Good Morning Mali: Why Britain should be aware of France’s African mission

Ah, a New Year. A time of new possibilities. In politics though, some things really do never change. Yes, once again the West is off to war as troops arrive in the West African country of Mali. This time though, there are at least some differences. Firstly, this is no crusade in aid of removing a tyrannical despot. The Malian Government has actually asked for military support to crush a group who, having fought in Libya, have used their weapons and training to occupy the Northern half of the country. Secondly, it is France and not the usual suspects, the US with the UK in heel, who lead the assault, they who looked on scornfully at military calamities in Iraq.

Their reason for involvement? Well as Mali was a French colony until 1960, the feeling in France is that there is a sense of duty in helping when asked for. But there is more than pride up for grabs, for the militia who Mali seeks to destroy have certain links to Al-Qaeda, although the extent of this is highly debatable. For France then, action has two attractions: support a nation whom they have historic links with while striking against that great foe of the West.

However, while France is very much playing protagonist, their action is not exactly unilateral. It was with some surprise that the British public learnt that they too would support the mission. Initially, Britain’s role should not be considered as significant as some have portrayed. Downing Street has made clear that there will be no boots on the ground, with support being one of merely equipment and some logistical help. That shouldn’t really be considered odd. It didn’t get much response at the time, but in 2010 Britain and France announced a military union as a way to enabling both to have a stake in the world at half the cost. This has not made much of an impact because there were no new military activities in which it was required. This is therefore the first, making it seem more extraordinary. More than this, British involvement may also be a strategic ploy, with the theory being that supporting France now could be useful in the future. Relations between Britain and Europe on the whole are hardly rosy given Britain’s increasing Eurosceptism. A small token of military equipment then may just helps things on and would also mean that France would owe Britain a favour. That could prove rather useful.

But there is danger here. France has asked for little because it hasn’t needed much. But this is a step into the unknown for France and many dangers lurk. The issue isn’t military power, they have enough to dominant most of North Africa, but their opponents have no plans of fighting in the open, preferring instead to hide within civilian populations. They will likely flee from French troops, only to then reclaim territory once they’ve move on. So any hope that this can be settled quickly is overly optimistic. They will be soon supported militarily by other African nations, who should at least have more of an idea about the conflict, but as Steven Donlon’s piece rightly points out, this conflict is highly complex with an opponent fractured and far more diverse than western media would have everyone believe. The force in question has been around for some time and will not give up easily. That will put pressure on France to make some difficult decisions. If the conflict drags on, they will surely be tempted to withdraw troops, perhaps supplying more air support instead. But this would do little for military prestige and would hardly be considered a successful mission given they’ve so readily rallied to Mali’s aid. But if they stay, do they do so with the same numbers? In Vietnam of course, the United States initially only supplied some advisers and then a few small battalions. Before they knew it, it was a full scale war. If Somalia is any gauge for Western action in Africa, then there is every chance France could face similar risks. Then there is the follow up threats by further action. The hostage situation in an Algeria oil refinery currently ongoing is a clear response to France’s involvement in the region. If they stay, they will likely face more of such attacks. How many more are they prepared to bear in the name of this conflict?

And this is the problem for Britain. Providing a plane here or there is fine, but if France gets dragged further into a complex socio-political conflict, and there is a real risk of that, what then? Will they ask Britain for more? And if so, what will be the response? Britain has stated it is only supplying limited support, but far too often that is exactly how conflicts begin. And Mali is not quick fix solution. It is not a Falkland style battle. It is a Vietnam or an Afghanistan, with a diverse enemy fighting in challenging military terrain. France may hope to nip this in the bud, but their adversaries have rather different ideas. They want to drag France into a war of attrition, which aren’t exactly won overnight. This is why Britain must decide how much they are prepared to give. British involvement in an overseas war considered by most to be of little national interest will not go down well at a time of severe financial hardship at home. Some military equipment may be acceptable, it at least strengthens Britain’s military alliance with France. Active troop involvement is not though, for few could say how long they would be there for in a region which now looks set to be the new battleground for the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Britain is finally scaling down its long overdue mission in Afghanistan and with deep cuts in the Ministry of Defence, the last thing needed is immediate involvement somewhere else. It was Howard Wilson who when asked by the US for military support in Vietnam refused, telling them that it was their war to fight and not Britain’s. If France does get dragged in and asks for more, Cameron would do wise to remember him.