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
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
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
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
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
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
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