The Maghreb problem The Times 21 Jan 2013
The so-called “War on Terror”, with all its sacrifices and failures, has lasted over a decade. Now the Prime Minister tells us it must go on for another. He is, unfortunately, probably right.
But it would be a strategic blunder to use what happened in the last decade as a template for the next.
There are three reasons for this. The way we have done it these last ten years hasn’t worked; Western defence cuts and public aversion to further conflict mean we can’t do it that way any longer, even if we wanted to. And with the old orders in The Middle East fragmenting and Western models being increasingly rejected, we are now engaged in a totally different kind of conflict.
So far the “War on Terror” (I hate the phrase; it re-enforces the Manichean view of the Islamic extremists) has been fought by primarily military means. Our weapons of choice have been invasions, main battle armies, lethal force, occupation and an attempt (failed) at government. The next phase will need to be regional in scope and based on partnership, intelligence, anticipation, political subtlety, close Western co-ordination and, perhaps most important of all the judicious use of aid and assistance to enable threatened Governments to cope for themselves. Where military action is required it will best be tightly targeted and small scale. Boots on the ground are a last resort because we have failed to act earlier – as in Mali, where Islamic extremism, its causes, consequences and connections have been very visible for ages – I wrote about them in this paper in early December. Watch Nigeria next.
In the struggle ahead, Libya, for all its deficiencies, is likely a better model than Afghanistan. Of course the Libyan outcome has been less elegant than we would have wished – but not less elegant than when we tried to do it ourselves. Of course, the empty spaces where Arab Spring Governments haven’t worked have been all too readily filled by arms they couldn’t control and the extremism they couldn’t suppress, as we have seen in Algeria – but has the consequent violence and instability really been greater than those created by our own mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan?
There are no comfortable ways of doing this – but enabling domestic Islamic governments to fight this battle for themselves, is likely to be better, safer and more effective than Western Governments trying to do it for them. Look at Somalia where careful patient western action (with Britain playing a key part) has enabled a democratic Somali Government to begin to recover their country from the ravages of al-Shabab extremism. It is far, far too early to declare a victory here. But in a region where the bright lights are few, Somalia at least provides a hopeful glow.
Perhaps the most important thing for our leaders to understand as they plan what to do next, is the true nature of the conflict in which we are now engaged.
In our usual arrogant Western way, we see this as a “war” in which we are the enemy. Thus, attacking the gas plant at In Amenas has been universally seen in the West as an attack on “us”. But it is much more likely to have been designed to turn an attack on a Western facility into a means to gain support in the world of Islam. In so far as the West was
the target, it was so by secondary consequence, not primary cause.
The underlying drive for most of what is happening in the world of Islam at the moment is not a war against the West, but a widening religious conflict between the Sunni and the Shia for the soul of Islam.
We have had such religious wars in Christianity, too. We can still see their distant echoes in Belfast and the Balkans. We should understand how destructive they can be.
Herein lies both a better understanding of the present danger and the possibility of epiphany.
Quietly, while we have been obsessing with Afghanistan, wringing impotent hands about oppression in Syria and fretting about the new Governments of the Arab Spring, a hidden revolution has been taking place in the world of Islam.
Join the dots and it is plain enough to see; in the recent elections in Egypt; in the growing influence of extremists amongst the Syrian rebels; in the contagion spreading into Lebanon; in the street slogans of Bahrain; in the rise of Al-Shabab in Somalia and in what is happening in Mali, where the real target of the Islamic extremists is not the Malian state but the quiet, tolerant doctrines of the Islamic suffis for which Mali is so famous.
Funded in large measure by the Qatari Government and private UAE and Saudi money (as Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan in its early days), salafist extremists have been building their influence right through the Islamic world from the Maghreb, south into sub-Saharan Africa, north through Syria and into the Russian Islamic republics. Their effect has been felt even as far away as Indonesia and – some say – amongst the Uighurs in China, too. The day was when this Islamic extremism defined itself by the war against the “Great Satan” in the West. Today they prepare for the conflict with the “Great Heresy” of the Shia. This is the context in which the deaths at In Amenas and the French intervention in Mali must be seen – a widening Sunni/Shia conflict in which the West is less prime mover than unwitting pawn, but which would have deadly consequences for peace of the Middle East region and so for us all. There is much more in play here than a tragedy at a desert gas plant, or the future of a small sub-Saharan country.
And the epiphany? It lies in understanding that in this struggle our most important allies will not be the armies of our Western partners, but our “moderate” Islamic friends who are trying to win back control of their region and religion. How we are able – sensibly, quietly and cautiously – to help them will determine the outcome of this struggle much more than boots on the ground or braggadocio in Western capitals.