The news that we are locked in a "generational struggle," against a "terrorist scourge," in North Africa has been greeted with general indifference by Britain's political class and general public. It is fair to suggest most people were probably unaware of the existence of a new terrorist group which proves a serious threat to our way of life. As such, there are murmurs as to whether the UK should follow the French in upping their involvement in North Africa. However, any sudden move to involve ourselves in a region of complex ethnic and religious ties should be treated with caution.
I personally would not disuade France from intervening in Mali; if they are concerned about the development of a terrorist haven across the Mediterranean, they are entitled to act. Ban Ki-Moon has given his approval to the action, saying it was justified to restore Mali's constitutional integrity. However, as Cameron clamors to get involved, it would make sense to explore the previous results of employing military force in order to defeat this particular ideology. Has the war in Afghanistan reduced the terrorist risk? Or Iraq? These are questions any politician must answer before committing troops in the name of fighting terror.
In both these scenarios, the occupying force knew very little of the countries they were intervening in. The conduct of the Coalition Authority of Iraq is a case in point; the sudden de-Ba'athification of the country led to a huge vacuum in infrastructure and security which was exploited by armed groups. The decision to do this was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Iraq's internal situation, and there is no reason to suggest British politicians are any more informed about Mali. Whilst there are no immediate parallels with Iraq, Mali has a complicated relationship with these militant groups.
The Islamists making ground in northern Mali an unpleasant bunch of people to say the least; banning music, destroying Sufi shrines and engaging in kidnapping. However, as pointed out by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, the Malian government has tolerated Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the past for acting as a counterweight to Tuareg separatists. The danger for the French at the moment is how to intervene without becoming entangled in Mali's ethnic and regional conflicts. Another difficulty is how to use military force to eradicate an ideology dominant over a huge swathe of land. A comforting fact is that the French have chosen to pursue a scaled back approach, deploying a small number of troops to compliment the Malian army.
Whilst not wanting to get involved militarily, Cameron's tone signifies yet another Western leader who has limited understanding of the religious and regional dynamics in countries where the West intervenes. As some commentators have suggested, he has perhaps caught the liberal interventionist bug which afflicted Tony Blair. Another possibility is that countries often feel more unified with a clearly identifiable foe. It was noted at the end of the Cold War that the collapse of the USSR did the worst thing possible to the USA: it deprived it of an enemy. Likewise, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain has drifted aimlessly in its foreign policy, floating from one humanitarian intervention to another, all the while trying to define some existential threat that makes it all worth while.
The problem is that Cameron himself has helped bring about this situation by supporting the revolution in Libya, which is now a hub for Islamic militancy in the region, including AQIM. Thus we have arrived at a nonsensical scenario in which a Prime Minister is declaring war on a situation he has helped create. When it comes to intervention, the Western world seems more interested in cementing a historical legacy of supporting "good" freedom fighters against "bad" tyrannical governments. If only it were so simple.
On top of this, any decision to intervene is regarded with deep suspicion. When it comes this region, the problem is the UK has become so deep in the mire as to render every action it makes disliked. The Perfidy of Albion was apparent just under one hundred years ago, when the British made dual promises to both the Jews and the Arabs that it would guarantee them a homeland in the Levant; promises made for Britain's short term strategic purposes. This is not necessarily of importance to the countries of the Middle East nowadays, but it has left a toxic legacy. The experience of UK involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq means that British humanitarian interests are synonymous with ulterior motives, and misguided attempts to force democracy on other countries. A common accusation was that Britain's decision to get involved in Libya was done due to oil. Why them and not the Syrians? It was notable in its singularity. Regardless, the common feature in all these cases is a country left no better off following Western intervention.
The situation in Mali and Algeria has only been exacerbated by the lawlessness of Libya. What is clear is that the current crop of British politicians have limited understanding of the consequences of their actions, and the dangers of committing themselves to overseas endeavors. All the matters is a short term goal, whether to stop terror, or support revolutionary forces. Cameron's words continue this worrying trend, demonstrating an eagerness to get involved in yet another region he knows little about, to eliminate an idea which has not been destroyed with might in the past, and to solve a problem which previous interventions have created.
If common sense prevailed, Cameron would have thought before committing us to a new war on terror, even if in only ideological terms. The Prime Minister's willingness to create serious threats where there are none by engaging in unwise military excursions has proven only to increase instability in the region. Terrorism has existed for centuries, in many different forms and guises. No reasonable person would want to see its expansion in North Africa. However, the problem remains that the particular phenomenon of Islamic terrorism can not be beaten solely with military force; the experience of the last decade has proven that much.