By Richard Bingley, Director CSARN and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security and Resilience, Buckinghamshire New University
Images of French planes and Special Forces being deployed into nearby Mali were being relayed in the bustling Moroccan city hotels and cafes of Marrakesh, Ouzerzate and Zagora; the oasis outpost near Algeria’s border where I travelled last weekend. General security and surveillance was tightened; a sign of understandable worries about the targeting of French or other ‘western’ visitors possibly in response to events in Mali several hundred miles away.
What became for me less understandable were images of British military transport planes, (eventually) leaving the UK to provide logistical support to France’s intervention. I know that France rejoined NATO’s military command back in 2009, and that joint UK-France operations in Libya were broadly perceived a strategic success, but I have to admit that my initial instinct was to scratch my head. What is going on here? Does the UK have a strategic purpose? Or, perhaps, something was about to come to light that I had missed?
On reflection and further examination, events have moved very swiftly from last December’s decision at the UN (Resolution 2085) to mandate three thousand African troops to enter Mali, bolster crumbling defences, and repel a perceived jihadist insurgency, that is also reportedly providing sanctuary and resources for AQIM (Al-Qaeda Islamic Maghreb). Progress had been slow since.
France therefore entered Mali with an invitation from the official, and under-siege, Malian government in Bamako. Paris then won full support for its actions at last Monday’s (14/01/13) emergency UN Security Council meeting in New York and secured a hugely supportive statement from its General Secretary Ban Ki-moon.
Not the usual suspects to cheerlead military interventions, both Channel 4 News and the Guardian Online (‘Why Malians are welcoming French intervention with open arms’), have initially given positive coverage to France’s actions. Today’s London Times reports that the EU is compiling a request for member states including the UK to provide ground forces. French media organisations overwhelmingly show their countrymen as feted liberators. They are hardly alone.
Nevertheless, others say the situation on the ground is by no means clear. Some aid organisations report that large numbers non-combatants are evacuating themselves (mass displacement) and sustained airstrikes ensure that help can’t reach communities. And there is by no means one homogenous adversary.
Indeed, Mali’s territory comprises of a network of insurgency groups ruthlessly committed to overthrowing interim President, Dioncounda Traore, who they view as the victor of a military coup. Stop the War Coalition, an umbrella group of NGOs and charities, published a press statement on behalf of their members with the headline: ‘Mali: the west’s addiction to war is spreading terrorism not reducing it’ (15/01/13). There will be many in Parliament who overtly, or discreetly, sign up to this sentiment.
Therefore, what is likely to be Britain’s role? It is genuinely too early to tell. But perhaps it shouldn’t be... does a democracy require some form of public debate? Or are analysts expecting too much explanation, too soon?
A week ago our strategic military focus was by no means crystal clear. But for some, it seems a little more muddied right now.
This is because in the UK momentum among policy-makers seemed to be shifting behind the idea of less intervention, not more, principally due to austerity impacted defence budgets, the legacy of the ‘war on terror’, and a perceived shift in sources of threat to the UK.
The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SSDR) planned to reduce UK armed forces by 17,000 overall (cutting 23 army units) and to build more capacity and capability to counter cyber threats. It attempted to lock together all the silos of domestic and international security risks under one master plan. Good intentions, some might feel, but has any real attempt been made to deliver on such a holistic risk treatment process for the UK?
For instance, has any risk analysis been carried out on behalf of UK businesses and civilians around the longer-term impact on threat levels, both in Britain, and also whilst travelling overseas, caused by any UK military engagement in Mali? If so, and threat levels have risen, what should be our extra layers of mitigation?
Moreover, the UK has publicly committed to ‘drawing down’ our troop deployments in Afghanistan by 2014. Although established written defence policy appears to be shifting away from ground-force military engagement, the reality is that the UK’s proactive roles in the UN Security Council and at NATO, often nudge the UK in an opposite, interventionist, direction.
Indeed for many recruits into the armed forces, peacekeeping operations and the chance to be a force for good in an often unjust world is the motivating, noble, force behind enlisting.
For many security analysts, it is no surprise that some underlying principles to SSDR appear a little unstuck this week, courtesy of Mali’s ongoing plight and President Hollande’s robust response.
Dynamic and fast-moving security events will often sink good intentions and best laid plans. Prussian military general von Moltke famously said: “no [battle] plan survives first contact with the enemy.” The lack of planning is not usually, therefore, a cognitive hindrance for Governments who give orders to deploy or, likewise, for adaptive and professional armed forces.However, I for one, am keen to see a debate around some of these questions I pose, emerge in the UK House of Commons and from the parliamentary lobby correspondents. If only to understand a little more.