British halt Army move into Kabul
By Alan Philps in Kabul, Marcus Warren in Maydan Shar and Michael Smith
THE planned deployment of about 2,000 British troops to Afghanistan, due to start today, has been delayed after the Northern Alliance said they would not be welcome.
A Northern Alliance fighter adjusts his bullet belt near a village west of Kabul
An authoritative defence source said last night: "The operational order was written, the movement plan had been worked out - but it is all on hold now. It is probably better that it happened now than three weeks down the line when somebody turns on our boys."
The decision was made after alliance commanders made clear that they did not want the lead elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade to arrive at Bagram air base outside Kabul, as had been planned.
Younis Qanouni, the alliance's acting interior minister, said: "We do not expect any more foreign troops. We see no need for that."
Senior alliance leaders have been angered by the statements by British officials, including Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, that the troops would be used to stabilise the situation in Kabul amid fears of revenge killings.
They were also angered by the decision not to inform them before 100 members of the Special Boat Service flew into Bagram last Thursday to carry out reconnaissance for the main force. At first they demanded that the SBS men leave, but yesterday they softened their approach.
Gen Bismullah Khan, the architect of the alliance's assault on Kabul last week, said in Maydan Shar, west of the capital: "We do not need foreign troops in Afghanistan. It has been shown that we have the power to tackle terrorism ourselves.
"We asked them to leave, but now that we know they have come for humanitarian operations, they can stay." Gen Khan said there had been "some misunderstanding" with Britain over the troop issue. "It is over now."
Mr Qanouni said the SBS would be restricted to humanitarian work, de-mining and providing security for the British embassy, which is expected to reopen soon.
Mr Hoon claimed that alliance leaders had been "encouraging and very positive" about the main British deployment. But his tone marked a clear retreat from the suggestions of the need for a stabilisation force.
The alliance had behaved "very responsibly", he said. There was no sign of the predicted "complete implosion" of the opposition forces.
Mr Hoon added: "There have been discussions with the established leadership and some of the local leadership. They are being encouraging and very positive."
He admitted that there was need for further discussion. "This is an international coalition operation and we need to make absolutely sure everyone is agreed on the next stage forward," he said.
The halting of the planned deployment marks a major success for the alliance in its campaign to be accepted as the ruling power in Kabul and the dominant force in the next government.
Whether the alliance planned to stop an advance force of 58 French marines due to land at Mazar-i-Sharif was not known. The French defence ministry said: "Our plans have not changed."
Having scored a point against Britain, the alliance offered a concession to the Americans over planned talks to map out the shape of the post-Taliban government.
Abdullah Abdullah, its acting foreign minister, agreed after talks with an American envoy to take part in a meeting in Europe - Germany, Switzerland or Austria - as early as this week.
The alliance had wanted to hold the meeting in Kabul, which would have given it a clear advantage over other Afghan factions. But Washington and the United Nations insisted on a venue where all parties could meet on an equal footing.
Washington has shown increasing signs of exasperation at the alliance's foot-dragging over this conference. The alliance has clearly been hoping that it will gain control of the whole country and be in an unassailable position to dictate the composition of the next government.
Doubts about the SBS troops' role continued to grow at Bagram when the UN, launching a huge humanitarian effort, said it would not need the air base. The road from Pakistan via the eastern city of Jalalabad was now open and aid convoys would begin using it today, it said.
Mike Sackett, the organisation's new regional humanitarian co-ordinator, said: "The presence of the British forces is quite separate from the UN humanitarian effort."
Stephen Evans, Britain's new envoy to Afghanistan, will fly to Kabul today to try to persuade the alliance to allow the full British force in.