Earlier this month John Healey, the Shadow Defence Secretary, wrote for this site demanding that the Government explain to Parliament its reasons for deploying 300 British troops to Mali as part of the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission there.
By good fortune, an official announcement about the decision was forthcoming the same day:
“300 UK troops have arrived in Mali as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, primarily drawn from the Light Dragoons alongside the Royal Anglian Regiment and supported by specialist trades from across the Armed Forces. The UK Task Force will provide a highly specialised reconnaissance capability, conducting patrols to gather intelligence and engage with the local population to help the UN respond to threats from violent extremism, and weak governance.”
In numbers terms this is a relatively small part of the 14,000-strong UN operation, although it is apparently providing a critical capability. Nor are the dragoons the first British troops on the ground in the Sahel. James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, pointed out in his statement to the House of Commons that we are also providing helicopter support to Operation Barkhane, the separate (and at over personnel, very substantial) French operation in the country.
But it is still significant. Heappey told MPs that “it is important to stress that deploying to MINUSMA does not come without risk”, and Healey that “Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face”. There is a real danger of British casualties from this deployment, and it marks the first time since Iraq that the UK has committed ‘boots on the ground’ (except for special forces) to a new theatre.
Does this reflect a slow rebuilding of cross-party political will to deploy the Armed Forces? David Cameron tried to do so in Syria, but was prevented by Ed Miliband’s gamesmanship. Perhaps it is in recognition of the consequences of that decision that Healey stresses Labour’s recognition of the interwoven humanitarian, development, and security cases for deploying now.