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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.