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As a U.S. Ally in War, Britain Remains First Among Equals

Military: Air marshal's presence and clout at Central Command in Tampa reflect close ties. Blair is credited with cementing relationship.


TAMPA, Fla. — Just six days after the terrorist attacks on America, and three weeks before U.S. bombs began raining down on Afghanistan, British Air Marshal G.E. "Jock" Stirrup arrived at the U.S. Central Command here. He was the first coalition leader to take his place in the war room beside U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

Since those early days, Britain has unofficially remained Ally No. 1 in the war on terrorism. As the most steadfast supporter of U.S. military policy, it has offered more soldiers than any other allied nation. Its pilots and special forces are in harm's way, and its ground troops are leading an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

The level of commitment is a reflection of the traditionally close relationship--military and otherwise--between the two countries, cemented in prior wars. But it also has to do with the personality of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to British observers.

"There is a straightforward foreign policy calculation that the U.S. is our closest ally and when something awful happens you have to act," said Lawrence Freedman, head of war studies at King's College, London. "But it's also the sort of guy Blair is. He has a strong moral stance and prides himself on seeing right and wrong quickly."

It remains to be seen how far Britain is prepared to go as the war on terrorism moves beyond Afghanistan. But with at least 37 Britons believed to have trained in Al Qaeda terrorist camps, the continuation of British involvement may be inevitable.

Freedman says Blair might be willing to continue helping if the U.S. carries the anti-terrorism campaign to Somalia or Yemen. "It depends on what is being proposed," he said. Iraq would be "difficult. But it's not as if the Americans have a plan yet."

Britain's status at Central Command headquarters in Tampa is illustrated at the horseshoe-shaped table in the war room where the Taliban's demise was conceived. At the helm, next to Franks and his deputy, Marine Corps Gen. Michael de Long, sits Stirrup. The chairs of the generals of 21 nations who meet each morning at 9 are assigned by rank, and Britain ordered up a general outranked only by Franks.

Both in Kabul and at Central Command, Britain has installed generals to serve as linchpins in the uniquely close alliance. Maj. Gen. John McColl last weekend led the first Afghan-British joint patrols in Kabul. Significantly, the British Defense Ministry sent the more senior official to Tampa.

"The special relationship that we enjoy with the United Kingdom is reflected in the fact that they assigned a three-star officer here," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, chief spokesman for the Central Command.

It's also reflected in the size of the British contingent here--and its unsurpassed access. Britain has sent 60 military strategists and support staff to Central Command, more than any other U.S. ally. It also occupies more real estate--three tan-and-brown trailers beneath a Union Jack in a former parking lot known as "Coalition Village." While other coalition leaders labor in wheeled, no-frills offices without plumbing, Stirrup occupies coveted space in the three-story CentCom headquarters.

Britain has sent 4,000 troops to the war zone, including an unspecified number of special forces on the ground in Afghanistan. The British-led International Security Assistance Force is expected eventually to include up to 5,000 soldiers.

Asked to detail the role of special forces soldiers on the ground, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has done on occasion, Stirrup said, "We don't do that. Suffice it to say that we have been continually involved."

But according to British media reports, when CIA agents were under attack in November at a prison uprising in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, it was British forces who directed airstrikes there.

British MI5 agents, along with their counterparts in the FBI and CIA, are said to be interrogating pro-Taliban prisoners. British aircraft are carrying out intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, air transport, maritime patrol and midair refueling missions. Her majesty's submarines, which fired Tomahawk missiles at Taliban targets in the opening volley of the bombing campaign, still patrol the Arabian Sea.

On the broader anti-terrorism front, a U.S. official in London last week characterized the cooperation between U.S. and British law enforcement as "the closest in Europe" and said the British are highly skilled at evidence collection, thanks in part to their history of investigating Irish Republican Army bombings and other terrorist attacks.

"We have sought to make a significant military contribution to this campaign from the outset," said Stirrup, whose title in Tampa is senior British military advisor. "Let's face it, even the largest military power in the world at some stage runs short of military assets."

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