Blair rallies Britain as war nerves fray
· Moral strength will defeat terror, says PM
Kamal Ahmed in London, Ed Vulliamy in New York and Paul Beaver in Oman
Tony Blair moved last night to head off growing unease about the direction of the war in Afghanistan by making an unprecedented plea to the British public not to show any weakening of 'moral purpose'.
In the clearest indication yet of growing nervousness over the battle to win 'hearts and minds' for the action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the Prime Minister urged the public to invoke traditional British resolve for the war against terrorism.
As both Britain and the United States warned last night that the war would take much longer and would be more difficult than had been predicted just days ago, Downing Street authorised the release of a statement from Blair at his weekend retreat at Chequers.
'Whatever faults we have, Britain is a very moral nation with a strong sense of right and wrong,' the Prime Minister said. 'That moral fibre will defeat the fanaticism of these terrorists and their supporters.'
In a major speech on Tuesday, he will say it is important that Britain 'stays the course' in backing the American-led action.
He is also expected to say that the military campaign, now three weeks old, has had significant results in destroying al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and undermining Taliban military defences.
Senior Downing Street figures have admitted that last week's military action, beset by mistakes and mixed messages about the ability of armed forces actually to ensure bin Laden's capture, had been difficult to sell to the public.
'In any war there are ups and downs,' one Downing Street official said, indicating that Blair feared losing some of the widespread support for bombing Afghanistan which he has built up since the attacks of 11 September.
The campaign was stepped up yesterday, with cities in Afghanistan facing the heaviest night of action so far.
The Prime Minister's statement came as Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, sowed fresh doubt about the possible length of the campaign when he said that 'putting timetables' on military action was unhelpful.
His comments, which nevertheless suggested that the campaign would last months rather than years, are in sharp contrast to those of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff, who said the war could last three or four years.
In a briefing on Friday Sir Michael said that the wider war against terrorism could last as long as the Cold War which continued for 50 years.
'I don't really think it's sensible to put a timetable on it,' Hoon said on Radio 4's Today programme when he was asked about Boyce's comments. 'We don't know precisely how the Taliban will react to continuing military operations. It could be that the Taliban's fanaticism takes them through into the New Year.
'It could equally be that as a result of the sustained pressure being brought to bear on them, they collapse overnight.' In an interview last night from Oman, where the Defence Secretary is on an official visit to shore up the alliance, Hoon said Royal Marine commandos could be engaged in attacks on the complex cave networks where it is believed bin Laden is hiding out. He added that the elite forces would eventually 'smoke out' the terrorist leader.
Senior military figures have continued to insist that the campaign would be a 'long haul' and that bin Laden could not be caught by military action alone.
'This is a major campaign of a totally different nature from anything we have done before, said General Sir Michael Walker, Chief of the General Staff. 'This will take as long as it takes. We have now established a Joint Rapid Reaction Force, for a long and balanced campaign.
'Osama bin Laden will not be toppled by military means alone. It will not be a linear campaign - rather, the tempo will go up and down.'
The Pentagon officially admitted yesterday that 'human error' had led to the bombing of a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul for the second time in 10 days.
Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the attack and reiterated her concerns over the humanitarian costs of the military action.
'It is not acceptable that there are several attacks on well-marked Red Cross property where they have signalled where they are,' she said. 'The military strategy in Afghanistan should comply with international human rights standards. Whatever the strategy [in Afghanistan] it must be carried out in accordance with the principles of necessity and proportionality.
'Necessity means nothing is done except what is necessary to achieve precise objectives. Proportionate means no civilians are killed and that no humanitarian property is attacked'
The Red Cross mistake came at the end of a week during which the coalition and America have been criticised for losing 'clarity and resolve'. One senior Pentagon official expressed frustration at the way the war was going, admitting bin Laden remained 'an elusive target' and that destroying al-Qaeda was 'like trying put your thumb on a blob of mercury'.
The official also confirmed that the special forces raid inside Afghanistan by US Rangers nine days ago had not been as successful as initially claimed.
· Additional reporting by Sophie Arie in Buenos Aires