To listen to David Cameron’s rhetoric this week, it could be 2001 all over again. Eleven years into the war on terror, it might have been Tony Blair speaking after 9/11. As the bloody siege of the part BP-operated In Amenas gas plant in Algeria came to an end, the British prime minister claimed, like George Bush and Blair before him, that the country faced an “existential” and “global threat” to “our interests and way of life”.
While British RAF aircraft backed French military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali, and troops were reported to be on alert for deployment to the west African state, Cameron promised that a “generational struggle” would be pursued with “iron resolve”. The fight over the new front in the terror war in North Africa and the Sahel region, he warned, could go on for decades.
So in austerity-blighted Britain, just as thousands of soldiers are being made redundant, while Barack Obama has declared that “a decade of war is now ending”, armed intervention is being ratcheted up in yet another part of the Muslim world. Of course, it’s French troops in action this time. But even in Britain the talk is of escalating drone attacks and special forces, and Cameron has refused to rule out troops on the ground.
You’d think the war on terror had been a huge success, the way the western powers keep at it, Groundhog Day-style. In reality, it has been a disastrous failure, even in its own terms — which is why the Obama administration felt it had to change its name to “overseas contingency operations”, until US defence secretary Leon Panetta revived the old title this week.
Instead of fighting terror, it has fuelled it everywhere it’s been unleashed: from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Iraq to Yemen, spreading it from Osama bin Laden’s Afghan lairs eastwards to central Asia and westwards to North Africa — as US, British and other western forces have invaded, bombed, tortured and kidnapped their way across the Arab and Muslim world for over a decade.
So a violent jihadist movement that grew out of western intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship was countered with more of the same. And the law of unintended consequences has meanwhile been played out in spectacular fashion: from the original incubation of al-Qaida in the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union, to the spread of terror from western-occupied Afghanistan to Pakistan, to the strategic boost to Iran delivered by the US-British invasion of Iraq.
When it came to Libya, the blowback was much faster — and Mali took the impact. Nato’s intervention in Libya’s civil war nearly two years ago escalated the killing and ethnic cleansing, and played the decisive role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In the ensuing maelstrom, Tuareg people who had fought for Gaddafi went home to Mali and weapons caches flooded over the border.
Within a couple of months this had tipped longstanding demands for self-determination into armed rebellion — and then the takeover of northern Mali by Islamist fighters, some linked to al-Qaida. Foreign secretary William Hague acknowledged this week that Nato’s Libyan intervention had “contributed” to Mali’s war, but claimed the problem would have been worse without it.