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By Peter Hoskin
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It
didn’t take long for David Cameron to offer British assistance to the French
forces in Mali. Only 24 hours after Operation Serval
had been initiated, to combat the Islamist militants who are spreading out from
the north of the African country, Mr Cameron was on the phone to President
Hollande to see what we might do. The outcome was announced
last night
: two RAF transport planes will be dispatched to provide logistical
support.

Admittedly,
this is a limited intervention, so far. But it already has parallels with
recent operations in Libya and Afghanistan. Libya because this is another
swift, targeted response to a situation that — with thousands of people fleeing
the north of Mali in the wake of reported atrocities — has definite humanitarian
dimensions. Afghanistan because the main emphasis of Mr
Cameron’s statement
yesterday was on preventing the spread of terrorism. Or,
as he put it:

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.”

I’m
sure this concern is Mr Cameron’s overriding reason for getting involved in the
Mali conflict: like all Prime Ministers, he does not take military decisions
lightly. But it’s also hard to ignore the possible political ramifications of
all this. The PM’s relationship with François Hollande is generally even
tetchier than that he had with Nicolas Sarkozy, and yet he may soon require Mr Hollande’s
help to secure a new relationship between Britain and the EU, particularly
given the recent
noises
emanating from Berlin. His willingness to assist the French in Mali
may have diplomatic benefits.

And
as for whether that British assistance will be stepped up, perhaps even to the
point where we have a combat role, much could depend on what progress the
French make by themselves, and whether the US gets involved too. The White
House is currently said to be mulling over a French request for support in the
shape of military drones. This could escalate yet.

P.S.
My former colleagues at the Spectator’s Coffee House have put together a useful
briefing on Mali here.

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