West Africa is an important region for the United Kingdom and our allies across Europe, and the UK is strongly committed to supporting the UN to deliver its peacekeeping commitments around the world. That is why, since 2018, we had been supporting the French-led counter-terrorism mission in Mali with CH-47 Chinook helicopters under Operation Barkhane, and more recently, since 2020, through the deployment of a long-range reconnaissance group as part of the UN’s MINUSMA—multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—peacekeeping mission.
The House will be aware, however, that in February President Macron announced the drawdown of French troops in Mali, and was joined in that announcement by all other European nations, as well as Canada, that were contributing to the French-led Operations Barkhane and Takuba. In March, Sweden announced that it would be leaving the UN’s MINUSMA mission. Today, I can announce that the UK contingent will also now be leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned.
We should be clear that responsibility for all of this sits in Bamako. Two coups in three years have undermined international efforts to advance peace. On my most recent visit last November, I met the Malian Defence Minister and implored him to see the huge value of the French-led international effort in his country. However, soon afterwards, the Malian Government began working with the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, and actively sought to interfere with the work of both the French-led and UN missions. The Wagner Group is linked to mass human rights abuses. The Malian Government’s partnership with the Wagner Group is counterproductive to lasting stability and security in their region.
This Government cannot deploy our nation’s military to provide security when the host country’s Government are not willing to work with us to deliver lasting stability and security. However, our commitment to west Africa and the important work of the UN is undiminished. We have been working closely with our allies to consider options for rebalancing our deployment alongside France, the EU and other like-minded allies.
On Monday and Tuesday next week, I will join colleagues from across Europe and west Africa in Accra to co-ordinate our renewed response to instability in the Sahel. This will be the first major gathering in support of the Accra initiative, which is a west African-led solution focused initially on preventing further contagion of the insurgency into Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, and tackling the growing levels of violence in Burkina Faso as well as in Mali, making this a very timely conference, indeed.
Of course, it is not just the UK military that will remain committed in west Africa—the UK will continue its commitment to Mali and the Sahel through our humanitarian, stabilisation and development assistance, working in close co-ordination with partners—nor is this a reduction in our commitment to the United Nations. The UK remains an important contributor of troops through Operation Tosca in Cyprus and of staff officers across several missions, and provides training to around 10,000 military, police and civilian peacekeepers from a range of countries annually. We remain the fifth largest financial contributor and will continue to drive reform in New York. Indeed, we are working with New York on developing a pilot, to be delivered through the British peace support team based in Nairobi, to develop the capacity of UN troop contributing nations across Africa. We will, of course, co-ordinate with allies as we draw down from Gao and have been sharing our plans with them over recent months. The Army will be issuing orders imminently to reconfigure the next deployment to draw down our presence.
We are leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned and are, of course, saddened by the way the Government in Bamako have made it so difficult for well-meaning nations to remain there. The work of our troops has been outstanding, and they should be proud of what they have achieved there. But through the Chilcot report and our wider experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, we, like so many allies, are clear that the military instrument should not be deployed on counter-insurgency or countering violent extremism missions unless there is a clear and compelling commitment towards political progress.
We will work quickly with allies in the region and across Europe to support the Accra initiative to deliver security, stability and prosperity in west Africa. Our commitment to the region is undiminished.
I call shadow Secretary of State John Healey.
I thank the Minister for the advance copy of his statement—he always treats this House with great courtesy—but I have to say that I was disappointed, Mr Speaker, as you will be, that nearly three hours before I received a copy of the statement I was reading about his decision on The Times online.
MINUSMA is the UN’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, with 281 fatalities to date, so I want to start by paying tribute to all those British troops who have been deployed with the UN in Mali since 2020 and all the RAF air and ground crew who have been deployed in Mali since 2013.
The UN Security Council only renewed the Mali mission’s mandate, which Britain strongly supported, in June. What now for the UN’s MINUSMA force without the UK’s long-range specialised reconnaissance? What now for the UK’s contribution to stabilising the Sahel, which experts say has become the new epicentre of terrorism? What now for the neighbouring states of Mali, which look to the UK for support in the face of increasing activity from Islamic extremist groups? And what now for the west’s capacity to balance the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in the region?
