Less mission creep, more mission fatigue
As David Cameron flies to Algiers, MPs in the Commons and commentators in the press are warning of “mission creep” over Britain’s involvement in the fight against African jihadists.
It seems to me that quite the opposite is likely to be true. Not so much a surplus of regional ambition as a lack of it. For all David Cameron’s talk of a “generational struggle” against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric – which reminds many of Tony Blair’s – does not match the reality.
We live with different military and budgetary capabilities, facing a much reduced terrorist threat, in a very different time.
Yesterday it was announced that 200 British soldiers will help train African forces in the region, with another 40 trainers specifically deployed in Mali; a further 90 will operate transport and spy aircraft.
But as Sir David Manning, Tony Blair’s former foreign policy adviser, put it to me last week, “things have reached a pretty pass when it is front page news that we have loaned somebody two aeroplanes.”
In fact, it may be a symptom of Britain’s war fatigue – post-Iraq, and as we “draw down” from Afghanistan – that such a fuss is made about Britain’s limited involvement in North Africa.
Five thousand job losses from the British army have been announced this month and 20,000 posts will be gone in the next seven years. Mr Cameron himself argued in the Commons last week that it was sensible that the French take the lead on military and intelligence cooperation in Francophone former colonies. Given today’s shrinking budgets, that isn’t about to change.
Mr Cameron’s trip to Algeria is long overdue for a British Prime Minister and is likely to lead to enhanced intelligence-sharing. But Algerian forces have years of experience dealing with Islamist militants and are unlikely to take kindly to too much British advice. The hope is that Mr Cameron opens up better lines of communication with a vast country traditionally left to the French to handle, not that the UK displaces Algeria’s relationship with France.
One Whitehall source tells me there is no evidence that British citizens have traveled to the Sahel region of North Africa to fight. That could change, but until it does the region will be France’s priority, not ours.
For all Cameron’s occasionally Blair-like language, for all his enthusiasm for Anglo-French cooperation following NATO’s air campaign against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, the Prime Minister’s advisers and the heads of the armed forces have no stomach for foreign wars of any scale.
Look at Syria. Whenever Downing Street and the Elysee palace moot that “something more must be done” following news of more massacres and refugee flows, the counsel from William Hague at the Foreign Office, and I understand from Sir John Sawers at MI6, is to proceed with extreme caution. The UK’s humanitarian aid budget goes up, but London is still a long way off arming Syrian fighters.
Nobody quite knows where in Syria the weapons might end up. Indeed, North Africa proves a salutary example. There’s evidence that weaponry supplied to Libyan rebels in 2011 was then sold on to Islamist fighters who attacked the Al Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month.
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