The nature of this mission to Macedonia is not only military, but moral

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The dispatch of more British troops to the Balkans, which began yesterday in the form of a 400-strong advance guard for Nato's Macedonia operation, has inevitably aroused misgivings. There is concern that the troops will become bogged down and forced to remain in the country longer than the planned 30 days. There is the additional worry that Britain is being asked to take, and is accepting, the lion's share of yet another mission that is fraught with risk.

The dispatch of more British troops to the Balkans, which began yesterday in the form of a 400-strong advance guard for Nato's Macedonia operation, has inevitably aroused misgivings. There is concern that the troops will become bogged down and forced to remain in the country longer than the planned 30 days. There is the additional worry that Britain is being asked to take, and is accepting, the lion's share of yet another mission that is fraught with risk.

Both concerns are justified. But they should not be allowed to cloud the justification for operation Essential Harvest, or for Britain's part in it. Having helped to bring peace, however uneasy, first to Bosnia and then to Kosovo, it would be irresponsible for Nato not to go the final mile if it has a chance of pre-empting civil war in another remnant of former Yugoslavia. The nature of the mission is not only military, but moral.

It is also right that Britain should take a leading role. British troops have earned wide respect in their previous and continuing Balkan missions. They have shown themselves better trained and more adept than their American and European comrades to operate in the delicate circumstances of civil strife. Their experience in Northern Ireland has in this one respect been a boon. They, and their mission, also enjoy a greater measure of public support at home than their French or German counterparts might. Qualms about casualties also constrain American participation in such operations, now compounded by the Bush administration's hesitancy about foreign engagement.

For the time being, it can only be hoped that the British Government's confidence in the feasibility of the mission and the rules of engagement is well-founded. Initial signs have been good: the ceasefire agreed on Monday has been progressively holding, and both the Macedonian government and the ethnic Albanian insurgents are showing themselves willing to keep their side of the bargain. The strength of the dissident Albanian forces is as yet hard to gauge.

The real test is the willingness of the insurgents to disarm. The success of operation Essential Harvest – indeed, a Nato decision about whether it should proceed to completion at all – depends on this, and the next few days will be crucial.

Given that the British Government has long been the most fervent advocate of intervention in the Balkans, and that our armed forces have performed so expertly in the region, this is a good moment to consider how the British military role could be refined and the long-term effectiveness of our forces improved. While the calibre or our troops and the quality of their training is acknowledged to be second to none, the standard of their equipment, especially high-tech equipment, is woefully inadequate.

The European members of Nato, with Britain in the vanguard, have stated their intention of reducing their dependence on the US for troop transport and high-tech reconnaissance. But it is high time for Europe to act on these intentions, by increasing the resources earmarked for research and development, and providing our forces with the equipment they need to patrol difficult and at times hostile territory in safety.

If, as it appears, policing and pre-empting civil strife is to be a major component of the British armed forces' role into the future, there is also good reason to broach two further changes: one, to increase the quality of military recruits; the other, altering the structure of our forces the better to meet these new requirements. Restructuring is always a managerial challenge, but it is also important that the politicians set clear priorities for the armed forces, and provide them with the resources to meet them.

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