but on their first day in their new home the British troops were being shown the safe areas on the base and were being given instructions on how to deal with mines if they found themselves in an unsafe area.
The British minister for the armed forces, Adam Ingram, who is in Afghanistan with members of the British Parliament for talks with the Afghan government, visited Bagram today. He explained he wanted to see for himself the conditions there.
"I've taken the opportunity to come up here just to see our people here, to get an appreciation of the circumstances in which they are being deployed and to talk to them about what we expect of them and to say thanks to them for what undoubtedly is a very difficult task they are likely to be engaged in."
Ingram said he told the British troops about the importance of their mission.
"This is a very big task we've asked them to undertake. I've said to them that they will make a difference -- and not just a difference in this country, [but in] the way this will play out beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan, worldwide. And by tackling, and hopefully resolving, the problem in-country here it can have a major resonance elsewhere. It shows that the international community and Britain are determined to tackle international terrorism wherever it manifests itself."
He said he believes the majority of British people support the deployment of their troops to Afghanistan.
"British people well understand what happened on 11 September, British people were killed in that tragic event and I have no question at all that they take great pride in what our troops are asked to do and I think they do well understand that it's taking a tremendous risk. But it's not, of course, just the British people, it's the troops themselves and their families, which I would have immediate concern for. We're asking a lot of them and I'm sure they'll deliver to the highest level."
The deployment was delayed by nearly two weeks because of difficulties with disembarking the marines at the Pakistani port of Karachi, which has experienced terrorist attacks by Islamic militants, and because of the need to clear mines at Bagram.
The American soldiers at Bagram said they were happy the British had finally arrived and were looking forward to going into combat with them. U.S. Captain Tony Rivers said American soldiers knew of the British marines' reputation for tough fighting in rugged conditions.
"Well, as you know, Britain has long been one of our closest allies in the coalition and they bring to the table a myriad of equipment and training well-suited for this terrain, suited for this mission. We think they'll really be able to help us as we continue forward from this point with their professionalism and as an integral part of the coalition forces here."
Nobody is saying officially where the British troops will be deployed. But both the American and British military say they want to deal with Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters operating in eastern Afghanistan.