Senior Labour MPs lined up last night to warn the Government that 1,700 British troops being sent to Afghanistan risked getting "bogged down" in a new civil war that could last for years.
Tony Blair defended the deployment of Royal Marine Commandos to the country by insisting there was no "mismatch" between their combat role and the peace-keeping of fellow troops in Kabul.
Challenged by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, at Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Blair said it was important to remember that the two deployments were in very different areas. A peace protester was ejected from the public gallery after he shouted that Mr Blair should be on trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
However, the Prime Minister's stance was also heavily criticised when several backbenchers, including former defence ministers, said that British troops were being sent into a war zone with no clear idea of their length of stay or the scale of the enemy forces.
Opening the emergency debate, Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary, warned that the new combat operation to hunt down the last al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces desper- ately needed an "exit strategy".
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said: "I am not prepared to put a precise date on when we will bring these troops back home. This decision will be taken in the light of the circumstances on the ground and in the light of the tasks these troops may undertake. Our exit strategy is that we will leave when the task is completed."
The suggestion that the deployment was being made because British public opinion was more ready to accept casualties than America "deserves the contempt I know it has already received". He also attacked claims that the decision had been taken after a US request "at the very end of last week" because Operation Anaconda had failed or because US forces were exhausted.
Ronnie Campbell, Labour MP for Blyth Valley, said British troops faced the same "bloody nose" suffered by the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said: "Are we not in danger of involving ourselves in a very long-term and very serious civil war?"
Using the example of the Vietnam war, the former armed forces minister Doug Henderson, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, warned of the dangers of losing local support. "It would be bad enough to get caught in a civil war, it would absolutely tragic to get caught in an imperial war," he said.
Mr Hoon admitted that he did not know how many enemy troops the Royal Marines would face, though it could range from hundreds to thousands. "We are not talking about a pitched battle. We are not talking about tens of thousands of al-Qa'ida lining up to fight the Royal Marines. We are talking about a series of small pockets of resistance. In the remoter parts of Afghanistan it is almost impossible to say precisely how many of those small pockets there might be," he said.
Peter Kilfoyle, another former defence minister, asked Mr Hoon if the operation could be compared with "search and destroy" missions in the early stages of the Vietnam war. Mr Hoon replied: "Not in the least very different terrain, very different circumstances and a very different history."
In his first Commons appearance since he failed to become Tory leader, Michael Portillo, a former defence secretary, pledged his "full support" for the military action.Reuse content