Saturday, June 11, 2005

Heart of Darkness

Douglas Farah has commentary regarding this NY Times article (free registration required) detailing the increasing incidence of Africans being found among the ranks of foreign insurgents and AQ operatives.

Although this article is seen as showcasing something new - and indeed the growth in upfront African presence is new - Africa has been in the frame as a potential hotspot among those who consider these things for a while (though, as Douglas notes, the powers that be have perhaps been somewhat behind the curve on this issue.

The key area of concern, and one which the authorities have been addressing in the form of moves such as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, consists of the belt of territory bordering the Maghreb thatstretches from Mauritania to Somalia. These states all have a number of things in common; porous borders, weak central governments and large and restive Muslim minorities. Not only might they provide a fertile recruitment ground, they could also represent easy geographical point of retreat and retrenchment should successful developments in the Middle East require radical and AQ-affiliated elements to relocate.

On top of this, the expansion of Islamic madrassas is a growing problem in almost all parts of Africa. In the absence of reliable or affordable public education systems, a vacuum exists which Islamic activists are all too happy to fill. Radical Islamic madrassas, subsidised by wealthy Arab donors are increasingly the only form of education available to dirt poor Africans and even in areas with no particular Muslim presence, African families are increasingly inclined to see them as a way out for their children. Even when relatviely benign there is little doubt that they spread conversion - and they are frequently not benign. In addition, in the more closed nations with relatively little by way of civil society or free political activity, local youth can often turn to them as a possible political outlet, which is outright dangerous.

Farah criticises programmes such as the Pan-Sahel Initiative as being focused too much on the military side of things and for possibly lending support to armed forces with little respect for human rights or reasonable standards of behaviour. Concern is no doubt warranted up to a point and attempts to strengthen indigenous capabilities through military training should not simply turn into carte blanche for outright repression. He is also entirely correct to note that an holistic approach is necessary and Western responses should be very much tailored to specific situations on the ground and local contexts. All that said, we live in a time of stretch and overstretch and the undesirability of large and overt footprints and in this case something, while imperfect, is almost certainly better than nothing. In order to be successful, the USA simply cannot directly handle everything. There is also a European angle, in that both France and Britain maintain interests in Africa and they - the French especially, but also us - are unlikely to welcome extensive American meddling and deployments in areas which we generally see as one of the few parts of the world where there is still some latitude to operate something approaching an independent policy. So far all signs point to the US recognising this - behind the headlines and bluster, there has been fairly extensive Franco-American co-operation in this area - but it is a potential area of friction. If possible - which it won't always be - solutions should probably be African first, British/French second and American last, if absolutely nobody else can get off their backsides.

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