Can David Cameron resist the siren call of military intervention in Mali?

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Mali is a French operation, but the British urge to get involved could prove too strong

The parallels are disturbing: a wild, ill-governed, majority Muslim country torn by ethnic conflicts, lumbered with all the ills that departing colonial powers can provide; Islamist militants occupying the space vacated by the failing state and tyrannising the local population. The former colonial power leaps into the breach and scatters the militants with almost no casualties. But years later, after the expenditure of billions of pounds, thousands of Western troops are dead, the militants are stronger than ever, and the only available solution is a scuttle.

The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, went to great lengths in Parliament to deny the parallels between Afghanistan and Mali. For a start, he pointed out, this is a French operation, with only a couple of hundred British troops in support and training capacity. But as the decade-long Afghan involvement winds down, the question of whether the British should intervene militarily – in Mali or anywhere else – is back on the agenda.

The Prime Minister's actions in the past days have done much to stoke the debate. Returning triumphantly to Libya, where Britain's support for a no-fly zone to protect insurgents in Benghazi was the crucial moment in the Gaddafi regime's collapse, he declared that he was "proud" of Britain's part in the country's democratic revolution – even though the Islamist menace in Benghazi ruled out a visit to that city.

Decisive military successes with few casualties or political repercussions are intoxicating for British prime ministers. The parallels between David Cameron's return to Libya and Tony Blair's elation over the British success in ending the war in Sierra Leone in 2000 are compelling. Reflecting on the Sierra Leone intervention last year, Mr Blair said: "It was done brilliantly by the British armed forces … within a pretty short space of time, a relatively small force was able to subdue the rebels and produce some order, and everything that has flown for Sierra Leone since then has come from that intervention."

That's the joy of intervention – but it can be a slippery slope. The self-righteous swagger of Tony Blair in Freetown led within 18 months to the commitment of British forces to Afghanistan; 18 months after that we got stuck into Iraq, and much of the story of the 2000s has been the toxic backwash from those two misadventures. Could Mr Cameron be teetering at the top of a similar seductive slope?

The long and bloodstained story of this particular ex-colonial power's return to some of its old, far-flung stamping grounds began 20 years ago in our own backyard – with the excruciating shame of standing by while Slobodan Milosevic set about manufacturing Greater Serbia by ethnically cleansing other races.

That story was told with vehemence by the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms in his book Unfinest Hour. Published with immaculate timing in November 2001, as Britain began bombing Afghanistan, it pulled no punches about what Mr Simms saw as British pusillanimity in the Balkans. "Right from the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis," he wrote, "the British sought to sabotage any kind of international political – and later military – intervention to curb Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing." When France proposed an international "interposition force", "Douglas Hurd [then Foreign Secretary] warned his colleagues that the dispatch of such a force would lead Europe into a quagmire without an exit".

That British position was maintained with fine consistency almost to the end of the Bosnian war. In July 1992, Mr Simms writes, "Britain was alone in opposing the idea of armed intervention to safeguard the passage of humanitarian aid in the Bosnian conflict … Throughout late 1992 and 1993 Britain resisted the imposition of a no-fly zone. Almost to the very end Britain worked to wreck any initiative on behalf of the Bosnian government which it regarded as 'rash' or 'unhelpful', particularly those involving a military dimension."

Mr Simms identifies Mr Hurd and the then Defence Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, as the "guilty men" of Britain's failure to intervene in Bosnia. Sir Malcolm in particular was bitterly opposed to Britain sending soldiers to the war zone. "If one comes … to the judgement that there is not a military solution to the problem we face," he told Parliament during the struggle for Srebrenica in 1993, "it will not do any service … to the victims … to take action which one believes is foredoomed to failure."

Mr Simms locates the refusal of John Major's government to contemplate using force in ex-Yugoslavia in the experience of Northern Ireland. There was also a profound unwillingness to barge into sovereign states to attempt to stop civil wars. But in Mr Simms's view, these factors should have been trumped by the Srebrenica massacre and other horrors.

Bosnia continues to haunt British policy. It meant that when Nato decided to act decisively against Milosevic over Kosovo in 1999, the Blair government was strongly in favour – and that commitment led straight through the Sierra Leone triumph into the Afghan bog. As the Labour MP Paul Flynn remarked in the Commons last week: "When the Government decided to go into Helmand province in 2006, they hoped that not a shot would be fired. Then only two soldiers had died in combat after five years of warfare; now the figure is 440."

Bosnia may have faded from public memory, but it remains a warning for Mr Cameron. His chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, went to Sarajevo to work for Paddy Ashdown in 2002, and, in that unworkable mess of parallel Bosnia governments, obtained an insight into how failure to intervene can lead to insoluble problems. And while Sir Malcolm's views in office were influenced by his Serbophile personal private secretary, Henry Bellingham, today William Hague cannot be immune to the views of his senior adviser Arminka Helic, a Bosnian Muslim émigrée.

Sir Malcolm, who rejects criticism of his Bosnian policy, is still vocal about intervention today. In the Commons on Tuesday he was quick to point out the risks of a Malian quagmire. "The liberation of Timbuktu," he said, "is of course very much to be welcomed, but my right honourable friend will remember from the precedent of both Iraq and Afghanistan that the liberation of towns and cities is the easy part, and that there is every probability that there will be many years of asymmetrical conflict in Mali unless a political solution is achieved."

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Sir Malcolm said later: "We should look at every case [of possible intervention] on its own merits." He acknowledged that the case for France sending troops to Mali was "powerful" as "otherwise it could become a failed state, which would be very dangerous". Bosnia he described as "a debate that was never resolved: the US wanted to intervene from the air on the side of the Bosnians, Europe took the view almost unanimously that it was a civil war and that our role was assisting with food and military aid and so on but not direct involvement in combat". The best parallel with Bosnia, he said, was Syria, where "it would probably be counterproductive for Western countries to be involved".

Mali may, as the Defence Secretary insists, remain no more than a sideshow for Britain. But with such an itch to make a difference embedded in No 10, and with the US entering a phase of military disengagement, it can't be long before the interventionist dog is barking once again.

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