Britain has a duty to keep troops in Sierra Leone

Damned if you do; damned if you don't. In a world of hard choices the only winners are cynics. Had Robin Cook announced this week that he was sending 5,000 battle-hardened Brits (including 500 ferocious, kukri-wielding Gurkhas) over to sort out the rebels in Sierra Leone, the scene would have been set for the newspaper cartoons of a mad-eyed Blair astride a rocket. The 1,000 paras deployed with the ostensible purpose merely of organising an evacuation led to caricatures depicting a pathetic Mr Cook with a pea-shooter.

But few are utterly consistent about intervention. Those who are tend to be fools. There is a right-wing isolationism that states that we should intervene only when our own narrowly defined national interests are threatened directly. Then there is its weird counterpart on the left, which believes that we are so wicked and imperialistic ourselves, that any military action we take will be - by its very nature - wrong. Except in East Timor, of course, where even Britain could not be worse than the Indonesians.

The rest of us veer between often feeling that something has to be done and desperately wanting someone else to do it. Vietnam looms over all but the very young. The French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in the year that I was born. I was 11 when LBJ began the bombing of North Vietnam, 15 when Nixon bombed Cambodia, and 20 when the Vietnam war finally ended. For me the war was proof that the West was murderous; for anti-communists it was evidence of the counter-productive folly of becoming over-engaged.

The phrase that is almost always used is "mission creep". Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, raised its spectre in the House this week, after the announcement that, although most of the evacuation was over, the paras were staying on. "You", he said to the Government, "have committed the UK to something that is more than an evacuation but less than a full-scale military intervention. As a consequence, we risk being sucked into Sierra Leone's civil war." These days it is often impossible to work out what it is the opposition is saying it thinks ought to be done on any issue. So I cannot tell you for sure whether Mr Maude was arguing that the paras should be removed forthwith, and the UN soldiers and the Sierra Leoneans left to their own devices, or whether he reserved to himself the option of "full-scale military intervention". My impression was that he favoured withdrawal but couldn't quite bring himself to say so.

I wasn't much clearer about the Liberal Democrats. Their usually excellent spokesperson, Menzies Campbell, warned about the risk of being "drawn into combat based on circumstances that are beyond our control" and mentioned the question of whether any operation stood a "reasonable chance of success". But again I was not clear about what he thought should be done right now. Was he saying that the paras ought to leave (given that they do not have a mandate to enforce the broken peace) or that we should send in the marines as well?

There are good reasons for bet-hedging right now. If Foday Sankoh's rebels, having violated the UN-brokered peace, sweep into Freetown and set about the population with their trademark barbarism, we are all going to feel rather badly about ourselves. Who would want to be associated with the inevitable pictures of heads on sticks, severed limbs and teenagers shot dead on the streets? The journalistic post-mortem would not be kind to those who had argued against intervention.

My sister-in-law is from Sierra Leone, and much of her family is still over there. Whenever there is a crisis, there are long, urgent phone calls and something close to terror. My relationship with her forces me to consider the question of what, if I were a resident of Freetown, I would want Britain to do. I look at my nephew Kerifa and think of his uncles and aunts and cousins waiting for the amputators to arrive.

Though the term "civil war" is used to describe the conflict in Sierra Leone, it is an inadequate description of what is essentially a criminal insurgency directed by an armed gang against the civilian population of an impoverished nation. For those who know anything about the Thirty Years' War, in which 17th-century Germany was ravaged by mercenaries, Sierra Leone is the modern equivalent. And the people of that country are desperate simply to be protected against the rapacity of Sankoh. Prominent church figures have begged for our help, and the great crowd that demonstrated against Mr Sankoh earlier in the week called, above all, for British assistance.

Help them we must. Partly because it is us that they trust; partly because we were the colonial power and we have the responsibility. I'm not saying here that Britain should usurp the role of the UN force, whose morale has been badly hit by the kidnapping of 500 of its number. That force will shortly be re-inforced by 1,772 Indian and Bangladeshi troops, bringing the number of peace-keepers up to 11,000. But it is evident that British logistical support is needed for the UN to deploy itself so as to stop any rebel onslaught on the capital. That alone is worth achieving. The talk from Sierra Leone is that Sankoh's offensive can be halted. So, as far as I can see, Mr Cook is right to keep the troops there, and right not to rule out absolutely their participation in the defence of Freetown.

Once that has been accomplished, we can confront the longer-term problem. The model for the Sierra Leone settlement was the successful peace concluded between the government of Mozambique and the Renamo terror movement, whose members were as appalling as those belonging to Sankoh's extended gang. But it looks as though Sankoh is not prepared genuinely to have peace. If that is the case, then the UN and/or Britain either abandon Sierra Leone or decide to help to defeat Sankoh and bring him to justice as the war criminal he will have proved himself to be. Without being an expert on fighting insurgency in West Africa, that would be the course of action that conscience would favour.

Of course, the isolationists will set up a terrible din. But Conservatives, for instance, must see the contradiction between barring the doors to asylum-seekers on the one hand, and refusing to take action to avoid creating hundreds of thousands of refugees on the other. The Government must reconsider how much we spend on the armed forces. Conscience is expensive.

Let us finish with a combined arms assault on solipsism. It's time major dilemmas for the nation ceased to be reported merely as some kind of political embarrassment for the Government. The issue in Sierra Leone is not whether Mr Cook is personally enhanced or diminished by a particular course of action, but whether he takes the right action. In 1998 the Sandline case was discussed in Britain as though it was a minor scandal akin to the Mandelson mortgage, rather than a question of how best to save a people facing the kind of crisis that few of us could imagine in our worst nightmares. Such attitudes create cynicism, and cynicism kills.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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