Britain fights the fallout of the Libyan intervention in Mali

The rebellion against the Malian government has its roots in the fall of Gaddafi.

Britain is to assist French military operations in Mali, Downing Street confirmed today. The help was agreed between the Prime Minister and President Hollande, and follows French intervention to support the Malian government's efforts to halt an advance by rebels.

A Downing Street spokesperson said:

The Prime Minister spoke to President Hollande this evening to discuss the deteriorating situation in Mali and how the UK can support French military assistance provided to the Malian Government to contain rebel and extremist groups in the north of the country.

The Prime Minister has agreed that the UK will provide logistical military assistance to help transport foreign troops and equipment quickly to Mali.

We will not be deploying any British personnel in a combat role. They also agreed that the peacekeeping mission from West African countries needs to be strongly supported by countries in the region and deployed as quickly as possible.

Both leaders agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there.

Britain's role in the intervention is planned to be minor – no troops will be on the ground, and current air support is limited to two transport planes, expected to be deployed in the next day or two – but it is already involved in the broader picture. There is a direct line from our intervention in Libya to the current explosion of violence in Mali.

The uprising in Northern Mali was the result of an alliance between the traditionally secular Tuaregs, a group who have their roots in Mali but also lived in large numbers in Libya, and Jihadist groups who were mainly expelled from Algeria. That alliance was enabled by the conditions left after Western intervention.

Dr Berny Sèbe, a lecturer in colonial and post-colonial studies at the University of Birmingham, explained:

From a military point of view, it offered to both groups a fresh source of modern and effective weaponry and ammunition which they could steal or buy cheaply, and drive home across the Sahara. In particular, it gave their flying columns a level of firepower they could only have dreamt of before Gaddafi's fall.

That military effect was exacerbated by the fact that many Turaegs had been working as mercenaries in the Gaddafi army. When that army fell, it created a surplus of well-trained unemployed soldiers – who returned to Mali.

The power-vacuum that Gaddafi left didn't just create a pool of armed, workless mercenaries returning to Libya. It also meant that "a major political counter-weight to Islamist terrorism disappeared", Dr Sèbe said.

"Gaddafi was powerful in the Sahel region and used his influence to counter the development of militant Islamism in his country and in West Africa. His fall accelerated the deterioration of political and military conditions, first in Northern Mali and then in the whole country," he added.

Whether or not that line of causality imposes on Britain a moral obligation to aid the Malian government against the Tuareg rebels is doubtless something which came under discussion between Cameron and Hollande. But if Britain does have an obligation, it cannot just stop at fighting back the immediate threat to the Republic of Mali, Dr Sèbe argued:

Mali has been one of very few functioning democracies in Africa over the last two decades, but it has had a tradition of neglecting its vast, and ethnically marginalised, northern half — where the rebellion started. Eliminating terrorist groups in the inhospitable and guerrilla-prone terrain of the Malian Sahara, with its complex make up of Tuareg confederacies, will become possible only if a viable political and economic alternative is offered by the central government.

More than pounding training camps and flying columns of pick-up trucks, this will be the real challenge that Bamako and its African and Western allies will have to face in the coming months.

The path of further British engagement in Mali will be decided on Tuesday when the Government's National Security Council meets.

Malian police patrol in Bamako. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.