Campaign against Terrorism: Advance Guard - Marines Wait for Orders While Politicians Argue
Sengupta, Kim, The Independent (London, England)
THE SOLDIERS were meant to be the advance unit of a force at least 2,000 strong, an overt symbol of British martial presence in Afghanistan and a testimony to the diplomatic skills of Tony Blair.
Yesterday, though, the 120 men from the Royal Marines Special Boat Service were spending a fifth night at Bagram air base, lightly armed and with no sign of the reinforcements of paratroops and marines they had been expecting to arrive by yesterday morning.
Surrounding them are about 2,500 fighters of the Northern Alliance, supposed allies in the war, who are opposed to the large- scale presence of British or any other foreign forces in the country. Their deputy chief of intelligence, Engineer Arif, has demanded that not only should there be no more troops, the number at Bagram should be reduced to 15.
Beyond them, in the hills, are the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, which would both like nothing better than a spectacular strike against Western forces; all they need is for one suicide bomber to reach the British garrison.
The SBS are finding that in the convoluted realpolitik of Afghanistan it is difficult to tell between friend and foe. The American special forces and intelligence agents acting as advisers to the Alliance are unhappy at the prospect of a large-scale British force on the ground. In fact, there is now increasing suspicion in London that, behind the scenes, the US had been fuelling the Alliance antipathy to the British.
The Allies have always had their eyes on Bagram. The all-weather air base was built by the Russians and became a crucial centre in their 10- year Afghan intervention. The air base has other advantages, a surrounding ridge providing natural protection; the longest runways in Afghanistan; and proximity to Kabul, 22 miles away, and routes to the city.
But the marines will also see the signs of how a previous advanced military plan - that of Moscow - did not run according to plan in Afghanistan. The hangars, with shell holes and roofs torn off, house skeletal rows of damaged Soviet strike aircraft and helicopters, shot down by the Taliban with the Stinger missiles supplied by the US and distributed with the help of MI6.
There are also signs of more recent danger. The runways are cratered, and ammunition and shrapnel crunch beneath the feet. Beyond, the ground is heavily mined, providing another obstacle to troops venturing away from the base.
The control tower is badly shot up but the British troops already have it ready for incoming flights. But there has been no fleet of Hercules transporters bearing marines and paratroops, …
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Publication information: Article title: Campaign against Terrorism: Advance Guard - Marines Wait for Orders While Politicians Argue. Contributors: Sengupta, Kim - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 2, 2001. Page number: 5. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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