Why should we worry if jihadists control a poor, landlocked country thousands of miles away?
As the French push on with the ‘reconquest’ of Mali, there’s a feeling here that Britain must play its part in preventing a terrorist safe haven on Europe’s southern border. Some compare the situation to pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Back in May, Ian Birrell warned that we ‘have seen the damage caused by a broken, chaotic country – and how Islamist terror groups promising stability can fill the void.’ The ‘shockwaves’ from Mali ‘could be felt far beyond its own borders’ just as the ones from Afghanistan were felt in New York and Washington. Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, has drawn a similar comparison. Implicitly, the message is that ‘Something must be done!’ before history repeats itself.
The comparison is a bad one, though, and we shouldn’t let it draw us into another conflict.
Failed states are the worst places for terrorists to set up a safe haven. There is no infrastructure that they can use, the security situation is just as dangerous for them as it is for anyone else, and they are usually drawn into murderous local politics. Instead of plotting world domination, groups like al-Qaeda find themselves wasting valuable time and resources dealing with these problems. They dropped plans to base themselves in Somalia in the 1990s because they found it was just too chaotic. Many criticised the move to Afghanistan for the same reason.
Too often, those who warn about the dangers of failed states and a repeat of 9/11 forget that the country was not Bin Laden’s preferred choice, but a last resort. It was not its failure that made it an option, but the protection offered to him by the powerful warlords he had built up relationships with during the 1980s. They also forget that there was nothing inevitable about the attacks; they could have been thwarted numerous times at considerably less cost than a full-scale intervention.
Comparing somewhere to Afghanistan under the Taliban serves the same purpose as comparing a dictatorial regime to Nazi Germany. ‘What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later’, is the argument. This current cost/future saving thinking has a big influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy, making his support for the Mali intervention understandable. He partly justifies his support for international aid on the grounds that ‘if we had put a fraction of our current military spending on Afghanistan into helping [it] develop 20 years ago’, then 9/11 could have been avoided.
A jihadist takeover in Mali would impact regional, not international security. The militant Islamists there are not ‘a global, existential threat’, as the Prime Minister claims, but rooted in local politics. We do not need to prevent the creation of a safe haven in North Africa, but simply prevent the terrorists’ ability to move beyond it. Given West Africa is primarily a French sphere of influence, responsibility for dealing with the danger should be delegated to them. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary said as much to me a few months ago.
British interests would not be well-served by us bungling into another war out of fear of bad history.
Aaron Ellis is Afghanistan Director of Conservative Friends of Central Asia and writes about foreign affairs for the Tory Reform Group.