Will the Chinook deployment continue to support the UN mission? The Times reported that this has already been withdrawn, although the Minister has not mentioned it this afternoon. And when exactly will the current Royal Scots Light Dragoons on the ground in Mali be withdrawn?
This statement is long overdue. France announced the withdrawal of troops from Mali back in February, and when I asked the Defence Secretary about this days later he said the UK was
“now reviewing our next steps.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 17.]
I got the same answer when I asked again nearly four months later. Now, fully nine months after France, and eight months after Sweden, why has it has taken Britain so long to make the same decision? We need strategic planning and foresight from Ministers for this region, not a tactical silence while they work out what on earth to do.
President Macron marked the end of the French Operation Barkhane last week by pledging a new strategy within half a year for working with African countries. Is the UK working with France on this new strategy? Will the Government produce a similar UK strategy?
In the Government’s 2020 integrated review there was just one passing reference to the Sahel and two short factual statements about Mali. Will the current IR update make good the Sahel-shaped gap in UK strategic security thinking?
Finally, ahead of the autumn statement, today’s decision on reducing our commitment to UK United Nations peacekeeping is a reminder of the importance of clarity over UK defence spending. The Defence Secretary agreed the current spending settlement, giving the Ministry of Defence back in 2020 a £1.4 billion real cut in day-to-day spending. He now says, as he told the Select Committee on Defence, that
“the inflationary pressure on my budget for the next two years is about £8 billion”.
How much does Defence actually need from the Chancellor on Thursday to plug the Defence Secretary’s budget black hole?
Order. Just before the Minister comes in, I have seen what has been given to The Times, and I am disappointed. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but it is pretty appalling that somebody decided to hand to The Times, for it to put online, exactly what he has just given to the House. I hope that he will look into that and that whoever in the Department passed it to The Times will be reprimanded and reminded that Members of this House come first, not the media.
Mr Speaker, I could not agree more. You know that the Secretary of State and I are not the sort of Ministers who play these games. There was no deliberate briefing, and we are angry that the discourtesy of someone within our organisation means that you have read about this in The Times rather than heard it from the Dispatch Box. That was not the plan.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) had a long list of questions, which I will do my best to rattle through. I think that I covered some of them in the statement. On what is next for the UN force, the UN was already in a process of reconfiguration, given the changes in troop-contributing countries that it was facing and the reality of the situation on the ground. The insurgency has moved from the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to further south in Burkina. The challenge in the north of the country is no longer the insurgency against the al-Qaeda affiliate JNIM or Islamic State Greater Sahel, but the same competing tribes as five or six years ago. In the south of the country, the Malians are mostly focused on the survival of the junta that came to pass. There is an incoherent set of security challenges that the UN is trying to navigate, and I think it would be the first to admit that MINUSMA as a mission is struggling as a consequence of those three different challenges within the country.
That leads to the right hon. Gentleman’s absolutely correct question about stabilising the wider Sahel. It would be erroneous to think that MINUSMA, which was a UN mission struggling to match the excellent military endeavour of troop-contributing countries with any meaningful political progress, was really doing anything to stabilise the Sahel. The centre of mass of the insurgency has moved south into Burkina, where the competition is acute. Prigozhin has recently been in Ouagadougou offering Wagner’s services. I think that everybody is concerned that this is now about avoiding contagion from Burkina and ensuring that we work with the Burkinabé armed forces to get after the insurgency where it now is, because that is at the heart of the challenge in the Sahel. That is what the Accra initiative—a west-African designed solution to a problem in west Africa—is aiming to get after, and the UK, France, the EU and others are seeking to get behind it, because we think that is the most credible option for restoring stability in the Sahel.
The right hon. Gentleman asked, “Why now? Why wasn’t there a rush to make a decision back in February when the French left?” He knows that other countries from Europe have continued, and we have been in discussion with them about what we should do and what looks like the most sensible route forward. To have rushed to a decision back then, before we were sure what the right solution was in west Africa, would have been knee-jerk. The right thing to do, as I have been doing, is to travel around the region. I have been in Mali, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, and my counterparts from France have been visiting Niger, Benin and other countries extensively, and between us we have been able to map out what we think the best solution is.
