Mali and a new War or Terror: Cameron goes where Blair went before – but at what cost?

The Prime Minister's decision to send troops to Mali is the product of an ill-defined nightmare of religious terrorism and "gesture" politics. He may come to regret it

Share

Everyone was too polite to mention it, including members of the sizable press group accompanying the Prime Minister on his “historic” visit to Algeria this week, but it was only a week ago that No 10 was briefing the media that the Algerians were acting precipitately, if not irresponsibly, in attacking the hostage-takers in the desert.

All that, along with the hostages killed, has been quickly forgotten as David Cameron now proclaims a new, tighter security and defence relationship with a country hitherto regarded as pretty close to a police state with scant regard for human rights when it came to suppressing Islamic opposition.

We had all this, of course, when Tony Blair decided to embrace Colonel Gaddafi and forget his human rights record when he appeared as an ally in the “War on Terror”. Now we have a newly refreshed War on Terror in North Africa and it’s Algeria which a successor Prime Minister clasps to his bosom.

The parallels are not exact. Algeria is not the same as Gaddafi’s Libya and the self-sufficient Algerians are a lot less eager to welcome and take advantage of British blandishments than the wily Colonel was. But the essential reasoning is the same – we are facing a global threat of terrorism and must fight it with every weapon, and every ally, at our disposal. The difference, of course, is that we can no longer look to the US for a lead. President Obama is rightly wary of such engagements. And the British public, too, is warier of foreign entanglements than it was when Blair gaily took us to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are right to be. It is all very well for David Cameron to declare that the 330 British servicemen being sent to Mali will only be there for training proposes. But one has to ask, as some in France are now asking: what happens in a year or so if the rebel groups re-emerge from the desert to overwhelm the Malian and other African forces stationed in the recaptured towns of the north.

The rebels, after all, have not been defeated in battle. They have chosen to retreat rather than fight. If they come back, can the British, along with the French, refuse to join the battle?

It’s not that we are wrong to offer assistance to Mali and to try and build up regional cooperation in defending it and other states. There is a real danger for Europe and the wider world from the threat posed by insurgent groups invading states too weak to defend themselves. The question is how to define that threat and then develop the policies to meet it.

The essential danger is to the survival of states. That is an issue that should be tackled at the level of the UN and the region. Muddling it up with all sorts of ill-defined nightmares about religious terrorism only confuses the issue.

Yet that is what the Prime Minister is doing. His decision to send troops to Mali, his sudden trip to Algeria, and his pronouncements there that he will be increasing the military budget after 2015 are all political gestures of a Prime Minister trying to “own” developments rather than determine them.

Given the immediate success of French intervention, the rumblings of his backbenchers over defence cuts, and the advantages of masking British withdrawal from Afghanistan with something more positive, you can see the attractions of making North Africa a British cause.

The one clear lesson from all our foreign engagements, however, is that you have to have a clear purpose in view. Gesture politics always end badly.

The meaning of Israel’s Syria strike

The Israeli strike on Syria on Wednesday remains shrouded in mystery. But then that is always the case with Israel’s extra-territorial exploits. Half the message it gives is the uncertainty and, therefore, the unpredictability of its attacks.

In this case, there are two versions of its air assault. One, carried by the Syrian press, is that it was aimed at a chemical plant near Damascus. The other, from intelligence sources in Washington and Europe, is that the target was a convoy carrying advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Whether these were anti-aircraft missiles, as US sources suggest, or chemical weapons, as Israeli reports indicate, is open to question. The problem with intelligence briefings is that you can never trust them. It suits Israel to raise such a spectre as cover for its confrontation with Hezbollah.

Whatever the case, the strike – and the tentativeness of the Russian condemnation – suggests the Syrian conflict may be entering its end game. Hezbollah wants its weapons stored there back in its own dumps. The Israelis, encouraged by Washington, want to stop the spreading of arms from the civil war.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teachers needed in Cheshire West

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Day to Day job opportunities f...

NQT Job Opportunties in Winsford

£85 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teac...

Year 3 Teachers needed for supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Year 1 Teachers needed for day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Scientists believe the discovery could lead to new treatments for loss of memory function caused by ageing and other factors  

We need a completely new approach to caring for older people

Carol Jagger
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past