Events in Algeria are truly worrying. But it is perhaps the situation in Mali which is of even greater concern. On Thursday former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner seriously suggested that Britain should send ground troops to Mali to support his country’s efforts. Up to now, British support has been restricted to two supply planes. Mr Kouchner regarded that help as rather pathetic, which was rather ungrateful of him. His argument was that because Britain and France had a lot of shared defence interests, we should support each other in times of crisis. A fair point as far as it goes, but one wonders if the boot were on the other foot what might happen.
It is at times like this that the prime ministerial mettle is truly tested. David Cameron may well have to make a very difficult decision indeed. If the French make an official request for British ground troops, what would his response be? He will know that voters would be dead against any sort of military intervention and if he agreed to it would cost him dear in terms of political popularity. But I know of no prime minister who has ever made a military decision on those grounds. A true prime minister would do what’s right even if he knew it would cost him the next election.
So we have to look at the national security arguments on a possible British intervention in Mali. The argument goes that if these Al Qaeda cells are not dealt with, they could intervene in Britain. Well, it’s a possibility. But the counter argument is that if we intervene, it would make an attack even more likely. There’s little doubt that we, by which I mean the international community, would be well advised to try to eliminate Al Qaeda wherever they exist. But surely the sensible thing to do it to let African nations and pan-nation organisations take care of the Al Qaeda cells in Mali. And are we really to believe that France, a nation with 230,000 people in its military – double the number of this country – can’t take care of this situation on its own? Arguments about European solidarity just will not wash.
But perhaps the most decisive argument against a British intervention in Mali is the fact that our armed forces are totally overstretched as it is. We simply cannot get involved in yet another foreign escapade.