The UK government is going for gold in mission creep. Just a week ago, David Cameron clearly indicated there would be “no boots on the ground” in Mali. His office declared there was “absolutely” no question of British troops entering the conflict “in a combat role”. Britain would lend two C-17 transports and that was it.
To this was soon added a surveillance plane. Now there is to be a roll-on-roll-off ferry. France may be awash in nuclear bombs and aircraft carriers, but it cannot ship an army to a real war. Then, as French troops advanced on Timbuktu, the adrenaline of triumph drifted across the Channel and into the nostrils of Westminster. Could Britain play too?
Cameron descended into his Cobra bunker, his lips quivering with the thrill of fear. Like every prime minister who uses that place, he emerged feeling he had to talk Churchill. He told the Commons: “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security. We must beat them militarily. We must address the poisonous narrative they feed on. We must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive and we must deal with the grievances they use to garner support.” The deliciously operative word was “we”.
Cameron then said: “If there were a British contribution to [the war], it would be in the tens, not in the hundreds”. His spokesman elaborated that it would be “at the lower end of that range” and just for training. By last week, tens had indeed become hundreds, so far 350 “trainers” and an as yet undisclosed force protection unit.
None of these would, at this stage, have “a combat role”. Indeed, it now appeared that 90 troops were already on the ground, for “logistics, intelligence and surveillance support”. Everyone, said the Defence Minister, Philip Hammond, yesterday, would be taking part for just “a short intervention to stabilise things on the ground”. Very soon, the local Africans will take over. No one will be “in combat”. It was just a case of in-and-out, easy to handle, reasonable, no trouble.
This is the jargon of creep-speak down the ages. It was used in 1914 and 1939. It was used at Basra and Helmand. I suggest Cameron at once ban from sale William Dalrymple’s new book, The Return of a King, a gripping account of the 1839 British Afghan expedition and a textbook on mission creep.
He should also ban the BBC’s mischievous choice of the book as Radio 4’s current book of the week. Every night Britons hear Tim Pigott-Smith listing the follies of half-baked British interventionism: The national threats exaggerated for the sake of glory, the enemies underrated, allies unreliable, warnings ignored, people craving revenge — above all, the arrogance of an unspoken racial supremacy, that “our values” are better than theirs, that “we have the Gatling and they have not”.
The first Afghan war led to disaster for the same reasons as the Russian intervention in the 1990s and Nato’s today. Britain’s expedition into Helmand in 2006 was of such predictable folly that even the Victorian panjandrums of the British Punjab might have thought twice before launching it. Small wonder politicians no longer read history. It would give them nightmares.
Parallels with the past and with other theatres of war should not be glibly drawn. Mali is not Afghanistan. There the so-called Al Qaida menace appears to be a ragtag coalition of Tawareqs, gangsters and dissidents, armed with weapons mostly released by Nato’s regime change in Libya. They managed to grab a barely accessible Saharan base, but have melted away at the first sign of serious opposition.
Africa still answers to the drum of empire. As in Sierra Leone — now a British protectorate — so in the former French colonies, European powers are drawn back to redefine and reclaim their old responsibilities. Mali is France’s Sierra Leone. That is her affair.
To pretend this poses an “existential threat” to Britain passes belief. Cameron has to elevate the supposed Malian “affiliates” of Al Qaida to the status of a “generational” menace, which he claims will last for decades. They must be “beaten militarily”, “the ungoverned space” in which they thrive “closed down” and the grievances on which they prey dealt with. And all by Britons.
There is no remit under the UN or international law for Britons to be fighting wars in the Sahara. Britons grasp at the fact that they are an EU ally of France, which is an ally of the part of Mali that failed to protect its northern citizens from marauders. It is odd how eager Cameron is to cite the EU when on shaky ground.
On January 22, Jason Burke, in the Guardian, gave a detailed assessment of Al Qaida’s current condition. It bore not the slightest relation to the global monster of the prime minister’s Cobra-fevered imagination. It was not on the same planet.
Even at its height, a decade ago, Al Qaida could do no more than stage a few terrorist spectaculars. These were nasty, but modern cities can survive them, and modern policing appears recently to have their measure.
Al Qaida has failed to win over a government, a territory or a large body of support. If it (whatever it is) really planned the Mali incursion, it could not even hold Timbuktu. Cameron’s politics of fear may be in need of an enemy, but is this the best he can do to stir the blood of the heirs of Blenheim and Waterloo?
The one thing on which Al Qaida relies for recruits is its status as world bogeyman. It is a comfort blanket for securocrats and a franchise for crazies. It also feeds on the over-rapid “modernisation” of Muslim countries, easily portrayed as being under western influence.
It is this that has destabilised Pakistan and Egypt and is playing into the hands of fundamentalist parties everywhere. The “values of imperialism” of western intervention is Al Qaida’s best hope.
The Oxford historian, John Darwin, has written of empire as rarely a coherent project, but rather the result of “thinking in monoliths”, the default mode of most state organisations. It is a habit of mind that has not gone away. Last week, Cameron could speak with passion of Britain’s national sovereignty and culture, defending them against Europe’s interfering neo-imperialists. It is strange he cannot see that many states and people around the world feel just the same about Britain.
Mali in practice may prove no big deal. It is Mali in theory that is so dangerous.