Former defence ministers warn of 'another Vietnam'

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The British military commitment in the Afghan war is "open-ended", the Government said yesterday, as two former Labour defence ministers warned of the danger of being sucked into "another Vietnam".

Senior British military officers had said Britain's biggest deployment since the Gulf War was not expected to last for more than three months. But yesterday Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, declared there was no time limit.

In an atmosphere of growing concern and confusion the Speaker agreed to an Opposition request for an emergency debate on the sending of the 1,700-strong expeditionary force led by Royal Marines.

Brigadier Roger Lane, who will command the British force, acknowledged yesterday that his men would take casualties in the coming campaign. Military analysts say there are far more "remnant" Taliban and al-Qa'ida forces left undefeated than the official Pentagon estimate of 2,000, and the figure could be as high as 20,000.

Labour backbench concern about "mission creep" was underlined by Peter Kilfoyle, who urged Tony Blair not to bow to American pressure.

The former defence minister said: "The precedent for the situation we find ourselves in is Vietnam – and Harold Wilson, under great American pressure, kept us out.

"The unanswered questions in this are the chain of command, the exit strategy and intelligence, which has been remarkably poor so far. It is a very murky, messy picture we are putting troops into."

Another former Labour minister, Doug Henderson, told The Independent he had "serious reservations" about British troops acting as peacekeepers in one part of Afghanistan, while other British troops launched search-and-destroy operations in another.

"There's a real danger, if it's not a quick and tightly targeted operation, that you can get a situation where forces become bogged down.

"If they get into trouble, then you may need reinforcements, the reinforcements need more logistics, and, before you know, you have thousands of troops on the ground. That's exactly what happened in Vietnam."

Mr Hoon said the mission was "open-ended to the extent that we have a job to do to deal with the remaining elements of al-Qa'ida and Taliban ... I don't believe it is sensible for anyone to say today what will be the position in a month or three months' time."

He insisted, however, "that does not mean we will be there indefinitely".

Defence analysts warned that the Taliban and al-Qa'ida had survived American air attacks and ground offensives in large numbers. Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said: "The 10,000 figure is likely to be on the low side – it could even be double that. They are not all fanatical Taliban, but a good number of them will come out to fight.

"It is possible that as the weather gets better, the number will get much, much larger and it could happen very quickly."

The American military denied allegations from some of their Afghan allies that the enemy "body count" has been inflated to mask the failure of the ground offensive at Gardez.

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