The Domino Theory is back. It played a fundamental role in drawing America into a hopeless, protracted war in Viet Nam. If the Communists weren't repulsed from South Vietnam, all of Southeast Asia would fall to the Red horde and so America wasn't fighting for Viet Nam but for the future of an entire region.
Now The Economist is playing the same refrain only this time for North Africa.
...all wars are different. The lessons from one campaign need not map
neatly onto the next. Looking at the arc of instability, stretching from
Somalia and Sudan in the east through Chad to Mali in the west, as if
it were just another Iraq or Afghanistan, is misleading. It is also, if
it discourages outsiders from helping defuse dangerous conflicts,
harmful. Though intervention always holds dangers, in Africa it need be
neither so long-drawn-out as in Baghdad and Kabul nor so hopeless.
...Since time immemorial, lawlessness and violence have had a toehold in
and around the vast Sahara desert and the terrain that stretches
eastward across to Somalia in the Horn of Africa. But in the past few
years the anarchy has worsened—especially since the fall of Libya’s
Muammar Qaddafi in late 2011, when arms flooded across the region’s
porous borders. Hostage-taking, cash from ransoms, smuggling,
drug-trafficking and brigandage have bolstered an array of gang leaders.
Some of them, waving the banner of Islam, have seized on legitimate
local grievances fuelled by poverty, discrimination and the
mismanagement of corrupt governments.
The jihadists who attacked the Algerian gas plant came from such
places as Tunisia, Mali and Niger—the Algerian authorities say they even
included at least one Canadian. North African Islamists look for
inspiration, if not direction, to global jihadists like al-Qaeda. Some
get extra money from sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other sources in the
oil-rich Gulf. A loose fraternity echoes the message of hostility toward
the West and its friends in Africa and beyond. As al-Qaeda comes under
pressure in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan and in parts of
Yemen and Somalia, some of its people, seeking new refuge, may fetch up
in the region.
Despite these links, though, the direct threat is overwhelmingly
local. Ask the townspeople of Timbuktu, who suddenly fell under the
hand-chopping puritanism of strict sharia law, or the victims of a
foreign-trained bomb-maker in Nigeria, or the people of Somalia, only
now, with the Shabab militia in retreat, beginning to put their lives
back together. But global jihad radicalises
young Muslims, lending their local grievances a dangerous new edge.
Poorly trained security services feed the insurgency with their
brutality. As in Kenya, where Somali refugees have fed tensions between
Muslims and Christians, the conflict in one country tends to spill over
next door. Over the years a radicalised, armed and trained Islamist
insurgency could do immense damage in a fragile part of the world.
...For those who have learned to doubt the wisdom of most intervention,
this argument points to a simple conclusion: keep out. Yet for a host of
reasons what happens in the Sahara is also the world’s business. The
region is a big producer of oil and gas. Shutting foreign businesses out
of large parts of north Africa would be a real loss—one reason why
François Hollande sent troops into Mali was to protect at least 6,000
French citizens living there. Somalia’s lawlessness led to piracy across
the Indian Ocean. North African jihadists would struggle to mount a
campaign of terror in Europe or America just now, but that might change
one day if they controlled the resources of an entire country. Better to
keep them stuck in the desert.
Unfortunately the article glosses over some critical points. Yes we can play whack-a-mole with desert Jidhadists, just as we did with the Taliban, but then what? We never seem to have a viable, second act. Look at the Shiite-dominated, pro-Iran, Maliki government that Washington left behind in Baghdad. Look at the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient government we're leaving behind in Kabul.
Yes, they're right. We probably can "keep them stuck in the desert" but for how long and to what good end? And while we're maintaining a front line somewhere out in the desert what sort of inept corruption will we be spawning in the rear echelons?
Yes, North Africa has oil and gas, we get it. Let the oil and gas companies hire contractors, mercenaries, to defend their interests. And what about the Chinese? They're the bunch moving into the neighbourhood. Should we really be playing the tough for them? We did just that in Afghanistan and, now that we're poised to leave there, the Chinese have neatly sewn up a good chunk of that country's mineral wealth without so much as a "thank you" to us.
But, most critically, is the inability of our leaders to come up with a convincing narrative of just what we would accomplish in the Sahara, for whom and against whom, how and by when. Afghanistan has turned into a mess because it was a war waged without much coherence. Our generals weren't obliged to win. It was enough that they did not lose and that they held out to fight another season. Set the bar that low and they'll keep that going forever. So why should we do that again, why should we ignore that freshly-taught lesson?
We've had enough with waging wars that we have no ability or even intention of winning. In some wars there is a winner. In the wars our generals wage there are only losers.