Britain is about to take on a new and much more dangerous role in Afghanistan – joining in the hunt for the hard core of al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies.
Until now all the British troops in the country, apart from a relative handful of special forces, have been based in and around Kabul, leading an international peacekeeping group. Their task is highly visible and often difficult, but no British peacekeepers have yet been lost, and the mission has a finite term: a Muslim country, Turkey, is expected to take over.
By contrast, the 1,700 British troops about to be deployed in the Afghan countryside, led by 400 Royal Marine commandos, do not know exactly what they will be doing or how long they will be staying. The Government has said that they will be under American command and can expect to face combat, but almost everything else about their mission is unclear. That includes its duration, which the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, has conceded is "open-ended".
To all intents and purposes the Marines will disappear into a fog of war; a fog which has thickened since the turn of the year. The stunning events of last autumn, when the Taliban were driven out of Kabul only two months after the 11 September terrorist attacks in America, and lost their last stronghold, Kandahar, before Christmas, have given way to a longer and harder campaign which is all but invisible.
Osama bin Laden and his principal al-Qa'ida lieutenants are still at large, as far as anyone knows. So is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader. Euphoric claims around Christmas that they would soon be brought to justice are now looking hollow, and as the Americans seek to do more of the fighting themselves, we learn less and less of what is going on. One thing seems certain: Downing Street is softening up public opinion with leaks about "discoveries" of biological weapons that are in fact misleading.
When the international coalition's proxy force, the Northern Alliance, was sweeping into Kabul, Western journalists were with them or even ahead. The press corps was there when Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners revolted at Qala-i-Jangi fortress in November, reporters and cameramen got to Kandahar almost as quickly as American forces.
Even during the battle three months ago at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, supposedly the last hideout of Mr bin Laden and his cohorts, journalists were able to get to the front line. Claims made by the Pentagon could be checked – and often contradicted – on the ground. At that time local Afghan warlords were doing the fighting, with the Americans providing advice and air support. But the bulk of the opposition got away, and Washington clearly decided that things would have to be done differently.
During the next attempt to round up al-Qa'ida's leadership, which began in the mountains south-west of Tora Bora just over three weeks ago, large numbers of US troops were committed for the first time in the conflict. This change of approach became public, however, only because of an immediate setback: eight American soldiers were killed in fighting, seven after a Chinook helicopter crashed under fire. The heaviest loss of US servicemen since the Somalia debacle of 1993 forced the Pentagon to admit that it had seriously underestimated the strength of the enemy, but the military immediately went into damage-limitation mode.
The deaths were held up as proof that the US public was willing to tolerate casualties in the war against terrorism. It was announced that ground operations would pause until more bombing had been carried out, and journalists were kept well away from the battle zone. "You cannot get near the Americans in Afghanistan, except when they decide to mount a PR exercise at Bagram [the main airbase near Kabul]," said a correspondent for a leading US paper. Some who tried came close to death – a British correspondent hauled from her vehicle and forced to lie face-down in the dust was told by Australian special forces fighting alongside the Americans: "They were tracking you from the moment you entered this area. They were ready to take you out."
What Afghan commanders said on the ground diverged ever further from what was being claimed in Washington. The Afghans said American forces were not so much "rotated out" of the battle as removed because they could not cope with the conditions, and that fear of further casualties was allowing many enemy fighters to slip away. In the US, however, military sources were claiming that hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters had been cornered and killed.
At Bagram last week, General Tommy Franks declared Operation Anaconda over and called it an "unqualified and absolute success". Such "upbeat assessments", The New York Times noted, "have left many questions. Reporters raising these questions have run into testy impatience from senior American officers, who have left no doubt that they share the indignant pride voiced by General Franks.
"Among the issues has been the discrepancy between the relatively few bodies found after the battle" – only a few dozen – "and American claims that as many as 800 enemy fighters were killed ... There are also questions about how many of the 1,000 or so fighters believed to have fought in the battle escaped to fight again."
All General Franks would say in response was that "We don't do body counts", and that he did not believe that many of the enemy had escaped. He added, however, that further operations would be needed against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, and that they could be as big as Operation Anaconda. This was on the same day the British deployment was announced, implying that Royal Marines could find themselves in the thick of the next attempt to bring the enemy to battle. Hints have been dropped that coalition forces believe they know Mullah Omar's whereabouts, and that he may be the Marines' target.
It is tempting for the British military to believe that it is being brought in to do a job the Americans are finding too tough, but Dan Plesch, a Royal United Services Institute analyst, believes US military rivalries may be playing a part. "US Marines have just completed a battalion-sized Arctic warfare exercise in Norway's mountains," he said, "but to deploy them might put the US Army's nose out of joint when it has just been badly chopped up in its first Afghan action."
Far from being a success, Operation Anaconda exposed many weaknesses, said Mr Plesch, adding: "These would have been examined a lot more closely if the pressure on Iraq had not suddenly been stepped up."
No such distraction will work, however, if there are British combat losses in Afghanistan. Not only is our increased participation bringing a half-forgotten conflict back into focus, it could quickly still any appetite for a military adventure against Iraq, even in Downing Street.Reuse content