London Britain Friday expanded its military contribution to the U.S.-led battle against Afghanistan's Taliban movement, offering its first ground forces 200 Royal Marine commandos who will go on standby aboard ships off Pakistan.
Announcing the move in Parliament, Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said another 400 commandos would be placed on "high readiness" in Britain to contribute to the war on terrorism. He said an 11-ship naval force, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, would link with U.S. forces in the region after competing exercises this weekend in the Persian Gulf state of Oman.
Prime Minister Tony Blair described the decision to deploy troops as "a huge responsibility," but said it was necessary to defend "civilized values" around the world. He said action needed to be taken now to prevent the al-Qaida terrorist network, led by Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, from acquiring "chemical, biological, even nuclear weapons of mass destruction."
Over the past month, Britain has emerged as the United States' leading ally in the fight against terrorism. Senior British officials said they were in almost daily contact with their U.S. counterparts on shaping the political, military and even media strategy to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida.
British officials said the decision to deploy the elite commando unit reflected the current stage of the military operations in Afghanistan, which is moving from bombardment of Taliban positions to lightning raids on the ground. They said the troops would be available to support U.S.-led ground operations.
"If you are thinking in terms of a big ground war, then of course 200 commandos will not make any difference," said a senior British official. "But that is not the approach we are taking. We are not going to 'invade' Afghanistan."
So far Britain's contribution to the strikes has consisted largely of firing a few cruise missiles early in the war and helping to refuel U.S. Navy jets in the air. Officials here declined to comment on widespread media speculation that units from Britain's elite Special Air Services regiment, the equivalent of the U.S. Delta Force, are already operating in or near Afghanistan.
Canada last week dispatched a flotilla of vessels its total commitment is six navy ships, six airplanes and about 2,000 personnel, including a unit of commandos. Australia has promised a force that includes four F/A-18 warplanes, four warships and 150 commandos; France is considering sending a force.