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Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2013


My Lords, on 14 January, my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave a Statement in the House of Commons outlining the UK’s deployment of two C-17 transport aircraft to provide logistical support to France as well as a small detachment of technical personnel deployed to Bamako airport to assist with the reception of the C-17 aircraft.

Since the announcement on 14 January, we have decided to extend our support to the continued provision of one C-17 in support of France for a further three months. There are currently around 20 people deployed in Bamako supporting liaison with French forces. Following a French request for additional surveillance support, we have deployed a Sentinel R1 aircraft to Dakar, Senegal, with supporting ground crew and technical support amounting to around 70 people.

EU Foreign Ministers agreed on 17 January to establish an EU Military Training Mission to Mali (EUTM) and work is ongoing to scope that mission. Today in Brussels, representatives from EU member states, including the UK, will meet to discuss the individual member state contributions to the mission. The UK is prepared to contribute up to 40 personnel to the EUTM, either in an HQ or a training team role. We do not envisage UK personnel fulfilling a force protection role, and it is quite possible that 40 personnel will not be required, dependent on the contributions from other member states. However, we will not contribute UK personnel to any mission until we are satisfied that adequate force protection arrangements are in place.

Also, today in Addis Ababa, the African Union is hosting a donor conference to discuss how the international community can support the African-led intervention force, AFISMA. The UK will offer £5 million for two new UN funds to support the strengthening of security in Mali—£3 million of this would be directed to AFISMA, and £2 million to activity in Mali that would facilitate and support political processes for building stability. The UK is also prepared to offer up to 200 personnel to provide training to troops from Anglophone west African countries contributing to AFISMA, though the numbers required will be dependent on the requirements of the AFISMA-contributing nations.

In addition, we have deployed a small number of advisers to Anglophone west African countries who will contribute to the AFISMA mission to assess their needs and to gain situational awareness. Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will provide an update to the House on the outcome of the discussions in Brussels and Addis Ababa at the appropriate moment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place. Under what circumstances would we agree to extend further our military deployments beyond those set out in the Minister’s Statement? What is the minimum period of time we anticipate being deployed on our surveillance and training activities? Will any of our resources deployed, whether personnel, aircraft or other equipment, be resources which would otherwise be deployed in Afghanistan? What is the estimated numerical strength of the forces in Mali against whom action is being taken? Will we extend our support operations if those forces move into neighbouring countries and our continued assistance is sought? Are there any circumstances in which our military personnel deployed in the support operations could be involved in a combat role other than in self-defence? What is the Government’s definition of “success” which would lead to the end of our deployments to Mali? Finally, will there be a Statement shortly on the work presumably now being undertaken by the Department for International Development and the need to achieve stability in Mali through a political process?

The noble Lord asked a number of questions and I will try to answer them. I may not have noted all of them. As to the question on the combat role, there is no question of our troops being sent out there in a combat role. Their terms of engagement in Bamaco are in self-defence. We are there in support of a French-led operation and in the expectation that the African countries round about will be in a position to pick up any of the military activities that are needed there. There will be a Statement shortly. We have these two conferences going on today and from both of those a Statement will come. We are not anticipating extending our position there but, of course, all these things need to be under discussion. However, we have made sure that this is a finite contribution for a short period in order to ensure that the African countries and Mali have stability. It is in our interests both to support the French in this operation and to ensure that Mali does not become ungovernable. We do not want to leave space for terrorism in this. The noble Lord asked about the strength of the Mali troops in the north. Our understanding is that their numbers are relatively small at the moment. We would hope that the engagement will be short and swift and that following this the Malian community can come together to build itself up.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the cost of this additional involvement in Mali is to be met from the contingency fund and whether the Treasury has set any upper limit on the amount of money that may be devoted to these operations?

My understanding is that this money will indeed come from the contingency fund and that currently no extension or upper limit has been set. However, all these things are under discussion because, at the moment, we are still awaiting the ongoing discussions in that area to find just what the extent will be.

