London (CNSNews.com) - Top British officials have confirmed for the first time that U.K. forces are on the ground inside Afghanistan, assisting Northern Alliance troops fighting against the ruling Taliban.
"I can certainly confirm that there are members of Britain's armed forces on the ground in northern Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the BBC on Sunday.
The defense secretary did not go into details about the numbers or types of troops operating in the country, but it is believed that members of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) have been inside the country for several weeks. The government has continued to follow a policy of refusing to confirm or deny involvement of U.K. Special Forces in any combat mission.
Last month, Britain pledged a force of more than 200 Royal Marine Commandos and several thousand support staff to the ground war in Afghanistan. While not officially classified as Special Forces by the British military, defense experts say the commandos are trained to an elite level. The Royal Marine troops are now on a personnel carrier in the Arabian Sea.
Also on Sunday, Hoon said he was "not convinced" that terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden had a nuclear bomb. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn , bin Laden said that he had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and would use them if the United States used similar measures in Afghanistan.
Hoon said he was skeptical of the terrorist's claims, but said it was possible that bin Laden had enough nuclear material to make a "dirty bomb" - a conventional explosive device designed to spread radioactive material and contaminate a particular area.
"We are certainly aware that he has some material that could contribute to a nuclear weapon," Hoon said. "We are not convinced at this stage that he is capable of producing a nuclear bomb, but certainly we have to be very careful. This is a thoroughly dangerous man, and that is why we are having to deal with him in this way, because he is a man who has no scruples, no morality, no reservations about killing civilians to achieve his perverted ends."
Allies in control
British leaders also moved over the weekend to calm fears that the Northern Alliance offensive against the Taliban was moving too fast to create stable political conditions inside Afghanistan.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters that the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition, rather than Northern Alliance leaders, was controlling the pace of the conflict.
"The Northern Alliance have a part to play in our military strategy, but it is a strategy which we are dictating the pace of, which we are controlling," the spokesman said. "There is an absolute recognition that the Northern Alliance would be unable to form a government in Afghanistan on its own."
U.S. officials are worried about the Northern Alliance's human rights record, as well as the unpopularity of the northerners amongst ethnic Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. U.S. and U.K. leaders see the inclusion of Pashtun elements - though not the Taliban - as a key part of any future multi-ethnic Afghan government.
In an apparent deviation from official policy, Hoon was quoted in the London Sunday Times as saying that he was happy for the Northern Alliance to take Kabul. But the defense secretary backed away from those remarks in later interviews.
"We want them to march toward Kabul, to take ground to deny the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden space in Afghanistan," Hoon told the BBC. "That has always been the strategy, to put pressure on the regime and Osama bin Laden. The Northern Alliance are an important part of that pressure."\fs23