Can David Cameron resist the siren call of military intervention in Mali? - Africa - World - The Independent

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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week