In West Africa, Britain is facing a situation similar to what confronted the United States seven years ago in Somalia. The weekend abduction of 11 British peacekeeping troops by rebels in Sierra Leone has uncanny echoes of the American experience on Africa's east coast in 1993. Whether its response also echoes the US's remains to be seen.
During a bid to intervene in a battle among Somali warlords, 18 American peacekeepers were murdered and television footage of their bodies being dragged through the streets was broadcast worldwide. Public outcry led to a virtual zero-tolerance attitude toward American losses, and the US government largely has avoided committing troops to far-off conflicts ever since.
Unlike the US, Britain has tended to underplay the likelihood that troops injected into an area of danger are likely to be killed or wounded. The possibility that the hostage soldiers in Sierra Leone may be harmed has intensified debate here about sending troops into high-risk theaters of conflict.
Iain Duncan Smith, defense spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, and Liberal Democrat defense specialist Menzies Campbell made separate calls for the government to reconsider the mission. Mr. Campbell said Aug. 28: "When the troops are safe and well, it will be necessary to take a long, hard look at what we are doing in Sierra Leone."
"It is a fragile and dangerous place, and it's essential that the [United Kingdom] is entirely clear-minded about its purpose in deploying troops."
Mr. Smith told the BBC Aug. 29, "The government needs now to take very, very serious action. It will have to contemplate whether or not it's worth keeping British troops out there at all."
Britain, which has 250 troops deployed in Sierra Leone liaising with the 13,000-strong United Nations force, is having to ask itself whether, by pursuing what Prime Minister Tony Blair's government calls an "ethical foreign policy," it may be facing the same hard choices the US encountered in Somalia. The policy, spelled out by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 1997, meant Britain would refuse to sell weapons to regimes considered likely to misuse them. An ethical approach, he added, required Britain to support democratic governments and to oppose regimes, such as Iraq's, which hold power by force rather than through the democratically expressed will of the people.
For Britain, with its imperial history, the choices have added dimensions. Until 1961, Sierra Leone was a British colony. The capital, Freetown, was established by the British government in 1787 as a haven for freed slaves.
Also, with the US out of the active peacekeeping picture, the temptation has been to raise Britain's international profile by undertaking operations aimed at quelling regional conflicts in Africa.
In the case of Sierra Leone, Britain made a special effort to play a pacifying role. In 1997, when elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was deposed by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the British pledged support.
The next year, with Mr. Kabbah restored in office by a West African peacekeeping force, London made a $100 million commitment to the Kabbah regime.
When in May of this year the Kabbah government again came under pressure from RUF troops, Britain sent a 1,000-strong detachment to shore it up.
Francis Maude, foreign affairs spokesman for the Conservatives, claims the troops seized as hostages by a breakaway rebel group known as the West Side Boys (WSB) militia, are "victims of muddle and mission creep."
Bruce George, Labour chairman of the House of Commons defense committee, said Aug. 28 that the troops were caught up in "a very volatile and dangerous situation," but insisted that British forces were "doing a good job" and would stay in Sierra Leone.
But events in the past four months offer evidence that "mission creep" is a problem. Mr. Cook said in May that the British force was restricted to evacuating European Union and Commonwealth (a loose alliance of Britain and its former colonies) citizens and securing the airport for the UN peacekeepers. The British troops would not operate under the UN flag, he said.
But their presence had the immediate and desired effect of halting the rebel advance. British troops also played a key role in capturing RUF leader Foday Sankoh. Since then the size, composition, and task of the British force have all changed. In June, the 1,000 paratroopers and marines originally sent in were replaced by 250 soldiers with the Royal Irish Regiment. Instead of operating separately from the UN force, the British began helping it put pressure on the RUF.
The 11 hostages now held by the West Side Boys militia were part of a team training the Sierra Leone Army in battle tactics, a role apparently not foreseen - and certainly not announced - in May. R.W. Johnson, a leading British writer on African affairs, says that by cutting the size of its Sierra Leone peacekeeping force and assigning it an ill-defined role, Britain is "playing with fire."
He says the small British force is engaging in "toe-in-the-water" peacekeeping. "Such a small [British] detachment is vulnerable, not just to the RUF, but to every opportunist faction," Mr. Johnson says. "A major tragedy on the scale of the one that blighted the American intervention in Somalia in 1993 cannot be ruled out if numbers are not increased."
But there seems little chance of that. At the weekend, British Armed Forces Minister John Spellar said contact had been established with the West Side Boys, who were said to be demanding food and medicine in exchange for their hostages. A rescue squad from Britain's crack Special Air Service regiment also was reported to be in Freetown.
Mr. Spellar said he had "every confidence" that the soldiers would be released.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society