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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 12:07 GMT
What role will British troops play?
 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment
More than 5,000 troops are on standby
Paul Adams

Thousands of British troops could travel to Afghanistan within days to help provide security for humanitarian efforts.

The announcement comes as western governments scramble to come to terms with suddenly changed circumstances on the ground.

With Northern Alliance fighters sweeping through Afghanistan and diplomatic efforts to form a broad-based coalition government lagging far behind, the need for a degree of stability is acute.

No firm decision has yet been made on a new deployment to Afghanistan, but more than 5,000 troops are now on two days notice to move.

The units concerned include 45 Commando Royal Marines; 2 Battalion, the Parachute Regiment; RAF air transport, support helicopters, engineers, logistics teams and explosive ordnance disposal experts.

Stabilisation force

The Ministry of Defence says this is not a peacekeeping operation, preferring to talk about a stabilisation force.

Afghan northern alliance Mujahedeen in Kabul on Tuesday
Northern Alliance fighters are sweeping through Afghanistan
However, the Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, speaking on BBC World, said the troops would perform a peacekeeping, rather than a peace making role.

In another BBC interview, he compared the mission to other recent British operations, including Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Possible tasks could include assistance to the UN and humanitarian agencies as well as mine clearance and rebuilding parts of Afghanistan's wrecked infrastructure.

Officials insist the troops are not going to join other British forces already deployed for the war on terrorism - the new priority, they say, is to give the people of Afghanistan a feeling of confidence and to assist in the transition to a stable, broad based government.

On Tuesday, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said an "all-Afghan" force was more desirable than foreign peacekeepers, but admitted such a force was unlikely to emerge in the short term. He also said this was not a role for "blue helmets" - traditional UN peacekeepers.

British and American troops would be able to deploy quickly to areas where fighting has stopped but the security situation remains fragile.

A total of 1,000 soldiers of the US 10th Mountain Brigade have been on standby in neighbouring Uzbekistan for some weeks.

It is thought they will soon move to secure positions in northern Afghanistan, possibly the airbase at Maza-e Sherif, which fell to Northern Alliance forces at the end of last week.

Dangerous mission

American officials have spoken of establishing a humanitarian bridgehead inside Afghanistan. With other cities and airfields now under Northern Alliance control, the scope for a wider humanitarian operation is growing almost by the day.

The United Nations estimates that seven million Afghans are in need of humanitarian assistance and is deeply concerned at the lack of information on people displaced in the latest fighting.

Any new deployment would be fraught with danger. The situation in Afghanistan remains fluid and pockets of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters may still pose a threat to humanitarian operations.

Critics will also warn of British and other troops being sucked into Afghanistan's notoriously complex tribal and ethnic politics.

But western leaders seem determined to seize the moment, conscious that they have been accused of turning their backs on Afghanistan in the past.

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14 Nov 01 | UK
British troops on standby
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