Britain agrees to send 1,700 troops to fight in Afghanistan

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Britain will send a 1,700-strong battle group led by Royal Marines to Afghanistan to destroy remnants of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in the biggest deployment since the Gulf War.

The force is being sent at the request of American military chiefs and will be used for combat, acting separately from the British paratroops on peacekeeping duties with the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).

As well as operating against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, the Marines are expected to play an important role in attempting to track down their leadership including Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The force, with 45 Commando Group forming the lead, will be deployed at Bagram air base, 32 miles north-east of Kabul, with a small reconnaissance party arriving by the weekend. From there, they are expected to move to the focal points of Taliban and al-Qa'ida resistance in the north and east of the country, and in particular to the areas around Gardez, where the Americans and their Afghan allies are attacking, nearby Khost, and north of Jalalabad.

The operation, codenamed Jacana, was intended to last three months, with intense military action for about 30 days, senior defence sources said yesterday, indicating targets had already been selected.

General Tommy Franks, the American commander of the war, had specifically asked for the Royal Marines because of their winter warfare expertise. They will join about 5,000 American and more than 1,000 Canadian troops.

The US request for British help on such a large scale is seen as an admission that the ground war against a resilient enemy is proving frustrating. The American inclination to avoid confronting the Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters has seen high-profile operations in Tora Bora, and then Gardez, fail, with most of the enemy fighters slipping away. The initial decision by the Americans to take the lead in Gardez led to seven soldiers dying in action and a review of policy, with the Afghan forces once again acting as advance parties.

Announcing the deployment in the Commons yesterday, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, acknowledged the dangers faced by the British troops. He said: "The deployment of 45 Commando is not a decision that has been taken lightly. It is important that the House is under no illusions about what this might mean. These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take part in war-fighting operations. We will be asking them to risk their lives. They may suffer casualties. No Government ever makes such decisions without reaching the absolute conviction that something must be done. The appalling events of September 11 demonstrated very clearly that these al- Qa'ida and Taliban elements have the ability and desire to launch attacks right into the heart of nations like ours."

The request for help initially came from General Franks at Central Command at Tampa, Florida, two weeks ago. It was formally presented to the British Government, and approved at the end of last week

The operation will be led by Royal Marines Brigadier Roger Lane, under overall American command. About 250 members of the 45 Commando, including the headquarters company, are already in the region, on board the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, off the coast of Pakistan. The rest will come from their bases at Arbroath, Plymouth and Chivenor.

Most MPs backed the decision, but unease on the Labour back benches was highlighted when Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, described it as "mission creep on a massive scale".

Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary, offered the "unequivocal support" for the deployment and said it was the most important announce-ment by the Government since 11 September.