BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

Film: Afghanistan film. David Grossman looks at what Britain is letting itself in for by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan.

DAVID GROSSMAN: The training is over, this is no longer an exercise. Seventeen-hundred Royal Marines are about to put themselves in harms way, in what is Britain's most hazardous military operation since the Gulf war. They're going to join American troops fighting in the Afghan mountains. As the Royal Marines prepare to leave for Afghanistan there are real concerns about what it is they may getting themselves into. There are fears that their role - searching the hills and caves for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters could become an open-ended mission that could drag on for years - that what starts off as 'mopping up' could easily get bogged down. And there are also fears that this aggressive deployment could compromise the safety of British Peacekeepers who elsewhere in Afghanistan are working hard to try to make friends. This is all very different to the picture we had before Christmas, when it seemed the war was all but over and won. TONY BLAIR: It is clear that support for the Taliban is evaporating. Though there may be pockets of resistance, the idea that this has been some kind of tactical retreat is just the latest Taliban lie. They are in total collapse. MENZIES CAMPBELL MP: I think governments here and in Washington got carried away by the early military success of the Northern Alliance and as a consequence of that, some rather optimistic predictions were made to the effect that all that was left was some kind of 'mopping up' operation. Well, subsequent events have demonstrated that that judgement was wrong. GROSSMAN: American units have been fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the mountains to the south of Kabul since the beginning of March. This is the kind of work the Royal Marines will take on once they arrive. It is difficult and it's dangerous. SIR TIM GARDEN: The Defence Secretary has made it clear that the troops are going into a hostile environment in which we must be prepared for casualties, but on the other hand these are small engagements against pockets of resistance and I don't think it's going to be casualties in the sense of big wars where two armies meet each other, but we must expect that there will be unfortunate accidents where somebody gets lucky with a shot and the Americans have already suffered this. GROSSMAN: At present there are eighteen-hundred British Troops in Afghanistan but doing a very different job, they're leading the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul that's there to support the new civilian government. Britain had hoped to have handed over responsibility for peacekeeping, but there doesn't seem to be any prospect of that happening soon. The US State Department estimates it would need twenty-five thousand troops to stabilise whole country. At the moment there are just five-thousand international troops supporting the interim government of which eighteen-hundred are British. But plans to train Afghans to do the job are falling behind. According to a US military assessment only four-thousand will have been trained by September this year and only twelve-thousand by the following September. GARDEN: We said that when we put in our Headquarters Force and the soldiers to do the peace keeping that we would take the lead initially, set it up because we've got lots of expertise in that and we would do it for three months and then hand over to another nation. I would be surprised if all the British forces in the peace keeping side were withdrawn then, because their expertise really is very important to ensure that the Kabul government can continue to operate. GROSSMAN: But of course the Royal Marines aren't going to Afghanistan as peacekeepers, they're going to fight. But some fear that introducing them in the same uniform and under the same flag as the peacekeepers could create confusion in the minds of the Afghan population as to what it is those friendly looking patrols on the streets of Kabul are there to do. Some military analysts believe the dangers of this duel role are all too obvious. CAMPBELL: The risk is that in the eye of people in Afghanistan, this will seem to be part of the same operation, and so when a policeman is supported by a member of the British forces in Kabul, assumptions may be made that the British forces are there for some aggressive purpose. GARDEN: The Afghan people may get a bit confused as to what the British role is. Is it a, a combat role or is it a peace support role? And that's why there are concerns just to make sure that the peace keepers don't become an easy target for the guerilla fighters to come and attack and there's undoubtedly likely to be more danger to them as a result of taking part of both operations. GROSSMAN: Not only does the introduction of fighting troops cause concern about how the peacekeepers are going to be treated by their Afghan hosts, it also raises serious questions about what military planners call the exit strategy - in simple terms - how you know it's time to come home. Because if the military objective becomes to rid Afghanistan of every single last Taliban and al-Qaeda fighter it becomes, it's argues, almost impossible ever to say that objective has been realised. PROFESSOR TONY MASON: It's going to be very, very difficult to decide when you've won because the actual fighters can melt away and remain quiet for a long time, and then when they think conditions are right, they can strike again. PROFESSOR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You're not going to be able just to walk away from it. And Blair has said we're not going to walk away from it, Bush has said we're not going to walk away from it, and that means you've got to accept that one way or the other, there's going to be military presence in Afghanistan for some time to come. GROSSMAN: This leads to fears of an endless escalating conflict and for America's top military that's a nightmare with a name - Vietnam. Then what started as small-scale support for the South Vietnamese ended in a humiliating American retreat . During a dozen dreadful years, fifty-eight thousand American troops were killed. The fear of stumbling into such carnage again has terrified US presidents ever since. MASON: There is a parallel here with Vietnam in that the current operating region, the Pashtu region, there are undoubtedly tribal sympathies between the local inhabitants and the fighters. That was exactly the same in Vietnam. The big difference of course is that in addition to local sympathy, the Vietcong had a secure sanctuary in North Vietnam and secure supply lines. Peasant support would allow them survive, to survive and evade. It was the constant reinforcement and re-supply which allowed them to keep on fighting. So here in Afghanistan. Yes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda can evade, but sooner or later they will run out of resources. GROSSMAN: And without an enemy that can re-supply itself it's argued, the American experience in Afghanistan, and for the British forces supporting them will be quite unlike the slaughter of Vietnam. FREEDMAN: They'd get stuck in Afghanistan, I'm sure of that. But I don't think they're going to get stuck in such a way as they're bleeding men in the way that they did in Vietnam. It's just a long-term frustrating operation that isn't the sort of thing that appeals to military men who like decisive victories and then going home. GROSSMAN: British troops are already stretched, some would say over-stretched. We've got soldiers in the Balkans, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Sierra Leone the Falklands, Cyprus, Brunei and Belize. Of the army's strength of just over one-hundred-and-one thousand, twenty-thousand are already overseas and another ten-thousand are either about to go or just returned. And that doesn't include the twelve-and-a-half-thousand troops on active service in Northern Ireland. But it's in the specialists that the pinch is really being felt. For example, of our four-thousand elite spearhead forces, that's the Marines and the Para's, practically all are committed to operations. GARDEN: I think the major worry is that this is yet another commitment and we're also still in the process of trying to solve the Balkans and we're not yet out of Northern Ireland, and as always, these things are about priorities and if Afghanistan becomes the major priority for a long time, then all the good work that we've done in the Balkans might start to unravel. CAMPBELL: Words like over-stretch are tossed about in this argument but the truth is that we are engaged in quite a lot of places, doing quite difficult and dangerous jobs and part of the problem is, not so much that we lack infantry, but that we lack specialists, specialists like signallers, people of that kind and there's no doubt that within the armed forces themselves, at the very highest level, there is an anxiety that an operation like this, a theatre of activity like Afghanistan, does have within it, the capacity to drain away a very substantial amount of the United Kingdom's resources. GROSSMAN: With melting snow, Spring is the traditional time for war in Afghanistan. For both British fighters and peacekeepers it will undoubtedly be a tense time. The question no one can yet answer is for how many more Springs our soldiers will have to stay.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.