Coffee House

Mali is not another Afghanistan

24 January 2013

Why should we worry if jihadists control a poor, landlocked country thousands of miles away?

As the French push on with the ‘reconquest’ of Mali, there’s a feeling here that Britain must play its part in preventing a terrorist safe haven on Europe’s southern border. Some compare the situation to pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Back in May, Ian Birrell warned that we ‘have seen the damage caused by a broken, chaotic country – and how Islamist terror groups promising stability can fill the void.’ The ‘shockwaves’ from Mali ‘could be felt far beyond its own borders’ just as the ones from Afghanistan were felt in New York and Washington. Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, has drawn a similar comparison. Implicitly, the message is that ‘Something must be done!’ before history repeats itself.

The comparison is a bad one, though, and we shouldn’t let it draw us into another conflict.


Failed states are the worst places for terrorists to set up a safe haven. There is no infrastructure that they can use, the security situation is just as dangerous for them as it is for anyone else, and they are usually drawn into murderous local politics. Instead of plotting world domination, groups like al-Qaeda find themselves wasting valuable time and resources dealing with these problems. They dropped plans to base themselves in Somalia in the 1990s because they found it was just too chaotic. Many criticised the move to Afghanistan for the same reason.

Too often, those who warn about the dangers of failed states and a repeat of 9/11 forget that the country was not Bin Laden’s preferred choice, but a last resort. It was not its failure that made it an option, but the protection offered to him by the powerful warlords he had built up relationships with during the 1980s. They also forget that there was nothing inevitable about the attacks; they could have been thwarted numerous times at considerably less cost than a full-scale intervention.

Comparing somewhere to Afghanistan under the Taliban serves the same purpose as comparing a dictatorial regime to Nazi Germany. ‘What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later’, is the argument. This current cost/future saving thinking has a big influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy, making his support for the Mali intervention understandable. He partly justifies his support for international aid on the grounds that ‘if we had put a fraction of our current military spending on Afghanistan into helping [it] develop 20 years ago’, then 9/11 could have been avoided.

A jihadist takeover in Mali would impact regional, not international security. The militant Islamists there are not ‘a global, existential threat’, as the Prime Minister claims, but rooted in local politics. We do not need to prevent the creation of a safe haven in North Africa, but simply prevent the terrorists’ ability to move beyond it. Given West Africa is primarily a French sphere of influence, responsibility for dealing with the danger should be delegated to them. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary said as much to me a few months ago.

British interests would not be well-served by us bungling into another war out of fear of bad history.

Aaron Ellis is Afghanistan Director of Conservative Friends of Central Asia and writes about foreign affairs for the Tory Reform Group.

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  • Neil Kitson

    News flash: Afghanistan wasn’t Afghanistan either.

  • didi

    Our little Napoleon has now started a new form of warfare. It is called “wheels (of airplanes) on the ground”.

  • Ikram Ghouri

    NATO needs another Afghanistan as they can ,t live in peace. America needs Muslim blood every where till they themselves become victims.
    Let the poors live, only hydrocarbon war will give no hydrocorbon to the west. oil. and only oil with out human beings is a dream of the West.

  • NoDonkey

    Give Al Qaeda a base to operate and soon they’ll be petitioning the UN to give them a state and to condemn Israel.

  • Curnonsky

    If Mali falls to the jihadists that will simply make another state in that column after Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and soon Syria.

    Still, Jacques will handle it while we get on with the really important business of gay marriage and windfarms.

  • Fat_Freddy_Freekowtski

    The problem is, as you state, rooted in local politics and probably won’t go away until the Taureg nationalists of the North are allowed self-determination and independence. As your link asserts, Al-qaeda militants exploit local problems. If the French allowed the Tauregs to break away and form their own state, with French support, the French will solve the root problem and the al-Qaeda outsiders will be seen as offering less than the French and al-Qaeda types will be sent packing. Al-qaeda types are outsiders but they need local support to operate. Problem solved.

    Why will they not do this? Is it because to do so would be giving implicit support to ethnic nationalists and also an admission that multi-ethnic states are often a bad idea? That can’t be it – surely?

    • masmanz

      But then, what excuse would they have for recolonizing?

  • the viceroy’s gin

    …and getting back to local martial capabilities, in that photograph, I’d like to review the detail as to the type of “patrol” those guys are engaging.

    From what we see here, these appear to be techniques, ahem, new and unique.

    I mean, such a deadly islamofascist enemy as the NWO folks are making out, and the boys are riding around like they’re on the way to the beach, and one even ordering ahead for a take-out picnic to meet them there.

    Certainly there must be some white papers about, for one to review and study these advanced martial approaches. Maybe this is that newfangled “COIN” we hear so much about.

  • Jebediah

    Mr. Ellis,
    What if you are wrong? I don’t think we can take the risk of AlQaeda in effect having it’s own country. It is worth a smaller effort now rather than the gargantuan world changing efforts another 9/11 style attack would create. In other words, think insurance.

    • Rhoda Klapp2

      Living as I do in South Oxfordshire, my nearest Al Qaeda base is in High Wycombe, in leafy Buckinghamshire. Home of the liquid bomb plot, and the reason that you can’t take a drink of water through security at an airport. Better I think if all those people lived in some lovely Sharia state. If it turns out to be Mali, what care I?

      • Jebediah

        You might care if in the relative peace of conquered Northern Mali they manage to make a dirty bomb that blows up in London. It’s the probability of an attack multiplied by the magnitude of the attack that we have to worry about. See 9/11 and its consequences.

