The announcement Monday that 1,700 British marine commandos will soon be sent to Afghanistan led to concerns that Britain is heading into a “quagmire.” The marines were tapped because of their mountain training, which will be put to use “mopping up” the remaining Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who have taken to the hills. The left-leaning Guardian said the deployment represents a “significant perilous deepening of direct British military involvement in America’s global war” against terror. The editorial sniffed: “Britain has been riding shotgun on George Bush’s anti-terrorist stagecoach since the US began its armed response to the September 11 attacks last October. Now it has been promoted to deputy sheriff.” The Independent fretted:
[T]he confusion surrounding the most recent US operation creates the impression that [British marines] are required not only for their special expertise, but also to take on risks that have been deemed too great for American troops. In other words, that Britain has agreed to act as a US surrogate in highly dangerous operations that could otherwise have become a military and political liability to America, if not at home, then abroad.
Other British papers rejected this accusation. The Times responded, “Suggestions that the Marines have been deployed because the Americans are unwilling to risk more casualties in the harsh terrain are as false as they are contemptible.” The Daily Telegraph answered critics who worry that Britain’s troop commitment is open-ended: “It would be a mistake to place a time limit on such a deployment, because our intelligence appears to be insufficient to gauge the strength of al-Qa’eda and Taliban forces, who may still number up to 10,000. This does not mean that the purpose is vague: it is to annihilate the enemy.” The Financial Times echoed this sentiment, observing, “[T]he alternative of failing to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda is worse. That would allow the terror networks to regroup and launch further murderous attacks, perhaps using weapons of mass destruction.”
Even the staunchest pro-American papers conceded that Britain’s involvement in both fighting and peacekeeping operations was potentially problematic. Not only was there concern that resources could be overstretched, but as the Financial Times noted, “Lightly armed peacekeepers could easily become targets for the insurgents fighting heavily armed commandos in the mountains close to the capital.” The Guardian pointed out that last autumn the Pentagon determined the two tasks were incompatible. A Labor MP told the paper, “I am not clear why it is right for Britain to be involved in a dual role in Afghanistan and yet it is not acceptable for the US to be involved in a dual role.”
Finally, Daily Telegraph columnist (and former “International Papers” writer) Alexander Chancellor declared that “Operation Jacana,” the name chosen for the British military operation, “is so self-deprecatory as to seem almost pathetic.”
While the American operation is code-named Anaconda after the terrifying boa … that lurks in wait for animals in South American swamps, the British one is named after the jacana or “lily-trotter”—a little wading bird that minces daintily across floating vegetation in search of insects and molluscs.