European Council on Foreign Relations

Mali: Learning nothing from Afghanistan

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How depressing. We spend twelve years, billions of pounds, and 440 British lives in Afghanistan in order to make the streets of Britain, according to the majority of the public polled, less safe – and now it seems we can’t wait to apply the same mental construct to North Africa. “What we face”, the Prime Minister tells us, “is an extremist Islamist violent al-Qaida-linked terrorist group – just as we have to deal with that in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Except we don’t; and won’t, unless we repeat the error of straining every sinew to create hostility towards us where none existed before.

The massacre at the Algerian gas plant which prompted this latest bout of Prime Ministerial wither-wringing was a nasty, bloody and tragic business. But for heaven’s sake let us not rush to now declare the Sahel – that huge ungoverned tract where the Sahara meets the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa - the latest theatre in our ‘global war on terror’. It has been lawless since forever – the theatre of that age-old conflict between pastoralists and farmers which has happened since the beginning of time where the desert meets the sown. Only, in our modern age, we have provided other means to make a living to those scrabbling on the edge of existence – trafficking of drugs, and arms, and people, and the chance to win huge ransoms from the kidnapping of westerners.

And, in the last eighteen months, we have tipped more accelerant on the flames with mercenaries, transport and arms pouring out of Libya.

Some of the gangs operating in the Sahel are Islamic extremists. But to label all of them as ‘terrorists’, much less all the other miscellaneous rebels, renegades, outlaws, Tuareg nationalists and variously nomadic groups, is about as stupid as applying that classification to the Taliban. The leader of the group responsible for the Algeria attack is known as ‘Mr Marlboro’ from his cigarette franchise; to the extent that he and his ilk have taken inspiration from ‘terror networks’ elsewhere in the Middle East, it is likely to have been in the enormous sums harvested by the kidnapping of westerners in the Horn of Africa.

Two lessons from Afghanistan stare us in the face:

1. We may not like Islamic extremism. But if we call it all ‘terrorism’, and therefore take on a whole society, we will lose. Rather than hastening to widen the category of our enemies, we must narrow them scrupulously to that small handful who actually wish us harm (as opposed to wanting us to stay out of their way, and/or pay up). For the rest, the need is to act much more cautiously, to encourage the gradual extension of the rule of law, material progress, and something approximating to democratic governance.

2. On this second, cautious agenda, there are severe limits to what we can do by direct action. Mostly we must act through local allies. From time to time, at critical junctures, we should be ready to intervene militarily ourselves – to stop a rot, or tip a balance. Thus the first 18 months of our Afghan adventure, it is now hard to recall, were a big success. The tragedy was over-reach: we should have contented ourselves with installing the Northern Alliance in Kabul, chasing Al Qaeda across the border, and then going home. So now, in Mali, the French have done just the right thing – provided they retain the sobriety to bow out in favour of the ECOWAS forces as soon as possible.

We haven’t got much out of Afghanistan. Let us at least learn not to posture about ‘global terror’, and treat the problems of the Sahel with more intelligence and circumspection.

 

 

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