Our military needs a mandate

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Whatever the politicians say about evacuating British citizens, the real reason why British troops have been deployed in Sierra Leone is the rather questionable one of saving the United Nations from embarrassment. The existing 8,900-strong UN force was completely overwhelmed by renewed offensives from the opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and had neither the equipment nor the rules of engagement that would have enabled them to keep control. More than 500 peacekeepers had been kidnapped, many others disarmed and dispersed. To prevent their total humiliation, urgent action was needed - and the British were willing and able to help. The initial battalion of paras is now due to be complemented by 600 Royal Marines and an amphibious force including the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. The British Government insists that we are not taking sides in a civil war; that the troops are there only to restore calm in Freetown while we wait for UN reinforcements from Jordan, India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone government talks of its forces pushing back the rebels, "backed by British soldiers" - but it is not at all clear how. Not even the Ministry of Defence seems to be completely in the picture: this is unquestionably a Foreign Office "show". All of which leads many observers to warn of "mission creep" - the fear that we are likely to be forced into combat against the RUF by stealth, without Parliament having had the chance to debate the issue. Doubtless our desire to "punch above our weight" and maintain our seat on the UN Security Council played a part in the decision. Doubtless, too, Army chiefs were keen to show off their usefulness after years of cutbacks and questions over their capabilities.

There is absolutely no question that the RUF is a brutal, murderous army. There is no doubt, either, that the democratic government of Sierra Leone wants and probably needs our help, or that the UN welcomes our support: Kofi Annan confirmed that yesterday. So we were right to give the immediate support which was requested. But to operate outside the UN mandate and rules of engagement - and particularly without the backing of the House of Commons - is not the answer. Even if to do so would restrict some of the more gung-ho elements of our forces, the Government should press for proper UN Security Council backing; should make clear our objectives and our rules of engagement; and should allow parliamentary time tomorrow for a full debate on Sierra Leone.