Published on Friday, November 9, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Splits Open in UK-US Alliance
by Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor
British ministers privately expressed frustration yesterday with the US prosecution of the war against terrorism, the first sign of serious differences between London and Washington since the attacks on September 11.
Although Tony Blair saw his quick trip to Washington this week as an opportunity to cement Britain's position as the No 1 ally of the US, unease is growing in Whitehall.
There is concern on both the military and diplomatic fronts over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the bombing strategy; perceived lack of US consultation with its allies; and insufficient US focus on the humanitarian crisis.
The British government is also intent on opposing the expansion of the war beyond Afghanistan and is horrified at elements within the Pentagon pushing for an all-out assault on Iraq.
The handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main source of dispute, with Downing Street and the Foreign Office worried that dithering in Washington in its handling of the peace process risks alienating Arab opinion, which is seen as crucial in the coalition against terrorism.
Mr Blair, who experienced at first hand last week during a trip to the Middle East the extent of Arab anger, pressed President George Bush in Washington on Wednesday to apply pressure on Israel to return to peace talks.
But Mr Blair suffered a rebuff yesterday when it emerged that Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, will not be making a long-heralded speech at the UN general assembly this weekend in support of the creation of a Palestinian state. The speech had been flagged as a historic shift in US policy towards Israel, representing a significant move towards the Palestinian position.
It has been expected for two months. Even on Wednesday, as Mr Blair was on his way to Washington, Downing Street was briefing that Mr Powell was poised to take a firm line with Israel.
One British minister said that the content of Mr Powell's speech was not in doubt, just the timing. The minister said the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had acted abominably in recent weeks.
Mr Bush is to make a speech to the general assembly tomorrow, but Foreign Office sources said he was unlikely to use the opportunity to make the historic statement.
There is also rising anxiety within Whitehall that after Afghanistan the Bush administration may turn its sights on Iraq.
Mr Bush said on Wednesday that the bombing of Afghanistan was just the start of the war on terrorism.
One British minister said that bombing Iraq would be catastrophic because women and children would be killed and the consequences for the US and Britain in the Arab world would be unimaginably dangerous.
He warned that US and British embassies in the Arab world would have to close and British civilians would have to be advised to leave the area. He feared that moderate Arab regimes would be swept away.
The sense of frustration also applies to defense and military circles. British defense officials recognize that Washington is calling the shots. But there is growing impatience about US delays in deploying and giving tasks to ground troops, including some 100 SAS troops believed to be in Afghanistan or nearby.
One senior minister even spoke disparagingly about General Tommy Franks, the US commander of Operation Enduring Freedom, describing him as an "artillery man" reluctant to commit infantry.
British military planners made it clear they are extremely concerned about the failed raid by US rangers on targets near Kandahar on October 20 and the decision to release a video of it for propaganda reasons.
There are some 70 British military officers assigned to the Florida headquarters of Gen Franks. They are said to be providing valuable advice, yet there is a growing feeling in London that it is not being publicly recognized, defense sources say.
"You're not the only ones," one well-placed source said yesterday, referring to Washington's failure to acknowledge publicly Britain's contribution.
British defense sources point to what they say is the valuable task carried out by RAF pilots refueling American aircraft and undertaking reconnaissance over Afghanistan.
The sense of frustration in Britain is echoed in Germany where a row has erupted over whether the US had requested the 3,900 troops Berlin has earmarked for operations in Afghanistan.
The US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, initially denied having made the request for German troops.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001