LONDON – Britain announced Monday it will deploy an infantry battle group of 1,700 in Afghanistan, its largest military deployment for combat operations since the Gulf war.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the United States had asked Britain to join future operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the British force — built around a Royal Marines commando unit — will be fully integrated with U.S. forces.
"This group will join a U.S.-led brigade — forming a potent force ready to undertake such operations," Hoon told the House of Commons.
He said the force would go initially to Bagram air base north of Kabul, and that the first members of 45 Commando Group will be on the ground within days. It would be ready to begin offensive operations by mid-April "in support of the wider coalition war against terrorism. "
On Tuesday, Britain will hand over command of the Kabul multinational brigade, the subordinate headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, to a German unit, Hoon said.
The United States commands the war effort in Afghanistan, including the peacekeeping operation in Kabul, though Britain has had day-to-day command of the multinational force, and has had 1,800 troops taking part.
British forces joined the U.S.-led coalition shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and have already participated in reconnaissance and air-to-air refueling flights. On the ground they have engaged in operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
"But for all the progress that we have made in Afghanistan, the threat of attack from Al Qaeda and Taliban-related groupings and individuals across the country remains high," Hoon told the Commons.
"The deployment of 45 Commando Group is not a decision that has been taken lightly," he said. "It is our largest military deployment for combat operations since the Gulf conflict."
The United States had formally requested British participation in future operations against remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Hoon said.
"We have held 45 Commando ready for offensive operations in Afghanistan for precisely this purpose," he said, adding that the group's lead elements were already in the theater of operations aboard the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.
In addition to the 18 helicopters and four amphibious landing craft aboard, three Chinook helicopters will be sent with the commandos.
Royal Marines Brig. Roger Lane, commander of 3 Commando Brigade, will go to Bagram.
"These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take part in war-fighting operations. We will be asking them to risk their lives. Their missions will be conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy," Hoon said.
"No government ever makes such decisions without reaching the absolute conviction that it is something that must be done," he added.