UK will send 1,500 troops to lead peace force in Kabul, says Blair

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Up to 1,500 British troops will lead an international peace-keeping force in Afghanistan to be dispatched within days, Tony Blair announced yesterday.

President George Bush promised Mr Blair in a 15-minute telephone call that the United States would provide air cover for the troops, expected to total between 3,000 and 5,000 servicemen.

But America appears to be lukewarm about the mission and is unlikely to play a direct part in it. The Tories stretched the all-party consensus during the war on terrorism to breaking point by opposing the involvement of British troops.

Warning that their lives could be at risk, the Tories said the peace-keepers might become a target for rebel pro-Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters while US and British forces were still performing "search-and-destroy" operations in Afghanistan.

Mr Blair has been frustrated by the delays in reaching agreement on the force, but he told the Commons that he hoped to have the "lead elements" of the security force in place before the country's interim new administration takes over on Saturday.

Mr Blair said he expected the force to stay in Afghanistan for several months and to comprise troops from EU and other countries. These might include Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Turkey.

The final details are likely to be announced tomorrow after a resolution backing the mission has been approved by the United Nations' Security Council. The advance guard may include 300 Royal Marines and hundreds of members of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The bulk of the British contingent will go in after Christmas.

Mr Blair will fine-tune his plans after Major General John McColl, who will lead the force, returns to London today aftertalks in Kabul with leaders of the Northern Alliance. The new administration's Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, has told the British-led military team that only 1,000 peace-keepers are needed to provide security for the regime. But some Western nations, including Germany, have argued for as many as 8,000 troops.

Hamed Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, held talks at Heathrow airport yesterday with senior Foreign Office officials during a brief stop-over as he travelled from the Middle East to Italy.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, said he had "deep misgivings" about Mr Blair's decision that Britain should send in peace-keepers when it was still hunting for Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. He warned that the peace-keepers could become a target of revenge attacks and "put in a situation they might be unable to control", and demanded a clear "exit strategy" for them.

But Mr Blair replied that the Americans had offered full logistical support, including air cover, and pledged that the force would be "properly protected at all times".

In an appeal for the backing of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said Britain was best-placed to give the leadership needed in Afghanistan. "It would be very unfortunate if we walked away from this situation," he said. That mistake was made 12 years ago and the result was a "failed state".

Mr Blair said that the peace-keeping force would play a crucial role in Afghanistan's transition phase after a "brilliant victory" over the ousted Taliban regime.

"That is a welcome liberation but we know that is only the start of enabling Afghanistan to cease being a failed state and become a responsible partner in the region," he said. He added: "The situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. The new political process remains in its infancy."

Downing Street dismissed speculation that the delays in making a final announcement had been caused by differences with the Ministry of Defence. Mr Blair's spokesman insisted that it was an illustration of the Government's desire to make the right decision.

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