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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game