Britain Pledges Troops to Mali Mission, Niger Opens Airspace

The United Kingdom steps up its support for the French intervention in Mali.

British prime minister David Cameron and President François Hollande of France answer questions from reporters in London, September 6, 2012
British prime minister David Cameron and President François Hollande of France answer questions from reporters in London, September 6, 2012 (Elysée)

The United Kingdom said it would expand support of France’s intervention in Mali on Tuesday as neighboring Niger gave the United States permission to station surveillance drones on its territory to improve Western powers’ intelligence on Islamist militants in the north of the country.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said up to 240 British troops could be deployed to the operation: forty as part of a European Union mission in Mali proper and a further two hundred in neighboring French-speaking countries.

France launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako more than two weeks ago. It followed up with ground deployments now numbering over 2,000 soldiers who have been able to aid the Malian army in pushing the rebels out of major cities and towns in the central part of the country.

Earlier this month, the British contributed two transport aircraft to the French effort. Other European NATO allies have provided similar logistical support. British special forces were reported to be on the ground to advise and help coordinate the French-Malian counteroffensive.

France and the United Kingdom were the leading powers in NATO’s intervention in Libya less than two years ago. With Western air support, rebels there were able to dislodge the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The two Atlantic powers account for half of European defense spending in NATO. While they deny plans to share an aircraft carrier in the future, they have pledged to be able to deploy an integrated carrier strike group by the next decade. They have also agreed to establish a joint expeditionary force. The change in government in Paris, where the Socialist Hollande replaced conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy last year, does not appear to have affected those plans, even if the latter was more Atlanticist while the French left prefers to look to continental Europe for security cooperation.

The final decision to send two hundred British soldiers to Mali’s neighbors to provide training hinges on African Union talks due to resume in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Several West African countries have started to provide support on their own, including letting French fighter jets use their airfields to carry out bombardments against the Islamists. Chadian troops are presently stationed on the other side of the border in Niger where they could open another front against the rebels.

The West Africans are struggling to put together a comprehensive peacekeeping force of some 6,000troops, sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, pending international support to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals.

Press agency Reuters reported on Tuesday that Niger, whose president Mahamadou Issoufou told the army last week, “We are going to war,” gave the United States permission to station unmanned spy planes on its soil. The Americans promised to expand their support of the counterinsurgency on Saturday, including aerial refueling, which should enhance France’s ability to bomb rebel targets, and transport aircraft to ferry West African soldiers into Mali.

The United States have drones and surveillance aircraft stationed at several points around Africa but their only permanent base is in Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa.

French and Malian troops retook control of Gao, a city situated on the Niger River, on Sunday and of the ancient trading town of Timbuktu the next day. Of the three largest towns in the north of Mali, only Kidal remained in the hands of the rebels. Among them are members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing as well as local Islamists and Tuareg secessionists. The latter were sidelined by more radical elements when fighters that were displaced by Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years joined their ranks.

French president François Hollande said the object of his country’s intervention in Mali was to prevent it from becoming a “terrorist state.” His defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that Paris will accept nothing short of the “total reconquest” of the country.

As the militants appear to be pulling back north, abandoning towns in favor of the desert wastes and mountain ranges there, the French-Malian operation could find it harder to put a stop to the uprising altogether in weeks and months to come, however.