The prime minister is taking part-ownership of rebel actions, whether he likes it or not. The barbarity of the Gaddafi regime is well documented. But small wars like that in Libya usually involve both sides committing atrocities. Now that British officers are involved in helping the rebels, Britain will be more answerable for what they do.
William Hague insists the officers won’t be involved in planning or executing operations. But when they are providing advice on “military organisational structures, communications and logistics” they are bound to find out more about rebel military preparations.
What happens if they discover something unsavoury is afoot? This will be a question taxing the minds of lawyers in Whitehall. Should they attempt to stop them? Withdraw support and defence materiel that has been provided? Inform Nato so strikes can be prepared to protect civilians?
This is hypothetical, but not unrealistic. There are already reports of purges of Gaddafi loyalists and some summary executions of “suspects” in the east of Libya. If something more serious was to happen, British officers on the ground will neither have the intelligence to challenge rebel denials, nor the power to prevent it.
The fallout from a serious incident was a risk from the moment Britain and Nato picked sides in a civil war. Given the stalemate on the ground, Cameron had little option but to take this step and send in officers on the ground.
But if this is a drawn-out, grinding conflict, there will be irresistible pressure to increase the number of advisers (if the exit from Libya is dependent on the strength of rebel forces, why stop at 10 British officers?). And the closer the UK works with the rebels, the louder the reverberations of their actions will be felt in Westminster.