Thousands of British troops – including paratroopers and commandos – were ordered on Wednesday to prepare for possible duty in Kabul and other newly captured cities of Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defense said it had placed "several thousand" soldiers – mostly based within Britain – on short notice for deployment as a "stabilizing force" in cities taken by the northern alliance in recent days.
The troops told to stand by include soldiers from 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, which includes some Gurkhas, 3 Commando Brigade, including the Royal Marines' elite mountain and winter troops, and 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has important aviation and parachute capabilities.
The ministry stressed that no decision has been made to send the troops into Afghanistan. However, the move allows Britain to quickly react to the rapidly changing situation in the country.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday that a United Nations presence was required in Afghanistan "as soon as possible" to begin forging a broadbased, stable coalition to replace the fleeing Taliban regime.
"There is a variety of troops available, depending on if and when a decision is made to put troops on the ground," a defense spokeswoman said on customary condition of anonymity.
The Defense Ministry said there were no plans to deploy forces for offensive operations against the Taliban. Instead, the troops would help police Kabul and MazireSharif while the United Nations shepherds a transition to a new Afghan government.
Two hundred Royal Marines already in the region are at a "high state of readiness" for duty within Afghanistan, the defense spokeswoman said.
The newly activated troops, including commando and air assault brigades, were ordered to be ready within 48 hours of a deployment notice. They were previously on a fiveday notice.
Other units included in the order were Royal Air Force transport aircraft, support helicopters, army engineers, explosive ordinance disposal teams and logistics specialists.
"By reducing the notice to move for such a large number, (defense officials) can basically cherry pick who they need ... depending on what role is required," the spokeswoman said.
An undisclosed number of British special forces are in Afghanistan, helping coordinate northern alliance troop movements.
Additionally, 4,200 military personnel – mostly naval and support units – are already on standby for duty. Of those, only the 200 marines were ready for action on the ground.