War in the caves 'days away' for British troops

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The Independent Online

The mountains of Gardez rose on either side, glowing green through the night sight, as the RAF Chinook banked low, 50 feet from the valley floor, in an attempt to avoid surface-to-air missiles. The gunner at the open tailgate leant over his GPMG machine-gun to peer down. The marines on board checked their SA-80 rifles.

This, one of the most hostile landscapes in the world, is where the latest battles of the Afghan war are being fought out. The deep caves and man-made bunkers hewn from the rocks are strongholds from which the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are still defying the might of the United States.

The Chinook's flight on Wednesday night was to train the pilots, one of them a woman, for missions to deploy Royal Marines to take on those targets. The tempo at Bagram airbase, headquarters for US and British military operations, is quickening by the day, and expectation is widespread that operations will begin next week.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, is due to arrive in Afghanistan today, on what has been described as a visit on the eve of the final phase of this war. He will meet the interim Afghan Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai, and the warlord Ismail Khan, who controls western Afghanistan and is seen by the Americans as dangerously reliant on Iran. Then Mr Rumsfeld moves on to Islamabad to meet General Pervez Musharraf, after news broke that US-led special forces were engaged in a "secret war" inside Pakistan.

The revelation has come at a difficult time for the Pakistani leader, who is seeking a five-year extension to the power he obtained in a coup against an elected government. General Musharraf'ssupport for the West's Afghan war has become the focal point for the opposition in a referendum on his rule due to be held on Tuesday.

According to military sources, Mr Rumsfeld will tell General Musharraf that the allies want to continue hunting guerrillas who have taken refuge across Afghanistan's border with his country.

British involvement will remain limited, because the Government is less willing than Washington to see such pressure put on General Musharraf, according to diplomatic sources. The Royal Marines will, however, be in action in the north-east and south-east of Afghanistan, and the Chinook flights will soon be in earnest.

Two Chinooks from 27 Squadron took part in Wednesday's exercise, as is normal during operations, in case one gets shot down. After a brief stop at Kabul airport, where a patrol of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was attacked recently, they swept around through Paktia and Paktika provinces.

There are five Chinooks at Bagram. Each will carry up to 30 marines into the combat zone. The helicopters will fly fast and low, to give enemy forces less time to launch missile attacks, although this does make them vulnerable to small arms fire.

Around 200 Chinooks were shot down during the Vietnam War. Those in Afghanistan now are of the same design used then, although the engine and instrumentation have been updated.