WE HAD seen it all before. The sultry night, the C-130's propellers still racing on the tarmac, the accents of Sheffield and Oxford and Liverpool under the Gulf skies. Instead of 'Operation Granby', it was - so the pilot said - 'Operation Driver' but the crew of the first RAF air- bridge Hercules into Kuwait had all been issued with those familiar, sinister little bags marked 'NCB' - nuclear- chemical-biological warfare kits.
Even the stated military objective seemed to have a four- year echo. 'Nothing beyond the defence of Kuwait that I know of,' pronounced Captain Ray Evans. But then again, they said back in 1990 that Operation Desert Shield was nothing beyond the defence of Saudi Arabia. And we all know how that ended.
A clutch of rather plump Kuwaiti children were herded up to the plane and presented to the astonished RAF Jaguar technicians and ground crews. 'The boys and girls of our Kuwaiti prisoners of war wish to thank you for coming,' a white-robed figure in sun-glasses announced from the semi-darkness. A child in a party frock handed Captain Evans, a balding and avuncular man under the camera lights, a bouquet of small yellow flowers. He dared not say he was about to fly the Hercules back to Cyprus to bring another C-130 to Kuwait.
But the mood was scarcely humorous. Some of the RAF men were veterans of Gulf war part two who talked with frosty humour of that famous failure of 1991. How we failed 'to finish the bastard off last time'. There was a lot of talk about 'finishing the job' and 'finishing what we came to do before,' a sentiment heartily supported by American soldiers lounging around the airport hotel behind the RAF Hercules. Watching CNN, they broke into cheers when a US sergeant said he thought we should 'waste 'em all'.
So did Captain Evans, who flew into Dhahran in 1990, think he would be returning to the Gulf when he heard that Saddam had moved troops towards the Kuwaiti border? 'Yes - it's exactly what happened last time.'
But, of course, it is not. Saddam has not attacked Kuwait this time and Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, was acknowledging an Iraqi withdrawal of sorts when he arrived here yesterday. Which is why some Kuwaitis were asking - as if journalists would know - why the Americans are still pouring men into the Emirate. By last night, there were said to be 39,783 US troops in the region along with 659 aircraft and 28 ships.
The RAF is flying a Hercules into Kuwait every two hours through the night with 16 flights scheduled by tomorrow morning and an estimated 68 more to come, some of them carrying 155mm guns. The first elements of 45 Royal Marine Commando walked off a TriStar here yesterday to be freighted up to the uncomfortable modern barracks at Jahra.
A few souls, such as RAF Sergeant Christine Undy (veteran of Gulf war and Bosnian air lifts) could also fly back to Cyprus, but for most of the Britons returning to the Gulf yesterday, the future seemed indefinite. There were questions about whether they would still be here at Christmas (doubtful, but some officers are talking about it) while an RAF technician on the first Hercules, having heard a rumour that Kuwait prohibited alcohol, asked 'if this place is bloody dry'. (Alas, yes.)
What no one asked was how much all this is going to cost. Douglas Hurd yesterday talked vaguely of 'burden sharing' which means, not to put too fine a point upon it, that the Kuwaitis will be told to cough up more millions to support the Americans and British. But for how long? And what if Saddam drives his army down to the border every two months? Are the Gulf war allies going to run a multi-billion dollar air bridge to the Gulf in perpetuity?
It was difficult to shake off those memories. Certainly Captain Evans could not do so when he left his family this time. 'I turned to my wife,' he told us, 'and I just said to her: 'Here we go again'.'
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