Gamble for Africa: Mali mission sucks in 400 British troops

PM heads for Algeria as MPs warn conflict in region could drag on 'for years'

Britain’s growing military commitment to Mali and West Africa is likely to pass 400 within a matter of weeks, sparking fears of “mission creep” and cross-party criticism that UK forces are being sucked into a Vietnam-style conflict without a defined exit strategy.

A fortnight ago David Cameron promised that Britain would only send “tens, not hundreds” of troops to help the French-led operation. That prediction from the Prime Minister has been shredded as UK assistance to the French-led operation has significantly increased.

The growing importance of the unrest in West Africa was highlighted last night when Downing Street announced the PM would be flying to Algeria tomorrow for urgent talks with Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal.

Mr Cameron was already scheduled to attend a development conference in Monrovia, Liberia, but added the Algerian meeting following the recent hostage crisis at the Amenas gas plant which left six Britons and 47 others dead.

Number 10 said the discussions were likely to include the military campaign in Mali, a neighbour-state to Algeria.

The Defence Secretary Phil Hammond was forced to make a statement to the Commons today admitting that troop numbers in the region would substantially rise with new support for an EU training mission in Mali and up to 200 additional personnel who will assist a United Nations-backed training programme for forces from neighbouring West African states.

UK military advisers are already in place helping the UN’s Africa-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). Ground and technical support teams for a Sentinel surveillance aircraft plus two C-17 transport planes protected by combat-ready troops from the RAF Regiment, have also been deployed.

Around 20 British personnel are in the Malian capital, Bamako, liaising with French forces that have already passed the 3500 mark. Further British military assistance in the form of a specialist ferry to help land French armoured vehicles at ports in Senegal or The Gambia, alongside the offer of expert personnel to help staff a joint UK-French logistics headquarters in Mali , is also being considered.

Britain’s national security adviser, Sir Kim Darroch, has been in Paris this week holding talks with his French counterparts. The talks – focused on France’s short-term military shopping list for Mali – suggest the UK’s role could grow.

In advance of Mr Hammond’s statement, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said the mission in Mali needed to be “flexible” and accepted that if circumstances changed and other countries did not contribute as predicted to the French-led operation, the UK’s role could widen further.

The Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, told the Commons that the government needed to face “broader worries about mission creep” adding that the commitment to Mali had grown from lending to aircraft to the French to the “deployment of perhaps hundreds of troops.”

Mr Murphy said the British people “did not want to see this as another war that their country should not have been in.”

In the Commons two former defence secretaries voiced concern that the Mali operation was proceeding without having precise military goals.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, defence secretary during the Bosnian war, called on the government to develop a “political strategy” for the region, to work with north and west African countries, and warned if this did not happen Britain could be drawn in years of “asymmetric conflict” – uneven guerrilla warfare - with Islamist forces.

Bob Ainsworth, in charge of defence in Gordon Brown’s government, warned against the dangers of UK heading into a conflict without knowing exactly how long the job would take.

The former cabinet minister, Frank Dobson, captured the mood of many MPs when he predicted that “Mali could become Britain’s Vietnam.”  The “American catastrophe in Vietnam,” said Mr Dobson, “started off with American troops in a training capacity.”

Bob Stewart, the Tory MP and former British Army Colonel who commanded UK in Bosnia, also warned against the dangers of “mission creep” and said there was currently a “grey area” over the role of troops deployed for training, but who nevertheless were armed and could yet face combat situations.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the former Chief of the General Staff, backed the government’s assessment of Mali’s importance. “What happens in the middle of nowhere – as Timbuktu used to be called – matters. If the Jihadists took over in Mali, it would not end there.”

Although Mr Hammond was forced to repeat that there was “no intention to deploy combat troops” and that so far there had been a “well-judged and well-leveraged intervention”, Downing Street appeared to be on the defensive after the statement from the defence secretary and refused to answer any questions that mentioned parallels with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Two conferences taking place today – one in Brussels and the other in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia – addressed the military needs of forces in Mali and in it neighbouring states.

African and western states attending the two gatherings, pledged more than $450m to aid the Mali operation. Japan, which lost 10 of its national in the Amenas attack, pledged $120m.

The current price tag for the operation is estimated at close to a $1 billion.

Discussions in Brussels focused on how a 500-strong training mission could be put together and sent to Mali within two weeks. Deployment of the EU’s battle group of 1700 troops has been ruled out.

France has so far not asked any western nations for ground troop support, but logistical, transport and intelligence help has widened from the UK to include forces from Germany and the United States.

Washington recently announced that it would operate specialist in-flight tankers to help refuel French fighters and bombers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chef / Managers

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This contract caterer is proud ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'