29 Jan 2013 By Tim Ross, James Kirkup - telegraph.co.uk
Britain risks being dragged into a drawn out Afghan-style conflict in Mali, MPs warned after David Cameron announced that more than 300 troops would be sent to north Africa in the fight against al-Qaeda.
In a significant escalation of Britain’s military commitment to the region, Downing Street said that up to 330 troops would go to Mali and neighbouring countries.
Up to 40 will be based in Mali, training government troops as they support the French-led intervention against the country’s al-Qaeda-linked rebels. Another 200 will be sent to train soldiers in other African countries so they can join the assault.
Britain will also share intelligence and offer a roll-on roll-off ferry to carry French equipment to Mali. A joint logistics headquarters could also be established with France.
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, conceded that there was a danger of “mission creep” in Mali but insisted that Britain had “an absolute duty” to intervene against terrorists.
Senior military figures and MPs from both sides of the Commons raised concerns of a lengthy conflict in north Africa resembling the wars in Afghanistan or Vietnam. In an urgent debate, Mr Hammond insisted that Britain’s role in the conflict was in the national interest, and promised an “efficient” result.
“The UK has a clear interest in the stability of Mali and ensuring its territory does not become an ungoverned space available for al-Qaeda and its associates to organise attacks on the West,” he said. “We have an absolute duty to intervene wherever there is a threat to Britain’s national security and the security of Britain’s interests around the world and this is exactly such a case.”
British troops will be authorised to open fire only in “self defence” , he said. No troops would provide “force protection” for the proposed European Union training mission in Mali and there was no “intention” to deploy front-line troops, he said. “We are very clear about the risks of mission creep. We have defined very carefully the support that we are willing to provide to the French and the Malian authorities.”
John Baron, a Conservative MP, warned Mr Hammond that Britain could be “drawn into ever deepening conflicts”. Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said the public was “wary and weary of conflict” and Frank Dobson, the former Labour cabinet minister, suggested that Mali could become Britain’s “Vietnam”, a war which he said began with American troops “in a training capacity”.
As French troops swept into Timbuktu, the former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, warned that nations involved in the country faced a “protracted guerrilla warfare”.
The troops being sent directly to Mali will join an EU-led training mission. The other 200 British troops being sent to the region will be deployed to English speaking countries, such as Nigeria and Ghana, which are contributing soldiers to support the Malian government.
Talks on the details of both missions were continuing last night. The Prime Minister’s spokesman disclosed that 70 British personnel were already based in Senegal operating a Sentinel spy plane to support the French, while 20 RAF crew were operating a C-17 transport, which will stay in Mali for three months.
The Government is also prepared to make British facilities available for “allies”, thought to include the US, to mount mid-air refuelling operations. It has refused to send drone aircraft to Mali because it cannot spare any from operations in Afghanistan.
The commitments so far will mean that up to 60 British personnel will be inside Mali, with about 270 elsewhere in the region.
Mr Cameron’s spokesman said: “It is in the international community’s interests to support the Malian government and the wider region in dealing with terrorist havens and that is exactly what we are doing.”