Is David Cameron right to send troops into Mali?

David Cameron is to send hundreds of troops into Mali and surrounding countries to support the French mission to protect the West African country from Islamist fighters.

While they might be "boots on the ground" they are non-combat boots on the ground, Mr Cameron insists.

They are there to train Malian forces to protect the country from Islamist fighters and being overrun by al-Qaeda.

They are not there to fight.

That said, it is not yet clear whether they can return fire if shot at.

Britain's intervention is essential. We are a peace-keeping force but, says the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, Britain must do what it can to stop Mali becoming an "ungovernable space available for al-Qaeda and its associates to organise attacks on the west".

However, there are grave concerns over mission creep and fears that Britain will be dragged further into the conflict. In short, that it will take over where Afghanistan leaves off.

At a time when reductions in defence spending are cutting ever deeper, the armed forces cannot cope on the back of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The big question: is David Cameron right to send the troops into Mali?

Steve Vaughan

Steve: if we don't act now we will pay later

Al-Qaeda has been looking for a good north African launchpad for terror attacks on Europe for a while.

The US drone strikes took Yemen off the market but the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi rendered Libya lawless and proved a useful place for al-Qaeda to launch its bid for a country of its own.

In Mali, by piggybacking on the uprising of the discontented Tuareg people, al-Qaeda might have found just what it is looking for.

That is, if its incursion into the country remains unchecked, if the west doesn't intervene to protect the country's legitimate government.

And if the international community doesn't act to make sure that government can keep future attempts at bay and restore stability, in a perilously unstable region.

So far, France, with its deployment of 2,500 has done a good job at forcing back the Islamist fighters.

But as the protracted conflict in Afghanistan has taught us, jihadists are good at coming back, returning with their campaigns of suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

That is why David Cameron is absolutely right to commit to training the Malian army to ensure it can cope with this al-Qaeda threat.

Because if Mali doesn't then we run the risk of having a country controlled by terrorists, with power and with access to that country's resources.

Intervention will not make us a terrorist target, we are already that.

If al-Qaeda does not have the strength to launch attacks from north Africa now, it will then.

In addition, foreign interests in gas and oil in the region must be protected, they cannot come under the control of terrorists. Nor can they be used, as was recently shown in Algeria, to hold the west to ransom.

The French have acted swiftly to force the "rebels" into retreat, now we must help them to help Mali restore order and political stability.

Then, for a time at least, we may keep the terrorists from the door for another day.

Zoe Catchpole

Zoe: No, it's not worth it

One word. Afghanistan.

Have we learned nothing? Do we really want another long, drawn-out and bloody conflict on our hands?

Hearts and minds are so very impossible for us to win. So many men and women killed and still the verdict on whether one Afghan heart or mind has been won is out.

It has taken us over a decade to "teach" Afganistan to keep the Taliban from the door and frankly, it is far from clear that this mission has even been a success.

That British soldiers keep getting killed by Taliban who have infiltrated the Afghan police suggests not.

How can we expect that Malian forces, equally ill-equipped, in a politically unstable country, surrounded by other countries from which terror can be imported, will learn any quicker?

We can't.

What we also cannot do is afford another lengthy conflict.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. The armed forces are over-stretched. They have been for some time and yet the cuts continue.

Afghanistan taught us that we didn't have the equipment to take on the suicide bombers and the roadside bombs. The kit our troops needed came too slowly.

David Cameron is simply asking them to go back in again.

What he has signed up for is the long haul because training an army doesn't happen overnight and once on the ground it is hard to see how that mission will not mutate.

If they are shot at, do they not shoot back?

Even if the Mali mission is a success what about the rest of northern Africa? There's plenty of places al-Qaeda can find home in. The fall of the big dictators has just opened the doors. This is not the end. It's the beginning.

Our intervention will not be welcomed.

Warfare is changing. Barack Obama has made it clear he is pinning his hopes on his army of drones, his PlayStation wars. No more boots on the ground.

He knows that the US has no stomach for another Afghanistan.

Mr Cameron, it seems, does.

Have your say below on the big question: is David Cameron right to send the troops into Mali?

Husband and wife pairing Steve and Zoe Vaughan share a background in journalism, an interest in current affairs and a passion for triathlons. You can read more about them here.