As events unfold in Mali and Algeria, we need to avoid jumping to too many grand conclusions.
People often end up doing jobs that they never intended. In 2004, I found myself on a blisteringly hot day eating freeze-dried raw octopus and drinking Japanese Ocha with a Colonel from the Japanese Self Defence Force. We were sitting in his tent in a Japanese military camp in south west Iraq miles from any other human inhabitation. Later, driving across the desert back to Basra, I pondered on what odd combination of events had led me to be taking tea with Japanese soldiers while Iraq descended into sectarian-fuelled violence all around us.
I wonder if President Hollande of France is having similar thoughts. A few months ago he came to office with a largely domestic agenda focussed on pushing through tax increases. Other than pulling France’s military contingent out of Afghanistan, the new president’s foreign affairs agenda stretched little further than navigating his country through the turbulence of the EU’s fiscal crisis.
A few short weeks later and the French military is embroiled in reversing the near takeover of Mali by a dangerous and volatile combination of Islamic extremists, criminal gangs and radicalised ethnic insurgents. France’s intervention is well supported at home and by a broad cross section of the international community, including many of Mali’s neighbours. So far, French forces are making good progress in turning the tide on the rebel advances.
But while short-term military success may come relatively quickly, building long-term peace and stability will not be easy. For a man who never even expected to be a presidential candidate (until Dominique Strauss Kahn’s political career came to a sudden end in New York), it has been an abrupt lurch from domestic reformer to international problem solver. Like many political and business leaders, François Hollande has learned that even the best laid plans are quickly submerged under the daily deluge of unpredicted crises. (See the piece in Riskmap 2013, Power has never been more problematic.)
Hopes that the crisis could be contained within Mali’s borders diminished when the gas plant at In Amenas in a remote corner of Algeria close to the Libyan border was seized by terrorists some of them linking – probably erroneously – their actions to the French incursion into Mali. Many of the plant workers were then killed during the siege making this the worst single deadly assault on the oil and gas industry in recent times with repercussions beyond the hydro-carbons industry and the Sahara.
How to gauge our response is tricky. It is all too easy to link the fighting in Mali, the terrible events at In Amenas, the dire official warnings of imminent attacks in Benghazi and the renewed protests in Egypt to describe an arc of chronic instability right across the Sahel and North Africa. This is a beguiling narrative and one that plays to our fears of a resurgent and well-armed al Qaida in a region spinning out control.
No doubt there is common ground between this series of events in the region; not least the ready availability of heavy weaponry and the lack of strong governance as some of these countries go through protracted political change. But to frame these individual events as part of a wider problem is to risk underestimating the distinctly local causes behind each of the events. What made the In Amenas attack so violent and lethal may turn out to be due to the very specific nature of how events unfolded on the ground.
What is required now is proportion, both from politicians and corporate leaders. High impact violent events like In Amenas and dramatic military interventions like in Mali do inevitably shift our perspective of risk and require that we recalibrate the measures we take to manage the changing threat. But they also require us to look carefully at local circumstances and not to fall into the trap of magnifying the potency of the al Qaida associates or even to see this as the clash of civilizations or a broad Islamic Jihad against the west. Mali, Algeria, Libya and Egypt all share some similar problems but they are distinguished more by their differences and less by what they have in common. That should be our starting point in deciding what to do next.