The Sahara: a new front?


Is there a new front in the war against terror in the Sahara? It is a huge area with complicate and intricate sets of problems, which does not lend to a quick and permanent solution. Indeed, given the various different factors, such as poverty, diversity of languages, culture, and religions, which the state borders often casually ignore, as well as the weak and corrupt state institutions, it could become a long-term commitment, without a clear exit strategy.

There now seems to be yet another front in the war against terror, and this front stretches an unimaginably vast expanse, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. Ever since the hostage crisis in Algeria, and French intervention in Mali, which the UK has subsequently joined, there is a sense of foreboding and apprehension, that this will lead to further and long-term complications for the western powers. Once intervention takes place, it will not be easy to get out, as the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, even if the French forces have pushed back the militants in Mali. There are many factors that support an argument, that this will be a much more difficult intervention to sustain, or to set a reasonable and realistic objective, because of geography, poverty, as well as tribal, religious, linguistic, and cultural differences, and the political situation, as will be explored briefly below.

It is probably worth repeating how huge the area under discussion is: Mali alone is roughly twice the size of France (Mali is 1.24 million square km, and France is 0.64 million square km). Add a huge swathe of Algeria, Niger, Libya, Chad, and Sudan (all of which are larger than Mali), as well as Mauritania and Western Sahara to the west, and Egypt and Somalia to the east, and it becomes evident that this front, which will be specks in the sand rather than a line, occupies a vast area. I certainly cannot imagine, or visualize this kind of vastness. Given the size of the region, it will be impossible to police the region effectively, as numbers on the ground are unlikely to be sufficient to control all the areas. It is sparsely populated, and as the ongoing war in Afghanistan, as well as previous examples of guerilla warfare have shown, small forces can choose to harass and harry their opponents, without having to hold on to places. They can retreat, bide their time, and come back to hit and run again. Terrorists can choose their targets, as the bloody hostage situation in Algeria demonstrated, and they need not to defend what they hold in face of superior force. Furthermore, it is likely that there are numerous distinct groups, sharing similar goals and a common enemy, so any decapitation tactics, or smashing one group, will not lead to the end of the conflicts.

Poverty and its role in conflict and terrorism would be too complex an issue to address adequately in a piece such as this. While the exact relationship between poverty, conflict, and terrorism may be difficult to ascertain, it would be fair to say that poverty doesn’t help conflict resolution, and it may be a more fertile ground for political extremism to gain support. Poverty manifests in many different ways: at the most extreme are the types of poverty that lead to starvation, in that people simply cannot afford to have access to food. But there are also other forms, such as bad healthcare provisions, unclean water supplies, lack of education, and lack of opportunity in general. Poverty is often linked to a weak and corrupt state, that does not provide safety net, yet extracts and extorts from the populous in a disorderly manner. State is not a guarantor of minimum existence, or an effective protector of life and property, but merely an institution making demands. To put it starkly, the state is not seen as legitimate. At times, militants are the ones who provide food and security, thus obtaining support from some quarters.

I am talking from a position of ignorance, for that reason I’m sticking to the generalities, but I do not think there is any doubt as to the diversity of languages, cultures, and religions that exist in this area. It would be a gross simplification because of many groups and factors, but there is a Muslim fundamentalist movement, that feeds into local differences and conflicts, thus exacerbate existing tensions. At the same time, different groups can coalesce around religion, partly by persuasion, especially against a greater common enemy real or perceived or imagined, and mostly by actual or threat of violence. Both processes are probably happening at the same time, as people, as individuals, families, and tribes, decide and are forced to decide to join in the militancy, oppose the terrorists, or try not to be involved at all. It would be easy for me, sitting far away, secure in my home, to pass judgement on others’ choices and actions, yet I don’t know what I would do, if I were in that situation. There are countless human stories, many undoubtedly tragic, being played out. There may be intersections of interests, but each group within the loose coalition would have slightly different objectives, making any negotiations difficult and unlikely to achieve much on the bigger stage. To put it another way, any long-term stability would require a broad coalition of various interests, ethnicities, and religions, against the terrorists and militants. Constructing such a broad coalition will be no easy task: it cannot be done by force, or by pumping money alone.

The lines on the map of Africa are often very neat, too neat. The boundaries were drawn by the colonial masters, without much care to ethnicity, economy, or ecology. The nation-state that many of us may take for granted are products of historical development, and possibly a very particular development in Europe. Some nations are without states, some states are composed of many nations. Grossly simplifying history and political theory, there have been nations that gained statehood, based on the shared ethnic identity, such as language, history, culture, and religion, and there have been states that have moulded a nation, usually by a process of assimilation and homogenization, some of which we would now describe as ethnic cleansing to create a people that shared the same language, history, culture, and religion. In Africa, tribes, linguistic and cultural groups were divided and yoked together by the might of the arbitrary pen in the hands of the colonial powers. The economic and ecological structures have been ignored. However, having drawn the lines, states have struggled to make people: problems can manifest in one group or a nation taking the control of the state, or the institution that is likely to mould a group with the same sense of belonging, the army, taking the reins. Either way, democracy in a multi-ethnic state is not easy to establish and maintain in such circumstances. And as the state is either a vehicle of sectional interests, or a military dictatorship, it never becomes strong and adequate to play a role that most of us would expect, thus its weakness and corruptness in many cases.

Minds and brains far greater and finer than mine have not come up with a solution. The problems are so complex and intricate, there is no easy solution. There is no visible end, and pushing terrorists and militant groups away from Mali will merely move them to another place. It is argued that the current situation in Mali, and in Algeria, was one of the unintended consequences of the civil war in Libya. The mercenaries and weaponry from the supporters of Colonel Gaddafi have dispersed, and they seem to have ended up with terrorist organizations. After being displaced from Mali, these groups will no doubt move to another location, regroup, seek targets, and ambush them.

Without comprehensive reform policies, including a redrawing of the borders, attuned to the needs of the people, while ensuring economic viability, it seems like an impossible task to bring about a stable political structure that would allow for sustained peace and development. If there were no borders in Africa, and someone were to draw them today, I highly doubt that they would correspond to the lines we currently see on the map. However, so long as politics and international relations are conceived in terms of states and their territorial integrity, so long as those in power have no interest in the dissolution of the current system, I cannot see such a drastic change happening. Yet, could these states foster a vision of a future, a common goal imaginable to the different groups within them to create nations, that will override the differences? That I am not sure either. Hopefully I’m wrong, but otherwise Africa is saddled with a system that does not work, thus ending up as a collection of failed states, and this war in the Sahara is just one symptom of that malaise, where an end to the intervention is as real as a mirage in the desert.