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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 14:30 GMT
Allies 'split': Fact or fiction?
Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment
British troops have not arrived in any force
The biggest split between America and its allies in the war on terror is the division of labour, says the BBC's defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus.

Last week Britain despatched about 100 Royal Marines, including troops from the elite Special Boat Service, to Bagram air base just north of Kabul.

There is no interest in Washington for its troops to become bogged down trying to keep the ethnic factions in Afghanistan apart

About 4,000 other troops were put on standby to move.

All the indications were that Britain was preparing to secure a humanitarian bridgehead into Afghanistan.

Officials said that the troops would not just ensure the flow of aid supplies but would also, in some wider sense, contribute to stability.

Other countries too, including France, Canada and Turkey, looked as though they were gearing up to send troops.

Mission undefined

But now the operation is on hold, pending some sort of deal with the Northern Alliance which seems sceptical about a foreign troop presence.

Officials insist that the assessment process is still underway.

They say no-one has yet defined what the mission for an international military presence might be and no-one is going to send in troops until there is a clear understanding of the task they will perform.

Bagram airbase
Northern Alliance troops are jealously guarding parts of Bagram airbase
Is this the truth or just face-saving back-tracking? The answer is a bit of both.

Are there tensions between London and Washington? Again, the answer is yes and no.

What has emerged is a growing realisation of the fundamental division of labour between the United States and its allies.

The Bush administration has not turned its back on nation-building in Afghanistan.

It still has some influence over the Northern Alliance and is using it to try to help broker an interim political settlement.

No interest

But Washington's chief interest remains the military campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taleban supporters.

US spokesmen stress that this is a campaign that extends beyond Afghanistan and there is no interest in Washington for its troops to become bogged down trying to keep the ethnic factions in Afghanistan apart.

US Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan
US has Special Forces in Afghanistan but is loath to send many more troops

This division of labour means that the US will fight the war but it is up to its principal allies to provide the practical help to secure the future of Afghanistan.

Quite what that help will amount to, is far from clear.

Events have moved rapidly and the complexities of the Afghan domestic scene are only now becoming fully apparent to western policy-makers.

Already there is a good deal of diplomatic support for the United Nations' efforts to form a broad-based government.

Considerable funding will be needed for reconstruction, as will a steady supply of humanitarian aid to see the country through the winter.

Better assessment

How much overt military support these processes require is an open question.

Journalists and some government ministers - who perhaps should have known better - interpreted the announcement that troops were being put on standby as amounting to an order to move.

In fairness it was no such thing.

If the Northern Alliance had not raised objections, British troops may already have been establishing themselves in some numbers.

But this delay allows for a better assessment of the dynamics of the situation on the ground.

The new British diplomatic presence in Kabul enables an on-the-spot judgement of the political climate there.

Troops may still be used, perhaps in smaller numbers, to carry out specific tasks.

US diplomatic and financial muscle will be put behind the political efforts. But it is clear that its military muscle will be used elsewhere.

See also:

19 Nov 01 | South Asia
US asks 'What next?' in Afghanistan
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan powerbrokers: Who's who
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Food aid heads for Kabul
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