Mali is not Afghanistan, and other simplistic media narratives

4:19 pm - February 1st 2013

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by Riazat Butt


Military activity brings out the worst in people – and I’m not talking about militants.

In case you missed it Africa – yes all of it – is the new Afghanistan. How could it not be? It has crazy Muslims killing innocent Muslims and lopping off their bits.

The entire continent is antagonising Western governments, while simultaneously highlighting the shortcomings of local security and law enforcements, to such an extent that boots on the ground are inevitable. It sounds so familiar.

Any western intervention in foreign lands is almost immediately described as the new Afghanistan.

Exhibit A:
Will Libya become the new Afghanistan? asked ABC News in September 2012
Libya IS [my emphasis] the new Afghanistan, said the Telegraph in August 2011.

A few months before the Telegraph arrived at that conclusion the Defence Secretary Liam Fox said Libya WAS the New Afghanistan.

Exhibit B:
Last October Al Jazeera asked whether Syria was the new Afghanistan. There’s a pattern emerging.

There are a few reasons why Africa/Mali/Algeria is not the new Afghanistan (which, remember, is the new Vietnam) but that hasn’t stopped experts from drawing comparisons. And, because nobody knows WTF is going on, they get away with it.

North Africa is the new Afghanistan, says Front Page.
North Africa: the New Afghanistan? asks ABC. You see NA = North Africa. NA also = New Afghanistan.
Will Mali become a new Afghanistan? wonders Arab News. Arab News? C’mon guys! You’re Arab! You should know better. Oh wait.

USA Today has a different take on the situation: Is Africa Al-Qaeda’s new launch pad? Yes, that’s the whole of Africa. As opposed to the Africa that is home to groups that we’ve already heard of – AQIM and AQAP.

Salon doesn’t fall into the same trap though, oh no. It asks: Is Afghanistan worse than Vietnam?

Here are some very good reasons why Africa is not the new Afghanistan

The grand-sounding AQIM hides a chaotic reality. The group has singularly failed to unite disparate local groups spread along the north African coast. Even in Algeria, militants are split between the north and south – and these two factions are split again, into rival bands. Finally, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man suspected of orchestrating the refinery attack, leads his own breakaway group that does not even pay nominal allegiance to the southern AQIM faction, let alone the group as a whole, and certainly not to al-Qaida. If they are “al-Qaida-linked” then the chain is a very long one.

That’s from the Guardian’s Jason Burke, who knows more than a thing or two about all things Al Qaeda.

A few days later he said something similar, mostly because the likes of Cameron started talking about an existential, global threat and clearly some calm and perspective was needed.

Cameron did avoid talking of a “war” but, as his own intelligence services and foreign affairs specialists have long advised, the “single narrative” of a cosmic planetary “existential” clash is, for theological as well as psychological reasons, one of the best recruiting tools the militants have. Such rhetoric therefore risks being counterproductive. The new challenge this decade may be an unforeseen one: the hard-learned lessons of last decade being neglected, if not deliberately unlearned.

Professor Michael Clarke, now of RUSI formerly of King’s College London, warns that western responses to African events are not a continuation of the same jihadist challenge that produced the 9/11 attacks and much else thereafter.

Nevertheless, the difference between what is happening in the Sahel now and what happened in south Asia, are more evident than the similarities. For one thing, the jihadists are aligning themselves with separatist movements more than revolutionary ones. Al-Qa’ida was always based more on guerrilla warfare than international terrorism as such. It was what they trained for and how they saw themselves pursuing – ‘Qur’an-style’ – a proper jihad against the infidels.

And, just to hammer the point home, here’s Christina Hellmich on why the Islamist threat to Europe is overstated.

…when David Cameron announces that Britain must pursue the terrorists with an iron resolve, he unwittingly reinforces a notion of a unified Islamist threat that does not exist in that form. It is a convenient narrative which benefits both the propaganda machine of Islamists and the calls of those in the west who support military action, yet the true picture of those who claim to act in the name of al-Qaida – both in Africa and elsewhere – is far more nuanced, and much less of a threat to Europe, than we are commonly led to believe.

Here endeth the sermon.

Riazat Butt was religion correspondent at the Guardian. She now blogs here.

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Reader comments

Oh there is pattern. We armed and trained Bin Laden and put him into Afghanistan with his merry bunch of Islamist brothers to fight the Soviets. Then we lost interest. And he turned into the Taliban.

We armed and traind Saddam and put him into power to act as a bullwork against Iran. Then we lost interest…………..rinse and repeat

We helped the rebels in Lybia, and now they have gone crazy….rinse and repeat.

It is a wonderful game that keeps the military industrial complex rich, and employed. As for Africa, it is rich in resources, and China is making a big play, so naturally, America can’t let this go unchallenged. So allies have to be found, and that will lead as it always does to blow back. Follow the money, it always leads to the same game.

Sending “military advisers” to “help train the armies” of African countries sounds suspiciously like the prelude to another conflict that happened over 50 years ago.

Here’s one the US made earlier.

3. Golam Murtaza

Some very good points made above.

As for the tiresome tactic of naming a predominantly Muslim country and breathlessly adding the question ‘The Next Afghanistan?’ after it….a few years ago I wasted money on a poorly written book called ‘Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?’ by someone called Hiranmay Karlekar. I rolled my eyes so much while reading it I made myself dizzy. Bangladesh is as similar to Afghanistan as Indonesia is to Chad. Only a matter of time before some nutjob comes out with an article or pamphlet warning that Blackburn or Rochdale could be ‘The Next Afghanistan’.

Afghanistan was never the “new Vietnam”, it was more like the “old Afghanistan”.

The old Afghanistan of the 1960s looked better than the new Afghanistan. Maybe old Vietnam in the 1960s were wishing they could be like the old Afghanistan.

I was thinking more of the 1839 Afghanistan.

Or maybe the the 1879 Afghanistan.

Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

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