Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Empty Quarter

David Cameron has found the excitement of foreign travel too much of a temptation.  Like Tony Blair before him, the allure of a little gunboat diplomacy has been irresistible; initially we offered some logistics support  but Britain is now on the path of direct involvement in the "meltdown in Mali".

Where Blair had the excuse of British casualties in both 9/11 and 7/7 and a special relationship to uphold, it is more difficult to see the political motivation for Dave.  Support for the French is a minority sport in Britain.

Firstly it's important to nail the cause of the rumpus, and this is where the problems start.  Saharan Africa is of course a physical and political desert and becoming more so due to climate changes in the region.  Rotten leadership, broken economies and tribal conflict are 'laboratory conditions' for Muslim insurrection.  At this stage it’s not clear if there is more than a loose alliance of Jihadist groups, held together by the 'hand if God'.  What is clear is that the empty spaces and political vacuum in North West Africa, is being filled by an assortment of Muslim local opportunists and some well-travelled extremists from around the world. Africa needs to fill this empty quarter with hope and support.

Distribution of Islam in AfricaBut this is not only a religious problem, many of the protagonists have been involved in cigarette and drug smuggling for many years and see global terrorism as a convenient side line to their more commercial activities.  The guy who organised the Algerian gas plant raid at Almenas a Mr Belmoktar is also known as Mr Marlboro, for obvious reasons

So is the West right to try to fill this vacuum?  The answer is undoubtedly, yes and it’s important to do so now before the Jihadist get a strong foot hold.  Will this area of the Sahara and the neighbouring Sahel region to the South become the next Afghanistan?  The answer to this question is probably no.  Without the sort of state sponsorship that some regions of Pakistan provide to the Taliban and Al Qaeda it’s difficult to see this ragbag of religious opportunists creating a second front for the war on terror.

This spat came at a good time for Mr Hollande, the French President, with his economic policies widely ridiculed and the axis relationship with German under pressure this distraction could not have come at a better time.   Like Wavell at the stat of the desert war there will be rich pickings against a disorganised enemy.  But if the metaphorical Italians are replaced by the German storm troopers , well organised battle hardened Jihadist, the French may wish they had stayed at home

This leaves the vexed question of our involvement, which obviously has more to do with our EU renegotiation than any commitment to France's scramble back to Africa.

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