The new year is scarcely a month old. Yet we have seen enough to know that the fires raging in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa will not easily abate – and that the firefighting efforts of Western governments may prove no more successful than in the past.
From Algeria to Afghanistan, we see governments whose survival depends on authoritarian rule or the continued support of external powers, or some mixture of the two. In a few places, in particular in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been talk of a transition to democratic institutions, but the path is strewn with obstacles. In many more places, Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to name a few, terrorist cells operating under different guises and names are fanning the flames, moving elusively from one flash point to another.
Attacks by Islamist insurgents on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, at a gas plant in Algeria, and in Mali over the past 12 months may at first sight appear to be unconnected. A closer look suggests they are the interconnected symptoms of a deeper ailment.
In Algeria, on January 16, a group linked with al Qaeda took more than 800 people hostage at the Tigantourine gas facility near In Aménas. The raid mounted by the Algerian special forces managed to free nearly 700 Algerian workers and more than 100 foreigners, but at a high cost: 39 hostages were killed along with an Algerian security guard and 29 militants.
In Mali, the steady collapse of state control over the north of the country was followed by an inconclusive military coup in March 2012, which did little to stem the steady advance of the Saharan branch of al Qaeda. The insurgents were soon in control of the Tuareg north, effectively seceding from the rest of Mali and establishing a harsh form of Islamic law. This is the backdrop to French military intervention which has, for the time being, driven Islamists from the major cities they had occupied across northern Mali.
There is reason to think that in each case the terrorists received both weapons and training from militia camps in Libya.
During her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 23, Hilary Clinton acknowledged as much. She said:
There is no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There is no doubt that the Malian remnants of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have weapons from Libya.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it more forcefully, saying, “Those whom the French and Africans are fighting now in Mali are the (same) people who overthrew the Gaddafi regime, those that our Western partners armed.”
He may well have added that the Taliban, which the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 11 years, is in part “the monster” the US helped to create when it decided to support and arm Islamist groups during the 1980s.
We are also seeing the revolving door of Islamist violence and Western intervention at work in Syria’s tragic devastation. In recent months, well armed Jihadist groups appear to be gaining the upper hand among the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.
In this confused picture, one thing is becoming clearer by the day. US military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 have turned out to be costly operations, greatly sapping the strength of the American state, and if anything widening the spread of terror. The Western intervention in Libya suggests more of the same.
Despite hundreds of US drone strikes, the death of Osama bin Laden and the fracturing of al Qaeda, the jihadist movement is organisationally more flexible and geographically more widespread than ever. With US and allied forces to end their combat mission in Afghanistan next year, the Taliban threat remains potent. Some 1100 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in the past six months, while army personnel have been deserting in growing numbers. The number of al Qaeda fighters may have fallen in Afghanistan, but many have regrouped in Pakistan or shifted their focus to Syria, Libya, Iraq or Mali, Somalia and Yemen.
France’s intervention in Mali may have temporarily disrupted the plans of Islamist groups, but for how long? François Hollande may have received a hero’s welcome in Timbuktu and Bamako, but French forces can’t remain forever. And, once they leave, will Malian forces, even with the support of neighbouring African states, succeed where they have failed in the past?
The political reality is that relations between the north and south of the country have been historically fraught. The Tuareg nomadic communities of the north have launched major rebellions over the years against what they see as exploitative southern rule. This perception is repeatedly reinforced by stories of massacres, the poisoning of wells and score-settling by pro-government militias against Tuareg civilians. Reports of mob lynchings and other reprisal killings of Tuaregs and Arabs by the Malian army as it retakes control of the north of the country can only fan the flames of grievance and mistrust.
The question, then, is not should international forces intervene to protect communities in need of protection? The “responsibility to protect” has rightly become a universally accepted principle.
Instead, the questions are: what form should protection take? Who should do the protecting? What can be done to prevent, rather than simply react to, mass atrocity crimes? What are appropriate strategies for dealing with rampant corruption and deep-seated ethnic, religious and economic divisions? And importantly, who may decide on these questions?
Military intervention conducted or orchestrated by the United States and its allies, however well intentioned, seems increasingly the wrong answer.