spiked, 22 January 2013
David Cameron’s solemn statements on the crisis in north Africa confirm that he has at least one political virtue left: shamelessness.
To conformist murmurs of approval from both the Commons and much of the press, Cameron has described the hostage crisis in Algeria and the Islamist insurgency in Mali as evidence that the ‘ungoverned space’ of north Africa has become a ‘magnet for jihadists’, and he has promised that Britain will engage in a ‘generational struggle’ to defeat these ‘poisonous’ extremists. What he failed to mention is that it was he and his government, through their blind, reckless bombing of Libya in 2011, who transformed much of north Africa into an ‘ungoverned space’, unravelling both longstanding political allegiances and ethnic solidarities that had kept that vast, complex region relatively stable. If Cameron is now at war with anyone in the deserts of north Africa, it is with his own imperial foolishness, with a bloody blowback of his own making.
Cameron has sought to depict both the Islamist hostage-taking at a gas plant in the Algerian Sahara desert and the conflict in Algeria’s neighbour Mali as part of a global Islamist insurgency. All these militants are driven by a ‘poisonous narrative’, he says, ‘which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary’. This childishly black-and-white overview doesn’t only overlook the complexities of long-standing conflicts in this part of Africa, particularly in Mali, where there have been tensions between elements in the north and elements in the south for decades; it also overlooks, glaringly, the impact that the international dismantling of Gaddafi’s regime and NATO’s appointment of a new government in Libya had on Libya’s neighbours and on the political framework in north Africa. It made borders there more porous; it caused the movement of huge numbers of heavily armed militants; it compromised the authority of governments allied with Gaddafi; and it directly intensified conflict in Mali.
The warning signs were there. It is notable that both Algeria and Mali were implacably opposed to the international bombing campaign over Libya in 2011. They recognised, rightly, that such a violent upheaval in a region like north Africa would have unpredictable, potentially dire consequences. The then government of Mali said that fallout from the bombing of Libya was ‘a real source of concern’; as the BBC reported in October 2011, Mali had been saying since ‘the start of the conflict in Libya’ that ‘the fall of Gaddafi would have a destabilising effect in the region’. Mali’s main concern was that the ethnic Tuareg group, most of which is based in northern Mali and is hostile to Mali government forces, would be emboldened by the return of Tuareg fighters who had trained with and supported Gaddafi but who could no longer stay in Libya following the coming to power of the post-Gaddafi National Transitional Council. This has come to pass. Mali’s current troubles started in January 2012, when former Gaddafi-allied Tuareg fighters, joined occasionally by Islamists who had garnered arms from the fallout in Libya, declared war on the Mali government.
Likewise, the autocratic government of Algeria, Libya’s already troubled neighbour, was instinctively concerned about Western meddling in Libya. The Algeria-Libya pact, though tested by various conflicts of interest, had held relatively strong in north Africa for near-on 40 years. It was the means through which a huge, ostensibly ungovernable swathe of north Africa, incorporating vast, nomad-inhabited desert in Algeria and various tribal territories in Libya, was kept fairly stable. There was a major fallout between Algeria and Libya during Algeria’s bitter civil war in the early 1990s, when Gaddafi initially supported the Algerian Islamist group Front Islamique du Salut. But following Gaddafi’s turn against FIS in 1995, Algeria and Libya became mutual back-scratchers once more, particularly in their close collaboration on intelligence matters with the aim of eliminating their shared ‘Islamist problem’ (1). In 2011, Algeria recognised that international action in Libya threatened to unravel this authoritarian political system that had served it, and stability in north Africa, well for much of the modern period.
