Africa

Mali In Crisis: What Next For British Deployments?

The UK already has RAF helicopters and personnel in the country, with hundreds of soldiers preparing to deploy on a separate mission there.

Growing instability in Mali will not see the UK abandon its peacekeeping mission but could result in careful consideration of what comes next, an expert on African security says.

The UK already has three RAF Chinooks and 100 personnel in the country, having been there since 2018. They are supporting the 5,000-strong French counter insurgency mission, Operation Barkhane, in non-combat roles.

In a separate mission, 250 British troops are currently training to join an 18,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping deployment later this year.

But their preparations come as the West African country stands on the brink of chaos - with a coup overthrowing the president and prime minister, the continuing struggle against Islamic extremism, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Andrew E. Yaw Tchie from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said that, rather than pulling personnel out of the region amid rising uncertainty, the UK will pause to consider its next move.

He also said the Mali coup is unlikely to lead to the RAF Chinook helicopters being pulled out.

"It's unlikely that the UK will just pull out troops," Dr Tchie said.

"It's more likely that, at this point, people are pausing to think about, 'What next?'."

On 18 August, Mali's president,  Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was forced to resign, his government was dissolved and the prime minister, Boubou Cisse, was also overthrown.

Anonymous UK service personnel legs and gun out of Chinook in Mali Sahel Africa - pic used on 120620 CREDIT MOD
(Picture: MOD).

Malian troops representing the National Committee for the Salvation of the People have promised to organise new elections.

Meanwhile, the country continues its eight-year battle with insurgency, and the more recent coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Tchie said the UN peacekeeping mandate is "designed to support the political process" and increase stability, but the terror threat makes progress difficult.

He said the UK has a strategic interest in promoting a stable Mali, adding: "There is this sort of idea that if we allowed West Africa to become a breeding ground for Jihadist groups, this could spread into western Europe."

But the role for UK peacekeepers in the country is one of intelligence gathering, rather than combat. Fighting the insurgency directly is outside their remit.

In July, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Robinson, Commanding Officer, Light Dragoons, told Forces News that, without "going toe-to-toe with the enemy", British soldiers instead will work with villagers to find out what is "driving disorder".

Meanwhile, the separate RAF deployment has been helping the French military to re-establish Forward Operation Bases for Mali's army.

These bases are spread across the Op Barkhane area, with the Chinooks moving French troops, supplies, equipment and heavy weaponry. 

Once the bases are established, they will be handed over to Malian forces.

Map Sahel region 020320 CREDIT BFBS.jpg

Over the past two years, the RAF has completed more than 2,000 hours of flying, moving more than 13,000 passengers and 1,100 tonnes of equipment.

In June, the UK extended its military support to the counter-terrorism mission in the country.

The mission across the Sahel region is focused on providing long-term stability and tackling the threat from militants linked to groups such as al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh.

Despite elements of the operation relating to the wider development in the region, Dr Tchie said the "front focus" is to "erradicate the terrorist groups".

Efforts have seen Islamic extremist groups ousted from northern towns following a separate coup in 2012, only for militant groups linked to al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State to grip the centre of the country in recent years.