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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 09:15 GMT
MPs question war strategy
45 Commando Royal Marines
Royal Marine commandos prepare for battle
Labour is continuing to face criticism from its own benches over its decision to send 1,700 Royal Marines into battle in Afghanistan.

Backbenchers have warned of "second Vietnam", with troops becoming embroiled in a long drawn-out and bloody conflict.

Former Labour defence minister Doug Henderson questioned the wisdom of deploying "an offensive force" on to the same streets as peacekeepers.

"If there is any confusion about the two groups among the local population is that likely to drag us into action that we wouldn't want to get involved in, perhaps between factions?", he asked BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

There was a danger such a course of events would "undermine our just cause in Afghanistan", he added.

'Highly unlikely'

But Labour chairman of the Commons defence select committee, Bruce George, said that although understandable, the fears expressed by Mr Henderson and others were overdone.

Geoff Hoon
Hoon says he has every confidence the marines 'can do this job'
UK troops involved:
  • 45 Royal Marine Commando
  • 29 Commando Royal Artillery
  • 59 Independent Commando Squadron
  • Royal Engineers and Royal Logistics Regiment
  • Chinook helicopters from RAF 27 Squadron

    For more on their mission:   Click here

  • He told Today the prospect of "another Vietnam" in Afghanistan was "highly unlikely".

    He also dismissed claims that there was widespread unease in the Commons at the government's decision to send the Royal Marines into battle.

    Blair criticised

    Wednesday's emergency Commons debate on the issue had been "characterised by consensus rather than substantial dissent," Mr George said.

    He also defended Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision not to attend the debate to face questions from MPs.

    Mr Blair was always being criticised for being obsessed with Afghanistan, Mr George said, but "when he doesn't turn up for a debate which was fairly predictable" he is criticised for it.

    'Difficult task'

    The government has admitted it has no idea when British troops will be able to withdraw from Afghanistan.

    But Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs the war must be won.

    Asked if there were any estimates of the remaining numbers of Taleban and al-Qaeda forces, Mr Hoon replied that it "could be in the hundreds, it could be in the thousands".

    "Without putting forces on the ground it is going to be an extremely difficult military task to identify numbers."

    He added: "This a series of smaller operations to work through the country to eliminate small pockets [of fighters]."

    The first marines are expected to begin arriving at Bagram airbase near Kabul over the next couple of days, with operations likely to start in the middle of April.

    The latest to bring the total number of British forces involved in the war in Afghanistan to about 6,400 (there are 4,700 non-combat troops involved in security operations) was taken following negotiations with the US after Operation Anaconda ended.

    See also:

    20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
    Blair defends troop deployment
    20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
    UK 'prepared to use nuclear weapons'
    19 Mar 02 | Scotland
    Arbroath's military men
    20 Mar 02 | South Asia
    US forces kill 10 in Afghanistan
    19 Mar 02 | UK Politics
    UK troop move unsettles MPs
    19 Mar 02 | UK
    The military road ahead
    20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
    Hoon wins Commons support
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