Allies rush to send in troops and establish bridgehead

War on terrorism: Strategy
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The Independent Online

The American and British governments were scrambling to get troops, arms and aid into Afghanistan after being caught by surprise at the success of their own tactics.

The extraordinary advance of the Northern Alliance and the spectacular collapse of the Taliban has taken place with less than 150 US and British troops on the ground – a number totally inadequate to have any immediate effect on the unfurling situation. The Prime Minister met the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, and senior military commanders yesterday to discuss their options. A similar strategic meeting was held in the Pentagon.

Bagram airbase, in the north-east of Afghanistan, is expected to become the first bridgehead for the Allies as they try to build up a force. A six-man team of American special forces, in civilian clothes and carrying M-16 assault rifles, arrived there yesterday to carry out reconnaissance.

The base, built by the Russians during their intervention in Afghanistan, is seen as ideal for almost immediate use because it is an all-weather airfield, and has remained relatively undamaged during the long civil war. C130 Hercules and C141 Starlifter transport aircraft can land there with military supplies and troops.

The Allies have earmarked several other air bases for use when they become available, including one at Mazar-i-Sharif, one at Lashkar Gah and another at Kandahar in the south, and two at Shindand and Herat in the west.

All have advantages as well as problems. The southern airfields would be strategically useful, but they need to be repaired and there is still apprehension about fighting breaking out in the Pashtun heartland of the Taliban. The western ones also need repairs and they lie in the area controlled by the Shia Muslim commander Ishmael Khan, who is heavily backed by Iran. Iranian advisers are believed to be with his forces.

The immediate US deployment is likely to be from the 2,000 mountain warfare troops across the border in Uzbekistan. Britain has 238 Royal Marines from the 3 Commando Brigade on board the assault ship HMS Fearless just off Oman and another 400 in training. They can augmented by paratroopers and Gurkhas.

All this can be done relatively quickly as the troops will no longer have to make a fighting entry, and can undertake training for future operations on the ground in Afghanistan.

Discussions under way in Brussels aim to put Nato forces in charge of the humanitarian efforts. The Alliance's secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, is believed to bein favour of the plan, and hardly any voices have been raised against it, according to diplomatic and defence sources.

One proposal is for Nato aircraft to carry food, medicine and provisions for shelter to a country next to Afghanistan and then for Nato troops to escort them into comparatively safe areas.