Downing Street has confirmed that around 350 British military personnel will be sent to Mali to assist with the French-led intervention. From the BBC:
This includes as many as 40 military advisers who will train soldiers in Mali and 200 British soldiers to be sent to neighbouring African countries, also to help train the Malian army.
The U.K. has already assisted with the intervention in Mali, having already contributed C17 transport planes and surveillance aircraft to support French and Malian forces.
Putting British troops on the ground in Mali is only a part of the U.K.’s planned increased involvement in Mali. British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond has said that British support for the intervention in Mali is growing, saying that the extended support would include continuing to allow the French to use planes for surveillance and transport, allowing U.S. aircraft used in logistical support to refuel in the U.K., providing a transport ship, and sending £5m for the training of Malian soldiers. The Labour Party, the British government’s opposition, supports sending troops to Mali.
Downing Street has said that British troops will not play a combat role and will only be involved in training and logistical support.
As the French and Malian forces continue to advance their enemies are becoming increasingly diversified. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Arabic-speaking fighters are commanding many northern rebels, the latest sign that Al Qaeda is taking a more direct leadership role in the conflict. While the conflict might have begun with Tuareg rebels claiming northern Mali as their own it has developed into a fight that now includes fighters who want to establish a “jihadist Islamist emirate” in northern Mali.
With Al Qaeda’s involvement Malian, French, and British officials should prepare for a style of warfare similar to what has been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many of the Tuareg rebels have allied with the French thanks to Al Qaeda’s participation in the conflict the recent Algerian hostage crisis shows the damage a comparatively small number of militants can inflict.
A State Department official recently said that the French intervention in Mali could last for years. Considering that the French appear to be succeeding with their mission in their former colony it is bemusing that the British government is seeking to get involved in a conflict that could potentially last for years.