Frustrated Paras, packed and ready to go

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The Independent Online

News of the United States marines arriving at an airfield near Kandahar yesterday morning dealt another blow to the 16 Air Assault Brigade at their headquarters in Colchester. They should have been doing that, and they would have done it better – especially when the going got rough. That was the general consensus.

News of the United States marines arriving at an airfield near Kandahar yesterday morning dealt another blow to the 16 Air Assault Brigade at their headquarters in Colchester. They should have been doing that, and they would have done it better – especially when the going got rough. That was the general consensus.

This may be jocular rivalry, but there was no hiding the increasing frustration at the lack of clear direction over the mission in Afghanistan, if and when it might take place.

At Colchester garrison, the trucks and Land Rovers are packed and lined up. The weapons and equipment are checked and double-checked every day, and the latest news on the fast-changing scene digested. The men have packed their Bergen backpacks. Many have bought additional kit to supplement army issue in the bitter Afghan winter.

The planners pore over maps of Afghanistan. They are no longer looking at just Bagram but other locations, including Kandahar.

But, in all this, the thing which has been missing for weeks is the order to go.

Geoff Hoon's announcement yesterday that the 16 Air Assault Brigade will be the only ones, out of an original force of 6,000 troops, to remain on the emergency 48-hour standby came as a fillip. The news that army and parachute troops will form the core of a force rather than the Navy and the Royal Marines was also received with great satisfaction. There was also, however, the nagging doubt that this will translate into anything tangible, and the fear the waiting will drag on.

The paratroopers, signallers and the support staff of 16 Air Assault are the light brigade of the British army and expected to move at very short notice, as elements did within 24 hours in Sierra Leone. But there is the awareness that Tony Blair's declaration in the Commons that a substantial British force would be sent to fight the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, as well as taking part in a humanitarian mission, has been followed by nothing apart from the deployment of a token force at Bagram airport, and contradictory statements from different Government departments. The troops try to remain stoical about the delay and their enthusiasm is undiminished, but prolonged uncertainty and the conflicting statements from politicians and the media are irritating.

Corporal Dan Smith, of 216 Air Assault Signal Squadron, who is 28 and has two young boys, said: "I know it is our job, but we are getting a bit cheesed off by this lack of knowing what is going on. I don't think many of us would like this to go on over Christmas.

"There was a tremendous buzz a few weekends ago when we were meant to be going into Bagram. Everyone worked very hard, and we got things ready by Friday afternoon. And then we were told the plans had changed and we have been waiting ever since," he said.

"I have packed and repacked my Bergen so many times that it has become a joke with my wife, Shelley. But it does affect the family. She gave up a job she was doing when we were meant to go that weekend, and that, of course, turned out to be pointless.''

Lance Corporal Peter Thorpe, 22, from Cumbria, said: " It would have been fantastic to parachute into Afghanistan, and hopefully there will be deployment. We are prepared for anything that is wanted of us. We don't mind getting involved in humanitarian work at all, because the army's job is pretty broad now. But we do want to be involved in something. Most of us have gone and bought some of our own gear because we have been told how cold it's going to be. We just want to go now."

Major Neil Fraser, of 216 squadron, said the intense daily preparation would continue and morale was still very high.

"Every single person wants to go and because we are prepared to move at short notice we are pretty confident of the ability to do so," he said. " People can be off for weekend leave or go on courses. There is no point in confining them to quarters. Everyone has a mobile phone nowadays and there is an informal network of getting messages across."

The walls of the Squadron Room show the history of the Air Assault Brigade in combat – in Arnhem, Suez, Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

"As you can see, we are always up for a scrap", said Captain Pete Flynn of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. "And, of course, we would love to have had a scrap somewhere like Kandahar. But we are ready for anything we have been trained for. It is up to UK Plc to decide exactly what it is we are going to be doing.

"In the meantime we shall just have to wait."

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