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British troops
British troops are providing the backbone of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan
British troops are on peace-keeping duties in Afghanistan.

But it could be diplomacy, rather than military might, which turns out to Britain's secret weapon in the 21st century.

Video Clip VIDEO
BBC Ten O'Clock News
John Simpson witnesses the liberation of Kabul from the Taleban
Just before Christmas 2001, a small band of British troops was sent to patrol the streets of the Afghan capital Kabul. Their task was to protect the temporary government under a new president, Hamid Karzai, installed by international agreement after the defeat of the fundamentalist Taleban regime.

Following the Third Afghan War, in May 1919, Afghanistan gained the right to conduct its own Foreign Affairs. The treaty of Rawalpindi was amended in November 1921, to recognise Afghanistan's official independence.
By coincidence, this deployment of British troops came almost eighty years to the day after Britain officially recognised Afghanistan's independence.

The story of Britain's involvement in Afghanistan tells us a lot about Britain's place in the world, and how radically it's changed over the past century.

The Great Game

Afghanistan: remote and mountainous, but strategically vital, then as now.
In the nineteenth century, the struggle for this territory by two rival empires was so intense it became known as "the great game".

Though sparsely populated and mountainous, Afghanistan was strategically vital: a geographical buffer between two empires which were sworn enemies for much of the nineteenth century: the British Raj in India and Imperial Russia.

Britain's hold over Afghanistan was always tenuous, although it did retain control of its foreign affairs into the twentieth century. But, when the Afghans staged an armed uprising in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, it became clear that Britain was militarily over-extended.

In November 1921, Lloyd George's government finally signed a deal recognising Afghan independence.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Today's story is very different.

This time, Britain is in Afghanistan as lieutenant to another power, rather than commander.

The United States launched military action against Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which killed thousands of Americans.

It had two war aims.

First: to track down Osama Bin Laden - the terrorist leader held responsible for the attacks. Second: to remove the Taleban government from Afghanistan - because it had been sheltering Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Like most other national leaders, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, offered his unconditional support to the United States within hours of the terrorist attacks. But unlike some others, Britain was ready with trained troops.

Six hundred Royal Marine Commandos and several hundred special forces on exercise in the Middle Eastern state of Oman were put on standby to head for Afghanistan.

In the end, though, most of them weren't needed.
Tora Bora
Northern Alliance fighters lay siege to the Taleban's last stronghold at Tora Bora
In less than 100 days, the Taleban regime collapsed, under the combined onslaught of American high-level bombing and ground attacks from America's Afghan allies, the Northern Alliance.

Britain's main military role in Afghanistan will be in keeping the peace, rather than winning the war, just as it was in Kosovo.

A British soldier, Major General John McColl, has been put in command of the peace-keeping force in Afghanistan. At least 16 countries are contributing to the international force, but around 1,500 of its 6,000 troops are British.

Diplomacy: Britain's secret weapon?

Britain's military role in Afghanistan may have been minor, but it played a major role on the diplomatic front.

The American president, George W Bush, had been in office for only nine months when the World Trade Centre was attacked - and was inexperienced in foreign affairs.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in a better position to build an international consensus which would allow America to launch an attack on the Taleban.

Britain provided a vital bridge between America and the Middle East - and, between the old cold war super-powers, Russia and America.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw went to Tehran - the first such visit to Iran for two decades. The Prime Minister himself went to Syria, where he was greeted coolly by its new President, Bashar al-Assad

Blair and Assad
Blair and Assad: difficult meeting
Tony Blair received a much warmer welcome when he went to Moscow, to share intelligence about Al-Qaeda with the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

During that visit, the Prime Minister's spokesman noted a marked thawing in relations between Russia and the West since the September 11 attacks:

"What is surprising," he said, "what is new, is not just the way President Putin has allied himself to the West, but also the desire to develop that further, to intensify it. Together we have entered a new era."

This is a new twist in the international balance of power since the end of the Cold War. Old certainties about East and West, enemies and allies have gone and there are new challenges, as Britain struggles to define its role in the twenty first century.

Britain acting alone is no longer a military power but its diplomatic skills could make it a force to be reckoned with.

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