For a man cutting the military budget so much, David Cameron does seem to like using the Armed Forces. His personal conviction to act in Libya played a major part in deposing Col Gadaffi – after Afghanistan, his second war. And tonight, it looks like there may be a third. He has just offered the RAF support to the French, whose military is trying to oust al-Qaeda from their former colony in Mali. No10 has just released the following statement:-

“The Prime Minister spoke to President Hollande this evening to discuss the deteriorating situation in Mali and how the UK can support French military assistance provided to the Malian Government to contain rebel and extremist groups in the north of the country. The Prime Minister has agreed that the UK will provide logistical military assistance to help transport foreign troops and equipment quickly to Mali. We will not be deploying any British personnel in a combat role…

Both leaders agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there. They discussed the need to work with the Malian Government, regional neighbours and international partners to prevent a new terrorist haven developing on Europe’s doorstep and to reinvigorate the UN led political process once the rebel advance has been halted.”

It looks like this means lending th French two of the RAF’s C-17s, which are basically flying warehouses. But what could come next? Spectator subscribers will be fully-briefed on Mali. Last September, the impeccably-informed Con Coughin had this to say about future British involvement:-

Word among senior British military officers is that, if it becomes necessary to neutralise the Mali threat, it will be left to our much-vaunted and overworked special forces to take the action required. Britain would not deploy a large combat element of the kind dispatched to Sierra Leone in 2000. As units of the Special Boat Squadron discovered last March, there are no guarantees of success when dealing with Islamist fanatics who think nothing of sacrificing their lives for the al-Qa’eda cause. The SBS were sent to rescue the British hostage Chris McManus, who had been captured by a Nigerian al-Qa’eda cell which had close ties with like-minded terror groups in Mali. He was killed in a gun battle.

Bin Laden came to the world’s attention during the boom years — but his African successors are striking at a time when defence budgets are being eviscerated throughout the Nato alliance. The French approach is immeasurably more proactive than anything you will hear in London or Washington. This approach might suit the bean-counters who now preside over our defence strategy, but it is unlikely to make the world a safer place.

But Cameron, like Blair, is a great believer in Britain’s armed forces being a force for good in the world (even if he is cutting the MoD budget by twice as much as he is increasing the overseas aid budget). Cameron may have been encouraged by the success of Libya, just as Blair was by the success of Sierra Leone. Hollande is upset because Mali is an ex-colony and home to 6,000 French citizens. But Cameron’s language over Mali (and the death of two French troops there) certainly suggests he also sees this as a shared mission of some kind.

“I am deeply concerned about the recent rebel advances in Mali, which extend the reach of terrorist groups and threaten the stability of the country and the wider region… Last night’s tragic events underline how essential it is that we work together to combat terrorism in Africa.”

The 2000 Sierra Leone operation was led by a Brig. David Richards, now UK military chief. “I could see that with a little robustness, we could make a difference,” he said of his Freetown freelancing. Richards had been told to prepare for an evacuation, and he expanded his brief somewhat and decided to intervene in a civil war. The MoD let him, and it was a great success.

What will the soon-to-depart Richards be thinking, now, about Mali? And might the Anglo-French alliance, so effective in Libya, be applied more heavily in Mali? Over the next few months, we’ll find out.

Tags: foreign affairs, Mali