America determined to call the shots over deployment of ground troops

War on Terrorism: Strategy
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The Independent Online

The conduct of the war in Afghanistan is still very much a show made in America, as Britain's convoluted attempts to deploy a large force in the country show.

Downing Street is putting on a brave face, but there is little doubt that a significant contingent of the 6,000 troops on stand-by will only go to Afghanistan when the United States says so.

Marching his troops up the hill and then marching them down again may be embarrassing for Tony Blair, but there is also irritation on the American side at what is happening. It was, after all, American air power that broke the Taliban so quickly and many US officials cannot understand why Britain should take the glory of having the first and largest force on the ground. The New York Times reported that a State Department spokesman, asked if Washington believed that thousands of British forces were needed to stabilise the situation in northern Afghanistan, would only say: "We appreciate the important role contributed by the armed forces of the United Kingdom in the campaign against terrorism."

The criticism of American policy by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, may be the first public crack in the so-called global coalition.

Ms Short said that America did not appear to share in the growing international consensus that action was needed to alleviate poverty if a repeat of the 11 September attack was to be avoided.

There is also annoyance in London that Washington has not beenappreciative in public of the contribution made by Britain in the air campaign, even though America asked for British help.

After the 11 September attack, Tony Blair in effect told the Americans that they could choose whatever they wanted from the British military machine. They allocated British forces a support role, but the British help was still vital when it came to sustaining the prolonged air raids.

Royal Air Force Awacs (airborne warning and control system) aircraft are controlling one-third of all the raids and refuelling one-fifth of all American air activity.

The mid-air refuelling by the British is crucial for US Navy warplanes because their system for fuel intake is more compatible with the RAF than it is with the US Air Force.

There is also the role of the British special forces inside Afghanistan. The Americans admire their expertise and acknowledge the significant part they played in the undercover war. The strength of the British performance contrasts to that of their own forces, whose first, and last, ground attack before the fall of Kabul ended in near disaster.

But, by definition, the special forces' undercover role could not be publicised – hence Downing Street's desire to have the overt presence of a large-scale British force doing good work in Afghanistan.

The Americans are unlikely to want to prolong the embarrassment of Mr Blair, their staunchest ally, and permission is likely to be granted for deployment, though it may come later rather than sooner.

But the lesson, say Whitehall sources, is that European partners must fully consult Washington before announcing grand plans for Afghanistan.