My Lords, as the worry is about mission creep, can the Minister confirm that the training by our troops is going to take place in Bamako or in the countries providing the African forces and that our troops will not be training the Malian troops in the advance guard?

Our troops will largely be working with the Anglophone nations there: Nigeria, which is taking the lead, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Their training will be in such areas as economics, the law of armed conflict, human rights and good governance. That is the sort of range of aspects where our troops are very well equipped to play a training role, but there is no suggestion from this initial engagement that they will go further than that. We certainly do not wish them to be involved in a combat role.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on having taken the right decision. There are always, of course, unpredictabilities and uncertainties in an operation of this kind, but we have the same interest as every other member of the EU in the stability of north and west Africa and in preventing any al-Qaeda-linked regime from turning any country there into a base for terrorist operations to be subsequently directed at us. Does the Minister agree with me that it is very important in these cases that there should be the maximum degree of cohesion and co-operation between the AU and the EU and that developments in that respect have been quite encouraging so far but need to be sustained?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that this action is in support of stability in that part of the world. It is a well-leveraged contribution in support of the French activity and the French are taking the lead on this. Co-operation between the EU and the African countries is ongoing because there is a mutual interest in ensuring that this situation is contained and stability is restored.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a worrying contrast between the very welcome assistance that she has announced to help Mali confront Islamic terrorism and our behaviour in Syria where we have recognised a national coalition working in cahoots with al-Nusra and al-Qaeda to overthrow what is, for all its faults, a legitimate and secular Government?

The noble Lord takes me into territory outside the remit of this Question. Obviously, he is a great expert on that part of the world. There are concerns across the countries in north Africa and further into Africa and, with this support for the French, we will certainly wish that to be contained within Mali.

My Lords, how many of our EU partners are making contributions of anything like that which my noble friend has described in this Statement?

That is what is under discussion at the moment. The EU is currently meeting to discuss how it can contribute to that. We have said that we will offer up to 200 personnel for training. They may not all be required because other EU countries may submit more. That is what we are waiting to see from the outcome of these discussions, but we have set a maximum on our contribution.

This has been a very impressive operation by the French and I take this opportunity to thank them. I ask the Minister to be very cautious about statements either for or against putting British troops in there, because, frankly, if we have learnt anything in the past 13 years, it is that you cannot predict the outcome of these situations. It would be wise to be cautious about that. However, I really do think that we need to congratulate the French on the way they have handled it so far.

I thank the noble Lord for that. Indeed, we need to exercise caution. We are well aware of mission creep and the danger of that. We have learnt lessons from other interventions and are applying those here. That is why we are doing what we can to find out as much as possible about the situation there. For example, the CDS and the UK’s special envoy on the Sahel will be travelling to the region this week to discuss further with the countries there what form the training could take and to give an assessment of what the threats and dangers are.

My Lords, the Government, like their predecessor, have seen the key response to the risks posed by ungoverned spaces to be an increase in the levels and quality of governance in those spaces. Given the French Defence Minister’s reported statement that the aim is total reconquest of that divided country, can the Minister tell the House what structure and system of governance the military intervention in Mali is designed to support?

The UK troops are there to provide training and not to impose any form of pre-arranged governance. They are to provide training so that they are better able to secure their land and to provide a peaceful resolution to the conflicts that have long pertained between the north and south of the country.

My Lords, it is surely right that we support our French partners and allies in Anglophone and Francophone Africa. Without that urgent intervention, Bamako would have been taken and there would have been a terrorist base in west Africa. Does the Minister agree that the intervention was wholly in accordance with international law, following the United Nations resolution, and that ultimately there will have to be national reconciliation and some political solution rather than a military intervention against the Tuaregs and others in the north?

Indeed, as the noble Lord will be aware, there was a draft UN resolution in December, which authorised the deployment of an African-led mission to support efforts by national authorities to recover the north. Events moved more quickly than that, which is why the French intervened in the way that they did and why we are supporting them to try to ensure that stability is restored.