UK Troop Delay Threatens Afghan Stability

Further delays in the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan could undermine efforts to stabilise the country and secure humanitarian aid shipments.

UK Troop Delay Threatens Afghan Stability

Further delays in the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan could undermine efforts to stabilise the country and secure humanitarian aid shipments.

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was Wednesday still refusing to give a firm date when UK troops would be deployed inside Afghanistan. London is keen that a multi-national force, including British troops, should be sent as soon as possible to protect humanitarian aid efforts, and to shore up peace efforts following the dramatic retreat of the Taleban last week.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has repeatedly insisted that the international community must "not walk away from Afghanistan", but any British military deployment is on hold for now. A UK force will only be dispatched, it seems, once tensions between politicians and the military and concerns over the complex and unstable situation inside Afghanistan are addressed.

British deployment had been expected last weekend, after elite Special Boat Service, SBS, commando unit, together with Royal Marines, landed at Bagram airbase, 50 km north of Kabul.

Their stay was supposed to be short - to secure the airfield before the arrival of approximately four thousand British troops. However, almost one week later, the soldiers are still on ships and bases in the Indian Ocean, at 48 hours notice to move.

So what is causing the delay? The Northern Alliance seems lukewarm about British troops arriving in the areas they control. There is nothing they dislike more than the presence of foreign troops on their soil. Many Afghan opposition veterans fought the Soviet Union during its occupation of the country from 1979 - 1989, and they have since done battle with the Taleban's Arab and Pakistani volunteers.

The Northern Alliance was angry that it was not consulted in advance about the landing of the British force, and asked that they all be withdrawn, save for fifteen troops who, they said, could assist in a strictly humanitarian role.

Matters were worsened by the location of the British force. Bagram airbase is strategically important, situated as it is close to the only road in eastern Afghanistan which offers relatively direct access from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to Kabul further south.

It is also in close proximity to the Salang road tunnel, a Soviet-era construction through the Hindu Kush - the formidable mountain range, which runs across central and eastern Afghanistan.

Any British presence at Bagram means that the northern and southern Afghan opposition elements could be divided, with the only direct road communication running through British-held areas.

UK military concerns are also delaying deployment. One highly-placed military source believes that British politicians may be racing ahead of their military chiefs, making promises which the army is not in a position to deliver.

It is one thing to guarantee a rapid deployment of troops "to give a presence on the ground", but the groundwork for such an operation takes a good deal of time. For example, the supply routes for troops have to be worked out, usually by undertaking reconnaissance, something that is not easy in a country as fragmented and volatile as Afghanistan.

The military is also facing difficult questions. What exactly is the troops' mission? Politicians talk of peace support operations, PSO, but what would these entail? What are the rules of engagement, ROE - the circumstances in which British troops can open fire?

The British deployment will also be watched with interest by the other countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, which have been mooted as possible contributors to a future UN peacekeeping force.

An unsuccessful mission could have a deeply negative outcome. For example, if the British are forced into a humiliating withdrawal, like the one the US experienced during the Somalia campaign, the chance that other countries pencilled in to provide peacekeeping troops would still assist diminishes.

An additional problem is that the British army is facing a staffing crisis. Recruitment is down, while commitments are increasing. The UK maintains a military presence in areas such as Germany, former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and the Falklands. Another difficult deployment overseas could stretch the army to its limit.

The British have some tough decisions to make. But time is running out. The Northern Alliance is consolidating its hold over the areas it has liberated from the Taleban. As the days pass, they will almost certainly become more sceptical about proposed foreign military deployments.

It is for this reason combined with the urgent need to secure humanitarian corridors into Afghanistan that British troop deployment cannot be postponed for very much longer.

Thomas Withington is an independent defence analyst. His interests include South Asian security, air power, and Cold War history. He is also a Ressearch Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.

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