The announcement of the complete withdrawal of British troops from Mali is terrible news for both international peacekeeping and the credibility of British foreign policy.
I have written about Operation Newcombe before because it began when I was in Libya and was closely linked to our Special Forces’ work to prevent the spread of Al Qaida in the Maghreb. The task in Mali is probably the most challenging of all the current British Army deployments both in terms of physical environment and conceptual complexities. It is also one of only three areas where the new General Service Medal is awarded.
Mali is designated as one of the United Nations least developed countries, where poverty is rife and mortality rates are among some of the worst in the world. The people desperately need Aid, but the delivery of medical support, food, supplies and education depends on their physical security. However, the strategic stakes are not just humanitarian, but also involve people trafficking, weapons proliferation and international terrorism. The Long Range Reconnaissance Group that operates from Gao, 250 miles from Timbuctoo, is making a vital contribution and its withdrawal will have severe consequences not only for the Sahel region, but also asylum destinations.
Unfortunately, the strong military government that took over the country in a series of coups has now allied itself to Russia through the mercenary group Wagner. The previous government was propped up by France, which led the international peacekeeping efforts in the desolate countryside. However the current government has rejected western exhortations and is looking for a military solution similar to the Russian aided Assad government victory in Syria and Khalifa Haftar’s success in Libya. Taken together with the 2019 withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is another humiliation for the West as its declining influence continues in World affairs.
As a former author of British peacekeeping policy, I find it tragic how our government has become confused about what it is doing and is now reliant on others for its key military capabilities, so it cannot act independently. If we wish to maintain our place at the high table within the United Nations, then we must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and actively help on the ground, rather than just point the finger from the touch-line (or an Aircraft Carrier).