We were given many reasons why almost 2,000 Royal Marines were urgently dispatched to the mountain strongholds of Afghanistan last month. They were going to supply crucial winter warfare expertise that American troops lacked. They were relieving a bloodied US unit that had failed to defeat al-Qa'ida. They were going to mop up the fiercest and most stubborn of the remaining terrorist fighters. We were told to brace for battles and body bags, but assured that only "our lads" could do the job.
Six weeks later, Operation Snipe is looking more and more like Carry On Up the Khyber. Britain's most ferocious have caught nary a glimpse of the enemy, let alone engaged anyone in combat. They have blown up four caves stuffed with weapons and ammunition, which may at one time have been controlled by al-Qa'ida, but probably belonged to fighters allied to the Interim Administration in Kabul (the "goodies" we are trying to support). And they are now falling ill, with some unidentified lurgy that could be anything from typhoid to gastro-enteritis. Eight men have been flown out of the country; 350 are in quarantine.
No other foreign units, it seems, have been so afflicted, which may say something about standards of sanitation or food in the British encampment. The MoD's one assurance – that the illness was most likely not a result of biological warfare – was hardly consoling.
The most convincing justification for Operation Snipe came from the Prime Minister, who said that the very presence of British troops was keeping this one area of Afghanistan clear of al-Qa'ida forces. But it is hard to escape the impression that the real purpose was to save Washington from accusations of unilateralism by making Afghan combat operations look more "international". There must be many better ways of using the Royal Marines.