Hostages or not, we are still right to be in Sierra Leone

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The kidnapping of British troops in Sierra Leone reminds us of the ever-present dangers that our armed forces face. Britons are ready to put their heads above the metaphorical and literal parapet in difficult situations worldwide; Britain can be justifiably proud. It can be argued that the willingness to send troops to areas where more cautious countries fear to tread merely represents an imperial hangover. But it is more than that.

The kidnapping of British troops in Sierra Leone reminds us of the ever-present dangers that our armed forces face. Britons are ready to put their heads above the metaphorical and literal parapet in difficult situations worldwide; Britain can be justifiably proud. It can be argued that the willingness to send troops to areas where more cautious countries fear to tread merely represents an imperial hangover. But it is more than that.

For a mixture of good and bad reasons (including 30 years of operations in Northern Ireland), Britain has unrivalled experience of handling tricky situations. As a result, British troops in Kosovo have gained unrivalled respect. They are simultaneously soldiers and diplomats: not to be messed with, but careful not to make tensions worse. It is a difficult tightrope, but one which the British forces have walked with remarkable success.

The 11 captured British troops were part of a 400-strong force which has been training the Sierra Leonean army, with the aim of enabling it to be strong enough to defend its own country. The West Side Boys, the gang that is holding them, are apparently demanding the release of one of their leaders from prison in return for the release of the Britons. Pleas both from the Sierra Leonean government and from Johnny Koroma, the former coup leader to whom the West Side Boys were once loyal, have been ignored. The West Side Boys' main agenda seems to be the desire for a licence to rob and rape.

The Tories, ever eager to criticise, have started talking of "mission creep". Certainly, the potential problem - mission without end - is serious. Although the British troops are not directly part of the United Nations force in Sierra Leone, a report published by the UN last week noted the "bitter and repeated" experience of peacekeeping operations that have gone wrong. Too often, politicians have refused to ask the difficult questions - what are we hoping to achieve? At what point will the mission be deemed complete?

Equally, however, washing of hands is not a sensible way forward. The suggestion that Britain use force to free the troops should not be ruled out. Above all, however, whether an end is reached by negotiation or by force, the fact that British troops find themselves exposed to risks does not mean their mission is wrong. The presence of British troops in Sierra Leone is unlikely to win extra UK votes; it can, however, help bring stability to Sierra Leone. If it succeeds in doing so, that should be reward enough.

Comments