As the UK sends 330 personnel to assist France's military intervention in Mali, there are real concerns that, like Afghanistan, the UK will be mired in another intractable conflict. However, the strategic conditions are very different for this to happen and it is wrong to assume there will be mission creep.
Not surprisingly the decisions taken to commit British ground forces to operations in Mali have sent a message of déjà vu to the British people. And the media and opposition politicians have been quick to post the buzz words - 'embroilment' and 'mission creep', notwithstanding the assurances of the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary that British forces will not be engaged in combat.
Before United Kingdom forces returned to Afghanistan in 2006 to lead the NATO intervention force the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, gave similar assurances. The Bosnian war began for Britain with a commitment of a small medical team to Croatia on the heels of a more sizeable French force. And George W Bush's 'victory' in Iraq in 2003 left Britain for years with huge and difficult unplanned regional responsibilities as an occupying and stabilising force.
David Cameron's assurance that the Mali commitment is to counter a direct threat to the United Kingdom of violent religious fundamentalism in North Africa has raised the justifiable and expected concerns that meddling in this region and type of conflict will bring more domestic terrorism home to Britain. The presumptions of 'early in - early out' that is the usual facile interpretation of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review have been seen to have been invalidated by operations of the last decade notwithstanding the previous experience of Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone.
In the case of Mali, however, it is wrong to presume mission creep. Britain does have responsibilities. The crisis in Mali is associated with recent events in Libya in which the United Kingdom was a principal protagonist. There it was 'early in - early out' notwithstanding the mess that has been left behind. And Britain is fortunate that in the case of Mali, France, for reasons of association and history, has taken the major lead.
Britain's contribution directly in support of France has been in air capabilities, lift and surveillance. The forty personnel despatched to Mali itself are the British contribution to the European Union Training Mission - some irony there for backbench Tory MPs. The further 200 troops are for training support to Commonwealth countries in West Africa who are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) who are expected to provide the force to take over responsibilities in Mali once France has enabled the government to repossess territory and provided an initial path to stabilisation.
'Defence Engagement' and upstream military commitment to help regional nations develop their own military capacities to prevent crises from developing was a key theme of Britain's 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. One would expect Commonwealth countries in Africa to be a priority in Britain. The Mali crisis may be a catalyst for this engagement (as Libya was for the French-United Kingdom Defence Treaty) but it would not be inappropriate in any event bearing in mind concerns about instability in North Africa and the rise of Al-Qa'ida associated violent fundamentalism.
Britain's Treaty Obligations to France
With regard to the Lancaster House Treaty of November 2010, this should be understood as a principal factor in Britain's commitment to the direct support of France in Mali itself. France would probably not have intervened in Mali had it not been for the Islamist extremism issue and implications for the entire region. North Africa is more of a direct security problem for France and other Mediterranean European nations notwithstanding Cameron's association with Britain's security.
If Britain cannot help France albeit in a modest way when the main call is on her - and expect the same from France - then the Treaty is a dead duck whatever progress is made in joint force structures and interoperability. It represents political will in spades. British support is diplomatic through the military contribution. And the United Kingdom would hope to have similar support where the balance of security concern, interest and security lay with Britain. Overseas Territories and Departments would be interesting test cases.
Risks for embroilment
So what is the risk for Britain for embroilment? It is not very probable. France has very much of a leading role and the direct British contribution to operations in Mali is airborne support. The United Kingdom is but one of the contributors to the French led EU Training Mission. These contributions typically have timelines. Training support to ECOWAS forces should be an ongoing process for the United Kingdom in any event if there is substance to defence engagement and relates to wider security and stability of the region.
Britain's minor role does not bring with it a heavy burden of reputation - nor that of moral responsibility to see things through bearing in mind that there is no allocation of territorial responsibilities such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is the possibility of combat as defined as the organised use of violence to win in a competition. Possible scenarios would be the need to defend British forces in their training tasks and to respond to attempts by guerrillas to capture British forces for instance as hostages whether in Mali, Nigeria, Ghana or elsewhere. Response would not in these situations be enduring. Combat for seizure or defence of territory or airspace is not part of the present mission.
A more likely risk of embroilment would be a situation in which France could not transfer security and stabilisation responsibilities to ECOWAS because they were not competent to deal with the levels of violence. Or ECOWAS subsequently failed. One expects that France would retain a strategic reserve in particular of air power, but there could be huge pressure for ground troops. In either case Britain would not have the obligation of a framework nation or major partner to make a large national commitment. Any further commitment would be negotiated. And the British government can invoke parliamentary debate over a higher level of engagement as well as coalition government solidarity on one hand as tools for popular support and on the other as excuses for avoiding embroilment.
One further thought, if one of these scenarios was to unfold when the drawdown in Afghanistan was well underway, what pressure might there be from the leadership of the British Services and the Army in particular for more substantial involvement to justify force levels or increases?
Senior Associate Fellow for Military History