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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
UK marines 'face tough challenge'
Marines from 45 Commando
The marines will join US-led coalition troops
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By David Shukman
BBC world affairs correspondent

When the Royal Marines start their first operations in the Afghan mountains later this month they will be fighting in one of the most hazardous and treacherous battlefields in the world - and will be up against combatants hardened by two decades of war.

The American troops deployed against al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters last month discovered that to their cost.

Their experience will provide the marines with a valuable but daunting guide to what is ahead for them.

The US-led Operation Anaconda was meant to mimic the giant snake by squeezing the terrorists and their leaders into an ever smaller parcel of territory and then crushing them.

Enemy 'vanished'

Instead, it seems, the US forces found they had bitten off more than they could chew.

The high altitude took its toll - the thin air was debilitating even to well-trained forces.

The vicious climate was punishing, especially to those troops who had reportedly been deployed without sleeping bags.

British marine
Training will be everything to the marines

And the enemy was more numerous, more ingenious and more resilient than anyone had expected.

The fighters managed to cripple two helicopters, kill eight soldiers and then vanish into the barren landscape and escape in their hundreds through the US lines.

In the weeks since that operation, American military experts have been assessing what went wrong and how future deployments - including those involving the British - could be better handled.

One consultant for the Pentagon, who wishes to remain anonymous, blames last month's failures on several key factors: a lack of manpower to seal off the "box" around the Afghan fighters; a shortage of artillery to pound the fighters' hiding places; a series of intelligence shortcomings; and a general lack of preparedness to operate in such difficult conditions.

Border 'sanctuary'

Worst of all, the consultant suggests, is that the fighters were tipped off by spies within the local Afghan forces working with the Americans.

The operation, he argues, was therefore compromised even before it had begun.

Another US expert, a former intelligence planner for the US Air Force, suggests that American and British forces must beware simply trying to chase al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

The danger is that the commanders will believe they have the fighters "on the run", when a better strategy would involve trying to think ahead of them and head off their next move.

A particular difficulty is the huge advantage to the fighters of being able to slip over the border into Pakistan.

The greater the pressure on them, the more likely they are to recuperate and regroup in the relative sanctuary of Pakistan's remote frontier regions, safe from any kind of "hot pursuit", but prepared to strike when least expected.

Potential targets

If American and British military planners think they can simply rerun an improved version of Anaconda, with the enemy conveniently gathering as a sitting target, they are bound to be disappointed.

This enemy has a knack of springing surprises. It can play a long game - no doubt longer than the patience of western politicians to keep forces in Afghanistan.

It must be eyeing as potential targets the ever larger American and British bases dotted around the country.

It may be planning to continue the fight against neighbouring countries supporting the coalition forces.

The Royal Marines are no doubt ideally suited for the task.

But it could hardly be more challenging.

See also:

03 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK marines arrive in Afghanistan
24 Mar 02 | UK Politics
UK extends lead of Afghan force
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