British soldiers are set to be deployed to the war-torn country of Mali. They will join the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the country as part of an effort to combat insurgent Islamist forces.
Until now, British soldiers have only assisted in training operations: Roughly 30 Army soldiers and Royal Marines have been working in Senegal training special forces from across West Africa.
But later this year an additional 250 troops will be sent to Mali to face the insurgents head-on and participate in reconnaissance missions in jihadi-controlled areas.
This will likely be the United Kingdom’s most dangerous deployment since it withdrew its combat forces from Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The current war in Mali sees little sign of letting up anytime soon. It is likely that the new mission for British troops is, at least in part, a response to growing calls from France for greater western support. Until now, French forces have been the leading non-African contingent in the country with 4,000 troops in the region.
The al-Qaeda linked insurgency has spilled over into neighboring countries, including Niger and Burkina Faso.
“If we don’t act we may find the problems getting closer to our door,” said Major John House, who currently oversees British training in Senegal. “The more they have a presence in the region, the more we can feel the effect back in the UK.”
Despite tactical successes by French-led forces, including encounters resulting in dozens of militant fatalities, the Sahel continues to suffer from significant violence. In addition, growing casualties have increased concerns about the efficacy of the ongoing mission.
Last month, Egyptian President and then-leader of the African Union Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for the creation of a pan-African counter-terrorism force. However, this has faced early pushback and is probably years away from materializing so support from this front should not be considered forthcoming.
The Sahel region faces numerous challenges besides the overt Islamist threat. Instability in numerous countries, including to the north of the Sahel in Libya, has contributed to greater intensification of fighting. Since the NATO-backed overthrow of Col. Gaddafi, Libyan weapons have proliferated throughout the Sahara and the Sahel.
Simultaneously, bleak economic outlook coupled with migratory pressures has made the region a fertile recruitment ground. On top of that, continued desertification has made life precarious for many.
Thus far the insurgency in Mali has mostly been tackled from the perspective of short-term security, this was evident by the building of an American drone base in Niger; yet long term development plans have been largely absent.