To this end, Algeria not only opposed NATO’s bombing but also supported Gaddafi’s forces as they fought against Western-backed rebels in 2011. Algeria allowed Gaddafi to traffic military equipment and foreign fighters through its territory and across the border into western Libya, as part of his war against militants in eastern Libya. It offered safe haven for Gaddafi’s family. This has created an extremely tense stand-off between Algeria and the new, NTC-ruled Libya; indeed, the NTC has accused Algeria of ‘acts of aggression’ against the new Libya and at one point it closed Libya’s border with Algeria. Algeria’s fear that Libyan instability would leak over its borders in the wake of NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign now appears to have been realised: it is reported that the Islamist militants who stormed that gas plant were armed with AK104 Kalashnikovs, the same gun used by Libyan rebels against Gaddafi, and that they wore the same uniform that Qatar provided to the NTC for its war with Gaddafi. This Islamist attack, on a plant very close to the Libyan border, is starting to look less like just another al-Qaeda-style ‘spectacular’, and more like an act of war by NTC elements against pro-Gaddafi Algeria, or at least like a violent fallout from the blind arming of various Libya-based Islamists and tribes by the West and its allies.
The fallout from the West’s vain and ill-thought-through Libya venture has been enormous. There is now effectively a state of undeclared war between the state of Algeria and sections of NATO’s pet Libyan outfit, the NTC (especially the Islamist sections of it). This threatens to embolden Islamist elements within Algeria itself, and as recent history should attest (not that pseudo-statesmen like Cameron or Francois Hollande of France pay much attention to history), a resurgence of Islamist sentiment in Algeria could prove deadly indeed. Cameron condemned the Algerian government for acting too fast and too rashly over the gas plant occupation, yet it was Cameron and his allies who created a situation where Algeria increasingly fears for its own existence, and is thus permanently on edge, on guard against its increasingly hostile neighbour of Libya. If Algerian forces acted intemperately, it was only to squash a beast and a situation largely of Cameron and the West’s creation.
As well as exacerbating national tensions in north Africa, Western intervention in Libya rattled delicate ethnic links, too. The expanding war in Mali, which largely pits ethnic Tuaregs in the north against army forces in the capital of Bamako in the south, is also a direct product of the West’s assault on Libya. Cameron depicts the conflict in Mali as a simple case of al-Qaeda-style groups seeking to take over north Africa. In truth, Islamist groups in Mali are largely tail-ending the far larger conflict between the mostly secular, secessionist Tuareg group in the north of Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, and official military forces in the south of Mali. This conflict has been brewing since 1990; its current 2012 incarnation, which has already brought about the overthrow of the Mali government in a coup d’etat and created the space for Islamists to make in-roads in the conflict-ridden north, was inflamed by the West’s attack on Libya. Mali-born ethnic Tuaregs had fought for Gaddafi for many years, as part of his complex cultivation of ethnic and tribal loyalties to shore up his power in the patchwork nation of Libya. Following his ousting, these well-trained, well-armed Tuaregs, who could not stay in a Libya ruled by the NTC, returned to Mali in their thousands, where they immediately declared war on their long-time governmental enemies in the south.
In December 2011, some in the West recognised that the attack on Libya might destabilise huge chunks of north Africa – and bizarrely, they tried to troubleshoot such a possibility with money. Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, created a post-Libya security fund of 150million Euros, which was designed to ‘bolster security efforts [in north Africa]… covering, as a priority, Mauritania, Mali and Niger’. This is how the diplomatically infantile rulers of the modern West think: that they can casually push aside the ruler of a country in a volatile part of the world and then throw cash at any problems that arise as a result. They treat global instability as a kind of risk-assessment exercise, as if they were local council officials working out how to stop teenagers from vandalising bus-stops.
What the current instability in north Africa really reveals is not that Islamists are taking over the world, but rather that Western governments are utterly incapable of acting in their own interests on the international stage these days. The chasm that now separates what is in the West’s interests and what the West actually does in global politics is enormous. So determined were the British and French to score some PR points by bombing Libya in 2011 that they didn’t give a moment’s thought to the potential consequences – and now the French military, backed by Britain, is getting stuck into the Libyan fallout in Mali, and both governments are panicked by what is happening in Algeria. The true danger on the world stage today is not a global Islamist conspiracy to demolish Western values, but rather the fact that international affairs is now overseen by immature, narcissistic showboaters who know nothing of realpolitik, nothing of diplomacy, nothing of blowback, and nothing of history.
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