The real danger is that the world turns its back on another poor place threatened by jihadists
AFTER 11 years spent waging war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, almost $1.5 trillion in direct costs and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the Western public feels it has learned a hard lesson. It is more convinced than ever that even the best-intentioned foreign intervention is bound to bog its armies down in endless warsfighting invisible enemies to help ungrateful locals.
Echoes of Afghanistan rang loud earlier this month when French forces swooped on advancing columns of Islamists threatening the Saharan state of Mali. And they were heard again, a few days later, when a unit of bearded, gun-toting jihadists from the "Signed-in-Blood Battalion" seized a gas plant and slaughtered dozens of foreigners in next-door Algeria--more than in any single Islamist terror attack since the bombing of a Bali nightclub in 2002. Here, it seemed, was the next front of the global war on terror and also a desert quagmire to entrap vainglorious Western leaders.
Yet 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.
The origins of the conflict that has captured the headlines (see pages) are not, primarily, either regional or global but local. 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.
In northern Nigeria an extreme Islamist group calling itself Boko Haram ("Western teachings are sinful") recruits ill-educated, jobless and angry Muslim youngsters to wage a campaign of violence and murder. In Mali the nomadic Tuareg in the northern half of the country have long been marginalised. The jihadists latched on to an ethnic revolt, promptly sweeping its leaders aside. Elsewhere, in such countries as Ethiopia and Kenya, they have cynically widened old fault-lines between Muslims and Christians, who have in the past generally cohabited peacefully.
Many of these groups give themselves a global gloss. 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,...