On BBC television's Question Time last week an angry audience member asked the panel why Britain should be sending military help to the French in Mali. "I don't remember the French coming to our aid when we went to the Falklands" he fumed to loud applause.
At the time Britain's commitment to the French-led Operation Serval in Mali consisted of two C-17 transport aircraft. Yesterday the Prime Minister told Parliament that whilst "not seeking" a combat role, Britain would commit "intelligence and counter-terrorism assets" thought to include Special Forces soldiers, aircraft and surveillance drones, to northern Mali. This week, Times led with a front page story that British troops have been "put on alert for action" in Mali.
A decade after the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq public anxiety around British involvement in a potentially protracted military intervention against an ill-defined enemy in difficult terrain is understandable. Concerns centre not just on the dangers to service personnel and cost to the taxpayer but on possible ulterior motives underlying the operation and potential unintended consequences that may be sparked in the region and beyond. Indeed last week's hostage-taking in Algeria is likely to be the first of many so-called reprisal attacks on Western interests by al Qaeda cells in the area. But whilst these concerns are legitimate, they should not distract from the importance of the current intervention in Mali.
the hope is that Islamists in Mali can be destroyed rather than pushed into another ungoverned space in the Sahara
Despite little media coverage al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups have been consolidating and extending their grip across northern Mali for several months. Jihadist fighters have reportedly been crossing Mali's porous borders described by Malians as having come from as far afield as Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. In plain view a new terrorist haven was being created whose chief exports would have been organised crime and global terror.
So long as they stayed deep in the desert controlling the principle cities of the north – Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal – the Islamists were going to be very difficult to confront. A UN authorised African-led force was not due to be deployed until September and negotiating a diplomatic settlement with groups for whom the establishment of an independent Islamic state was non-negotiable was unlikely. Unsurprisingly many were predicting that Mali might become the new Afghanistan.
But the Islamist offensive launched early this month towards the Malian capital Bamako presented an unexpected opportunity. Not expecting a swift international response it seems that the Islamists left their strongholds in the desert lightly defended in order to push south. By swiftly deploying a formidable intervention force the French together with the Malian army appear to have not only stemmed the Islamists advance but to have forced it into retreat.
Whilst the area of combat is vast, intelligence from surveillance drones and satellites have enabled the French deploy their jets and attack helicopters to good effect and Franco-Malian ground forces are being augmented as troops from neighbouring countries are deployed. Around one sixth of the 5,800 African troops expected in Mali have already arrived. Together with 2,500 French soldiers the size of the multinational force in Mali will far exceed that anticipated by the UN last December.
Material and logistical support is arriving not just from Britain but from the US, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain and the Tuareg separatist movement, the Azawad National Liberation Movement, have announced their willingness to join international efforts to fight the Islamists. With neighbouring countries such as Algeria closing their borders and opening their airspace for surveillance and aircraft, the hope is that Islamists in Mali can be destroyed rather than pushed into another ungoverned space in the Sahara.
As the former colonial power with interests in the region's resources, France's role in the current intervention is far from neutral, but to frame Operation Serval as a 'war for resources' is misleading. Having said that it is clear that France and other Western powers are keenly aware of the potential impact al Qaeda's growing presence in Mali could have on resource exploitation across the region.
Last Friday David Cameron drew an unfortunate parallel when speaking about the need to tackle Islamists in the Sahel. "I would very much caution against anyone who believes that if somehow we stayed out of Iraq and just said this has got nothing to do with us, that would somehow make us safer" he said. Rather than comparing it with Iraq, the military operation in Mali needs to be recognised for what it is. A multinational UN mandated counter offensive against well-armed Islamic fighters. The retaking of the north will not be easy and nor will the creation of enduring stability in Mali. But the struggle is a necessary one and through international action a protracted war might be avoided, a failed state rebuilt and a major blow dealt to al Qaeda in on the African continent.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and political analyst. He has reported from across the continent and spent time in the deserts of Mali and Algeria.