Air strikes delayed as allies express doubts
Blair and US in mission to repair holes in alliance
Julian Borger in Washington, Richard Norton-Taylor and Patrick Wintour
Thursday October 4, 2001
The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair embarked yesterday on emergency missions to repair holes in a shaky anti-terrorist coalition, after nervousness among key regional allies pushed back the launch of air strikes on Afghanistan.
American officials yesterday confirmed that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Uzbekistan had had last-minute doubts about allowing their territory to serve as a base for military operations aimed at Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida terrorist group and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The three governments, together with Pakistan, have "serious problems" about allowing the US to establish bases for special forces and military hardware on their territory, according to American officials.
The apparent deadlock in negotiations about the bases has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity. Mr Rumsfeld arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday for talks with King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and the defence minister, Prince Sultan. Earlier this year, the US completed a state-of-the-art command centre at the Prince Sultan air base near Riyadh, which could be vital in a sustained aerial campaign.
Talking to journalists during the flight, Mr Rumsfeld said: "We are not going to be making requests of the Saudi Arabian government. We have a long-standing relationship with them."
Mr Blair has also embarked on a diplomatic round. Today he will brief MPs for a second time since the crisis broke, before flying to Moscow for talks with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He is expected to probe Mr Putin on the extent of likely Russian tolerance for military action, as well as assure the Russian leader that President George Bush does not see force as the solution to the crisis.
A US news agency, Knight-Ridder, yesterday reported that the US and Britain were close to launching air strikes before the three allies expressed their doubts. Asked about the report, an administration official said: "It's going too far to say we were ready for take off, and nobody is going to tell you that. Put it this way - keeping all these people on board at the same time is a complicated business."
Uzbekistan has also become a sharp issue because any mission that involves sending special forces into Afghanistan will require search and rescue units to be stationed close to the border of Afghanistan - and Uzbekistan is the most likely place. The Pentagon has placed 1,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division on deployment alert at their base at Fort Drum in New York. The light infantry division is trained in search and rescue missions and there had been speculation that it was due to be sent to Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has given permission for US planes to fly over its territory, but has balked at the proposed use of American infantry on its soil. If the 10th Mountain Division is eventually sent to the central Asian republic, it would mark the first time that Nato troops have taken part in operations on territory of the former Soviet Union. However, the government in Tashkent was reported to be holding out yesterday for a "status of forces" agreement, intended to put legal parameters on US military activities there.
Charles Fairbanks, a central Asian expert at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins university, said: "It could be a negotiating tool. Its very much the old Soviet style - to agree until the last moment and then ask for more."
Diplomats in Washington say the Saudi government has asked Washington not to make requests it cannot fulfil, for fear of aggravating anti-western sentiment among the Saudi population.
"We are respectful of the circumstances of the countries in the region; we understand that," Mr Rumsfeld said.
British defence sources told the Guardian last night that no Arab state near to Afghanistan - including Oman, a close ally of Britain - was likely to allow its bases to be used for attacks. The only Arab country that would do so was Kuwait, but it was too far from Afghanistan.
This is one reason behind the massive build-up of US ships in the area,which could be used as alternative, floating, bases. There will soon be five aircraft carriers - four American and one British - in striking distance of Afghanistan.
One of the carriers, the USS Kitty Hawk, has been deployed without its full complement of aircraft, allowing it to serve as a platform for marine or special forces missions.
Mr Rumsfeld is due to leave Riyadh today for Oman and Egypt, before flying to Uzbekistan tomorrow. Last month, Oman hosted British naval exercises and was the launching pad for an abortive US hostage-rescue mission to Iran in 1980. But it has reportedly expressed misgivings about the scale and targets of President Bush's war on terrorism.
As a further indication of Washington's concern about the risks of military action, the US has asked its allies to provide "Nato assets" for the operation. These could include surveillance aircraft, airborne tankers to refuel bombers, and aircraft equipped to suppress radar and search for targets at night.