        On another note I sympathise with you. Importing ill-educated young British hating medieval (understanding) Islamists does appear counterproductive.

        • Rhoda Klapp2

          In London, you say? I’ll have to think about that. If the wind is westerly, I’d have to think about that a lot.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            And can we schedule one of those for Davos this week? 😉

        • eeore

          Not the dirty bomb again… honestly some people will fall for anything.

  • Daniel Maris

    What tosh. Al Queda launched 9-11 from a failed state.

    • Colin

      I’m not sure that Saudi Arabia or Germany (a few of them were based in Hamburg), for that matter are failed states.

    • Colin

      PS – What part is tosh?

      The motivation of useless political crooks to paint themselves in a good light? The looming involvement in Mali ? Or, the politically inept and morally dubious act of placing solidiers who are about to go to war on redundancy notice?

      • MirthaTidville

        You are so very right Colin.

    • fuqdisqus


  • Colin

    “Why should we worry if jihadists control a poor, landlocked country thousands of miles away?”

    We should worry because it provides incompetent, vain and low integrity politicians with a convenient device to distract us from their collective, domestic shortcomings. It won’t be long before the RAF is flying bombing sorties. I’m sure that special forces are already on the ground. How long before 16 Airmobile Brigade is warned for deployment?

    All this at a time when members of 1 Mech Brigade, gearing up for deployment to Afghanistan on Op Herrick XVIII (March 2013), have just been informed that they’re “At Risk” of redundancy, as a result of the accountant led defence cuts – Nice!

    Thanks tories! Great politics!

  • telemachus

    A Jihadist takeover affects much more than regional security
    As we saw with the BP gas siege we affect energy policy and notions of security of extraction far and wide
    With effects on the cost base of the whole Western industrial effort
    And in the end leading to prolongation of the forthcoming third dip of the recession

    • Nigel Jones

      All the more reason to push ahead with Shale Gas as a matter of urgency

      • telemachus

        Yes wreck a few more homes in Blackpool

    • itdoesntaddup

      The destinations of Algerian gas exports in 2011 were: Italy (21.3bcm), Spain (9.4bcm), Portugal (1.9bcm), Tunisia (1.3bcm), Slovenia (0.3bcm), and Morocco (0.2bcm). Nothing for the UK or France. Perhaps we should add the cost of protection to the bill for Italy and Spain?

      • eeore

        So BP and Total don’t pay tax?

    • itdoesntaddup

      Here’s the response of the Algerians:

      Improve the investment conditions for foreign companies. Perhaps they’re more rational than you are?

    • dalai guevara

      Not this war for oil/gas line again – let’s just build windmills and deal with the Don Quixotes here.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …as long as the “let’s” you’re speaking of consists of only you and that little mouse in your pocket, that sounds perfectly fine.

        But the problem here is that like the Mali interventionists, you want somebody else to pay for your splendid plans.

        • dalai guevara

          Windmills are less subsidised than nuclear. *Let’s* not have facts get in the way of an argument, shall we?

          • the viceroy’s gin

            …but what’s that got to do with the price of fish?

            Or anything else you and your leftist mouse want to subsidize?

            • dalai guevara

              The level of subsidy is a public expense, it is higher for nuclear, so YOU ARE paying for it. Only a cretinous simpleton would not admit to it, or someone who DEPENDS on that windfall.

              • the viceroy’s gin

                …again, what’s that got to do with the price of fish?

                Or anything else you and your leftist mouse want to subsidize?

                Maybe you’re just too stupid to understand those questions.

                • dalai guevara

                  Why are we subsidising nuclear? Explain it. Include the word ‘fish’.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Why do you leftist mice subsidize anything?

                  Answer your own question.

                  Although as it happens, you may be too stupid to answer a question, so there’s that.

                  And what’s any of this got to do with the price of fish?

                • dalai guevara

                  Ah yes, I see.

                  Subsidising the bearded smiley’s space program via rail fare hikes was a lefty idea.
                  Subsidising rent seeking landlords in London by paying any price they ask for rather than building council houses was a lefty idea.
                  Subidising back-to-work CEOs wages (I believe that Cameron chum extracted more than £8m out of her company in one year alone) for bugger all in return was a lefty idea.

                  You continue to amuse me.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  No, you’re lengthening up again, and stupidity at length is always a waste of time, so best to put you on ignore.

                  In the meantime, answer your own question, as posed above. And answer as to what’s any of this got to do with the price of fish?

                • dalai guevara

                  I kept it short for you – you were unable to focus, remember?

                  Why are we subsidising nuclear? Explain it. Include the word ‘fish’.

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Again, why do you leftist mice want to subsidize anything?

                  Answer your own question.

                  And what’s any of that got to do with the price of fish?

                • dalai guevara

         kickstart young, innovative, sustainable, reliable, decentralised growth industries that benefit our economy, of course.

                  Something that nuclear could never do, as it is delivered by foreigners (japanese or french), high risk as a target, hopelessly outdated, produces highly toxic waste no one wants, centralised form of power source.

                  What’s any of that got to do with the price of fish?

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Nothing, or everything… depending on which of you lefty stupids is blathering.

    • eeore

      This situation is all about the energy policy, and who gets to control oil, and particularly gas (when the market can be monopolised and the price driven up) – the same as Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and Bahrain to some extent.

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