The CH-47 commitment to Barkhane was already drawn down, and I believe that that was the subject of a written ministerial statement when the decision was made. Although the Chinooks were left to help the French move out of Mali, they have not been actively participating since Barkhane ended. The casualty evacuation capability for MINUSMA remains for as long as MINUSMA is patrolling.
The IR’s relevance is borne out by the conclusion that we have come to, because its decision was around capacity building upstream and recognising that, often, our presence can be the catalyst to insurgency. That is very much what the western African nations feel: they do not want us on their borders physically fighting the insurgency as they think that accelerates things. They want us to be working with them to support them in generating capability. Finally, on defence spending, we all wait for Thursday.
As ever, my right hon. Friend shows a mastery not only of defence, but of the very complicated politics in Mali. Clearly, after Operation Barkhane closed and the French left, it was only a matter of time before there was a withdrawal. In particular, the Chinooks were providing the heavy lift for the French, but it simply did not make sense if the French were not there. He touches on the Wagner Group, which has a pervasive influence across the Sahel into west Africa and further south. Does he think that the situation could be a lot worse after Ukraine? A lot of armed combatants from the Wagner Group have been sucked into the Ukraine conflict. If there is a resolution to that conflict, I suspect that the Wagner Group will flood back into west Africa, causing problems not only in the countries he mentioned but further south in places such as Zimbabwe.
I very much enjoyed working with my hon. Friend when he was the Minister for Africa. It is a shame, however, that his collection of African ties has been put out to retirement—they were quite something.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The role that the Wagner Group is playing in Africa is very different from the one it is playing in Ukraine. In Ukraine, it is effectively generating a force, apparently conscripted from Russian prisons, to augment the Russian frontline as a manoeuvre element. In Africa, the role is somewhat different. In Mali, it is there principally at the invitation of the coup leadership to ensure the survival of the coup. In the Central African Republic, it has been doing something broadly similar, but has in the process been engaged more widely in the security in that country. Nobody should pretend that the Wagner Group is up to any good—it is universally up to mischief—but across Africa it is doing different things depending on what the Governments who have brought them in have asked them to do. But it remains a bunch of murderous human rights-abusing thugs and there is not a country on the planet that is any better for its presence.
We come to SNP spokesperson, Chris Stephens.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your comments on the leak to The Times online.
We commend the bravery and dedication of the UK armed forces personnel serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Picking up on the theme of the Wagner Group, will the Minister detail fully what diplomatic steps have been taken to address the presence of Wagner Group combatants in Mali and elsewhere in the world? Is he considering individually sanctioning Wagner Group fighters present in Mali? Will he present to the House the work that the recently announced office for conflict, stabilisation and mediation, and the conflict and atrocity prevention hub, will undertake, and the exact funding and staffing levels? Given that he says his commitment to the Sahel region is undiminished, are the Government considering reversing the cuts to aid in the Sahel region, including cuts to the conflict, stability and security fund?
Mr Speaker, there was a bit noise behind me and I did not catch the middle part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was about an office that is being set up. I will check the record and write to him on that.
On the wider effort in west Africa, it goes without saying that the military instrument alone will not be the answer to any of west Africa’s problems. There has to be a political and economic track that sits alongside the military. I suggest that the vehicle through which that economic and political track will most effectively be delivered is the Economic Community of West African States. The EU has very strong relationships with ECOWAS, so it is likely to be in the lead on that, but when I was in Abuja, I also met ECOWAS officials. Obviously, the UK will engage with ECOWAS on the wider development, economic, political track, as well as the stuff we are doing militarily with Ghana and the Accra initiative.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Our withdrawal is disappointing, as I suspect it will exacerbate the very reasons for our deployment in the first place, but I clearly accept the political judgment. Will he confirm to the House that the UK force protection profile will be maintained in full accordance with the threat as we withdraw?
It absolutely will. The long-range reconnaissance patrolling will stop almost immediately and, on the next rotation, the force that follows on to deliver the draw-down will have everything needed within it for full force protection.
The UK deputy permanent representative told the UN Security Council on 10 October that the UK supports MINUSMA—we should pay tribute to the bravery of those troops, given the losses to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) referred—but said that there were questions about
“whether and how the mission can maintain a viable presence in Mali.”
Given the factors—political instability, the Wagner Group and others—that have led to withdrawal of French and UK troops and those of other nations, what is the Government’s view about the continued operation of MINUSMA in the circumstances in which it now finds itself?
