Allies seek to play role of hidden persuaders in the new Great Game

War on Terrorism: Deployment
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The Independent Online

The western powers are carving up Afghanistan among themselves in a desperate effort to keep the country united and prevent tribal enmities exploding into a new war.

The new "Great Game" is on; its aim to organise a government of national unity while keeping evidence of foreign influence to a minimum.

A remarkably large number of countries has either offered or been cajoled by the US into offering forces for Afghanistan. Originally, they were meant to be deployed against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network but now their role is to safeguard the fragile post-Taliban peace.

Under plans for the deployment, worked out by American, British and French strategists at Operation Enduring Freedom headquarters in Florida, Afghanistan will be divided between the three countries into "zones of influence".

Kabul and the surrounding areas will see a strong international Muslim presence, with Turkish troops making up the largest policing contingent and contributions coming from Jordan and Bangladesh.

Britain, with 4,000 troops on standby, is expected to base its contingent in the the north and east, using the Russian-built Bagram air base, secured by the Special Boat Service on Thursday, as a bridgehead. The troops are to be joined there by a 600-strong battalion from a country yet to be decided.

They will not only have a policing role between various Northern Alliance factions, but will also guard against possible guerrilla attacks by the remnant of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in the northern hills and across the Pakistani border.

There is also likely to be a British presence in Kabul, where the coalition is anxious to see UN and other international bodies establish a presence. However, this is likely to be small in number.

The British forces will play an important humanitarian role, ensuring the Bagram air base is effectively used as the entry point of aid and then providing transport and protection for the distribution of that aid.

However, the composition of the force, 45 Commando, Royal Marines; the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and special forces means there is plenty of combat firepower. This will undoubtedly be needed if the force gets enmeshed in interfactional conflict and faces raids by the Taliban, which have taken to the hills.

Further north, French marines are to secure Mazar-i-Sharif's airfield, also built by the Russians. The initial party of 58 will rise to about 300 with reinforcements, believed to units of the Foreign Legion, flying in. The French will be the lead element in a European force including Germans and Italians, who will concentrate on providing humanitarian aid using Mazar as a base.

The decision to let the European Nato states concentrate on the aid effort was taken unanimously at Nato headquarters in Brussels last week. The feeling was that this will help to mitigate public hostility to the military campaign in continental Europe.

There is, however, always the possibility of conflict with the continental force policing a region where there has been increasing tension between Tajik and Hazara fighters. There is also the problem of Uighur tribesmen who have ethnic and political links with separatists in western China, resulting in regular cross-border raids.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, stated on Thursday that it is "highly unlikely" that American troops will join a peace-keeping force. The statement led to scepticism this side of the Atlantic over the American enthusiasm for a land war. Yesterday, Mr Rumsfeld was keen to point out that US special forces have taken part in engagements against Taliban and al-Qa'ida troops.

According to defence sources, the Americans are now willing to have a presence on the ground, with the south-west seen as their designated area. The region around Kandahar is a Pashtun stronghold and, until now, the US has failed to raise a significant rebellion against the Taliban there; Mullah Omar is still believed to be holding out there. Reports last night suggesting that the Taliban were poised to hand Kandahar over to Pashtun warlords will probably reinforce the American decision to concentrate on the southwest.

Mullah Omar's capture or killing by American forces would be seen as a massive public relations victory. There is also the possibility that Mr bin Laden, if not already in Pakistan, may be around the border in Paktia province to the south-east; this, of course, is the scalp Washington would like most.

The hunt for Mullah Omar, Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida leaders will involve not just the US, but a number of other special forces. Members of the British SAS and SBS are already in the region and they are likely to be joined by a Special Patrols Troop of the Royal Marines. A unit of 150 Australian SAS is also due to join in the hunt. The troops are part of a deployment of 1,550 and other Australian units are expected to be stationed in the area.

Washington has attempted to organise a predominantly Muslim peace-keeping force for Afghanistan, including Pakistanis. This has failed because of the virulent hatred of the Pakistanis by the Northern Alliance and other Afghan factions because of their past backing and nurturing of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Some other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, have balked because of fears their troops might return from Afghanistan contaminated by fundamentalism.

Turkey, a Nato member, emerged as the natural choice for taking the lead role in the more limited Muslim force. Ankara has already sent 90 special forces advisers to the Northern Alliance before their rapid advance south and now up to 3,000 personnel are on standby.

The Turkish troops are experienced at fighting guerrilla wars through the Kurdish campaign. They also share the same Turkic heritage as the Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance who they had backed, behind the scenes, against the Taliban. There lies the problem. Apart from Turkey, other regional powers – Russia, India and Iran – have backed the Alliance against the Taliban and Pakistan for years. Now, with their protégés in the ascendancy, they are unlikely to let the West call all the shots.

Yesterday, a high-powered Russian delegation was heading to Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance to "forge working contacts" with the country's legitimate government. In the West, the Shia Muslim commander, Ismail Khan, has strong backing from Shia Iran and has Iranian officials around him. They will not take kindly to US interference. The latest "Great Game" in Afghanistan has only just begun.