29 Jan 2013

Fears over ‘mission creep’ in Mali as UK pledges troops

UK troops will be sent to Mali, Downing Street confirms. But as the list of “non-combat” roles provided by the armed forces grows, is the mission already starting to creep?


Britain will deploy just 200 troops to Africa, with 40 more providing training in Mali, but fears remain that mission creep that could see Britain dragged into a decades-long security operation in the country once the initial military push is finished.

Another 70 RAF personnel will oversee surveillance in the region, while 20 soldiers will operate a C-17 transport plane for the next three months. Air-to air refuelling services and a roll-on, roll-off ferry service are also being offered.

Joe Glenton, who served with the British Army in Afghanistan but refused to return for a second tour, told Channel 4 News that Britain’s role in Mali is already starting to snowball.

He drew parallels with the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, where he says the presence of troops provoked a large insurgency.

‘Precipitated insurgency’

“We’re going in with a training role, that’s what happened in Afghanistan. The increased troops attracted and precipitated the insurgency there.

“Initially they sent in Hercules transport planes, but there would be troops on the ground to secure them. It’s not just advisers – there are drones and intelligence assets and special forces no doubt in the area.”

Today former army head Sir Mike Jackson backed the government’s move but warned of “protracted guerrilla warfare”. Joe Glenton believes that the positive sentiment towards the military presence battling Islamists across Mali could quickly turn sour, as he has seen in the Middle East.

“There is an initial euphoria, people want the troops there, but now it all depends on how long that lasts.

“It is similar to Iraq where there are different areas of influence. The French will win the battle but it’s what comes after you have to worry about. The Malian government took power in a coup and it is likely to fracture down the line.”

Already Taureg rebels in the north have moved against Islamists but asserted that they will not co-operate with the Malian military. The group had played a central role in the country’s conflict last April but was sidelined by al-Qaeda linked militants.

China’s influence

China is Mali’s largest export partner and plays an important role in the country. Having previously offered support for the military to fight Islamists, their response to the French intervention has been reserved.

Chinese Ambassador Zhong Jianhua attended the international donors’ conference in Mali today and the country is considering offering further support and aid. They also called for the implementation of UN resolution 2085 – emphasising political dialogue and authorising an African-led military response to events.

China has spent millions on infrastructure in the country, where a number of companies have been granted uranium mining licences near Kidal and Gao. Mali is also the third largest gold producer in Africa.

Timbuktu damage

Trooops were too late to save some of the ancient artefacts in the desert town of Timbuktu, where Islamists have ruled since last April. Two tombs and several listed mausoleums were destroyed at the world heritage site last July.

Militants also broke down the sacred door of a mosque that has been sealed since the 15th century. The UN condemned the attacks and called on Ansar Dine to stop, but did not intervene.

As rebels fled Timbuktu yesterday, a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts was torched. Unesco is trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute.

“It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world,” said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.