That is a matter for the UN. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), our view is that the MINUSMA mission is stagnant. The political track has not been advancing for a number of years—since the first coup or, arguably, before that—and a very successful military mission has therefore been undermined by the lack of progress in Bamako. There is also a wider point: the mandate for that UN mission—like that of the UN missions in the Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is exclusively about peacekeeping, and if there is not a peace to keep, those missions can feel rather toothless as a consequence. We are communicating all those things in New York. As I said in response to a number of colleagues, we want to be very constructive. We feel like we have some understanding of what is going on alongside the French as penholders. We want to see a more cohesive approach to security in west Africa, with the security probably being delivered by the Accra initiative, the diplomatic and economic track being done by ECOWAS and the UN being ready to keep the peace once it is made.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit RAF Odiham and see a stripped-down Chinook with the iconic red sand of Africa falling out of it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the withdrawal is no reflection of the service of those who were in country and those who were working so hard in the UK to support them? And may I press him on what we are doing to combat the Wagner Group in Africa? As a former trade envoy, I think that the opportunities for the peoples of Africa and the UK to work together for mutually beneficial trade are enormous, but they are threatened by the instability that the Wagner Group brings.
I echo my hon. Friend’s praise for the troops who have been involved. The Chinook force has been involved for a long time and has been on an aggressive rotation of operations, particularly the engineers. It has done extraordinary work to keep the Chinooks flying in very difficult conditions.
My hon. Friend is also right about the wider challenge of Wagner. It is very opportunistic, appearing in countries where it thinks there are opportunities for it to win business, but it is deeply exploitative. It invariably asks for payment through mineral wealth or access to oil and gas. The country that we offer as an example to many African colleagues is Mozambique, where Wagner was taken in and then kicked out because of the way in which it behaved when it was there. We communicate keenly with countries across Africa about the dangers of taking Wagner in. We try to show that, when they engage with the UK, France, the US and other western allies, they get a security partnership that wants nothing in return other than the advancement of our shared interests and security in the region.
In his address to the House earlier this year, President Zelensky asked Parliament to proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation following atrocities that it had committed in Ukraine. Reports suggest that, since the coup in Mali, the Wagner Group has been linked to massacres in which hundreds of civilians have been killed. Will the Minister commit to speaking to the Home Secretary or the Minister for Security about proscribing the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation?
I certainly will.
I was very interested to hear the Minister make reference in his statement to the Chilcot report. In the light of the horrors of Mali and the terrible loss of life there, I understand the withdrawal of French and British troops, but I would like the Minister to be clear about how many British troops are now going to be deployed in that region of Africa. Crucially, what is the long-term aim of this—what exactly are we getting ourselves into? That is clearly why the Minister made reference to Chilcot, which said that there had to be clear aims and objectives before British troops were deployed overseas.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. I do not think that the situation is as binary as every soldier, sailor and aviator currently in Mali finding themselves redeployed around western Africa. My suspicion is that the Accra initiative countries will be asking for slightly different capabilities from the long-range reconnaissance group that is currently in Mali. Very obviously, however, everything that we do to increase the capacity of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger to guard against further contagion, get after the insurgency in Burkina and get after it again in Mali needs to be joined up with a wider regional economic and political plan, probably delivered by ECOWAS.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman heard this, but on Monday and Tuesday next week I will be in Accra, where representatives of the EU, the UN, France, the UK, ECOWAS and all the member states of the Accra initiative will be discussing exactly this issue, because we need a cohesive strategy that brings together the military, the political and the economic.
I put on record my deepest respect for the armed forces who have served in Mali. With the rising threat from extremist groups in the region, does the Minister believe that the withdrawal of troops could lead to an eventual outpouring of refugees, as we saw in Afghanistan?
No, I do not, for the simple reason that the UK troops in Gao are now somewhat north of the centre of mass of the insurgency. The argument that I am making gently is that our position in Gao is not that relevant, given where the security challenge in west Africa is. The real challenge now is getting after the insurgency in Burkina; making sure that in Ouagadougou there is enthusiasm for working with western allies, not Prigozhin and Wagner; and extending security back out from Burkina. That is where the challenge is now, and that is what everybody is meeting to discuss in Accra next week.