Saturday, 19 January 2013

Background reading

I am no expert on north Africa or on any of the groups that our Prime Minister refers to:

"We face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life," he said. "Those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan."

Yet I can glean enough information to see that the version of events in Algeria presented to us by our politicians and most of our press is largely a mixture of simplification and falsification.

The Algerian government and military are presented to us simply as a tough act with great experience of dealing with terrorism, who might nevertheless have benefitted from British 'intelligence' about illegal and terrorist activity in north Africa. The region (now that the west is adandonning Afghanistan to its fate) is presented to us as a kind of vacuum. Because it does not have a functioning national state government of the type we are accustomed to in the west, there can be no social or economic structure worth taking account of. Yet,

Smuggling has been around in the southern Sahara for as long as trans-Saharan caravan trading has existed, in other words, since time immemorial. The transport of goods from north to south across the Sahara and vice versa is the prerogative of desert people, most notably the Arabs, or Moors, and the Touareg. Members of certain families and clans are caravan traders almost by birthright, and the desert road is in their blood. Nice distinctions between the legality and illegality of different types of cargo matter less to these traders than to the distant governments under whose authority they are supposed to operate. ...

In bygone colonial and pre-colonial times, trans-Saharan trading was often dominated by large Arab families and clans, especially the Cha’ambi from the Tidikelt, the Ahl Azzi of the Touat, the Berabiche clans who lived in the deserts north of Timbuktu and the Kounta who lived on the eastern shores of the Niger bend, north of Gao. These families would trade across the desert with each other, turning the Sahara into one unified economic, social and cultural space. Their activity created links and ties that have survived and gradually mutated into the trading or smuggling networks of today. ... Not only trade goods, but politics, religion, tribal loyalty, power and influence are determined by those ties, making the Sahara one of the most complex regions in the world to understand. This economic and social unity of the Saharan space also explains why the borders imposed on the region at the end of the colonial era were so problematic to livelihoods and connections and so often despised by desert people.

Into this empty space, it is assumed, a distinct transnational corporation, known to us as Al Qaida, inserts itself, rather as a western corporation might move in to exploit and trade in newly discovered natural resources. This intruder is capable of directing, controlling and 'radicalising' the previously inchoate forces of the region (which hitherto had been harmlessly engrossed in killing and robbing each other) so that they become an 'existential threat' to our western civilisation and way of life, and thus the new targets of the 'war on terror'.

The Americans were convinced that the Sahel was becoming a crucible for anti-western terror groups inspired by Islam. Pondering the anti-american topography of the globe, they noticed that a huge contiguous swathe of central Asia, east and west Africa was becoming ‘radicalised’, from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, into Africa via Somalia, the Sudan and across finally to Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. With that strategic and remote point of view so favoured by intelligence analysts and their political clients, this banana shaped chunk of earth was seen as a homogenous battleground, with each territory within it linked to the others by dark and hostile forces.

Of course it is undeniable that many of the progenitors of these anti-western terror groups inspired by Islam had been brought together in the mujahideen struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which the west had so assiduously encouraged:

Reagan was determined to make Afghanistan the Soviet Vietnam. Therefore in 1986 he decided to provide the mujahideen with portable surface-to-air Stinger missiles, which proved devastatingly effective in increasing Soviet air losses (particularly helicopters). The war in Afghanistan cost the United States about $1 billion per annum in aid to the mujahideen; it cost the Soviet Union eight times as much, helping bankrupt its economy.

Yet now they should "be on notice they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria or anywhere else, not in North Africa, not anywhere … they will have no place to hide". This is a world seen not as a collection of societies, habitats, communities, but as a battleground, a global chessboard on which pieces are moved, and taken, at will.

At the level of overt policy and action our governments seldom if ever engage with the world as it is and as those involved in its daily social or economic activities actually experience it. They engage instead with a convenient construct, to which all experience and analysis must be fitted. (It is not of course a failing unique to governments: citizens struggling to understand economic and social disintegration in the west may create in their minds a similar monolith and come almost to welcome each new confirmation of gloom and despair: the illusion of understanding is all that is left.) At the same time governments, directly and indirectly, employ vast and varied companies of actors pulling levers and triggers to create events in supposed pursuit or destruction of those political and economic constructs.

Events, dear boy, events; but somehow they have become more malign. No more 'ungoverned spaces' is what we apparently need: never mind how unadept we have shown ourselves in governing spaces on our own doorstep. Perhaps the Algerians, who of course owe much to European colonial history, can show us how to do it.

This follows gradual attempts by Paris to turn a page in its bleak relations with Algiers. Hollande visited Algeria last month, offering a qualified apology for the harm France did to the country during its 132-year rule, and calling for greater economic co-operation between the two countries. This co-operation was to include an increased emphasis on the kind of deals that allowed multinationals such as Total and BP to tap into Algeria's oil and gas riches. ...Co-operation on Mali is clearly a move by the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to respond to Hollande's hand of friendship. Despite years of relative isolationism and mistrust, Bouteflika believes his country's future lies in increased participation in a profit-driven global economy and specifically trade with western neighbours.