Just a few weeks ago, intervention in Mali was to be a short, sharp, French-only mission. Britain was supplying two transport planes, but only as a nod to cross-Channel military co-operation. There would, the Prime Minister promised, be no boots on the ground.
Now, however – with barely a blink and certainly no debate in Parliament – nearly 400 British military personnel are to be sent to the region. True, they will not be in combat; the majority will be training troops from Mali and its regional supporters. But the move looks alarmingly like mission creep nonetheless.
Ministry of Defence talk of the need to be “flexible” hardly sets such concerns at rest. Nor, indeed, does David Cameron’s excitable response to the Algerian hostage crisis, envisaging a decades-long struggle against terrorism in North Africa. To underline the point, he flew to Algiers to discuss regional security – the first prime ministerial visit since independence in 1962.
Even the prognosis for Mali itself only emphasises the dangers. The French Foreign Minister may have promised a swift exit after his country’s troops took control of Kidal, the Islamists’ last urban stronghold. But insurgents have a tendency to dodge frontal assaults by simply melting into the background for a while, and it remains uncertain whether the government in Bamako – challenged by both ethnic Tuaregs and Islamists – will be able to keep control without continued support from the French. Meanwhile, the influx of troops from Mali’s neighbours (British-trained or not) will bring issues of its own.
All of which adds up to scarcely less complex a situation than that which mired British troops ever more deeply in Afghanistan. The Defence Secretary says the Government is “very clear” about the risks of mission creep. Its actions suggest otherwise.