Tired Clichés from The Economist about Jihadism in Africa

The Economist is out with an article, more or less about Boko Haram, that contains all the clichés one expects in a piece like this.

  1. The conflation of diverse conflicts: “Nigeria’s main north-eastern city is at the centre of a series of jihadist campaigns stretching in two broad belts across Africa on either side of the Sahara. The northern one hugs the Mediterranean, from Egypt through Libya and Tunisia to Algeria. The southern one extends from Somalia and Kenya in the east through Nigeria and Niger and on to Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal in the west.” Aside from the bad writing – how can Nigeria be at the center of campaigns in “two belts” if one of the belts does not include Nigeria? – the conflict in Nigeria is not equal to the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. Hell, even Mali’s conflicts (plural) have different characteristics, and the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has many, many local wrinkles and permutations.
  2. Amplifying the voices of anonymous, cynical Western military officers while making various other actors sound like credulous idiots. “A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: ‘If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.'” What a weird metaphor. And what would it mean for Nigeria to “go down”? Is this person saying that Boko Haram is about to march into Abuja and overthrow the government?
  3. Sloppy summaries about causality that read like guesswork: “In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East.” So basically, conflict “may be” local (is there no way to find out, or at least decide?), Libya might be a factor, and “there are signs” that Arab money is a factor. Also interesting to learn that Qadhafi’s fall was what birthed Saharan smuggling. Thanks for wrapping things up so neatly.
  4. Acknowledging that increased militarization won’t work, but pushing it anyway: “Some think that, far from cutting back the military effort, it needs to be stepped up. A Western air campaign could inflict heavy casualties and knock back ISWAP’s ability to organise by a year or more. But air strikes alone would probably not be enough to defeat the group. ‘We could knock out the leadership, but would that make things any better?’ asks one British officer. Western officers talk of the need for a long-term commitment to train, equip and assist local forces, and to give them air support when needed.” Like there has been no training or air support before – hell, if you believe al-Barnawi (.pdf, p. 268), “We see the airplanes of those countries, fighter planes and reconnaissance planes, hovering over us densely.”
  5. And no article on jihadism in Africa would be complete without the inevitable comparison to Afghanistan: “General Hicks compares the rise of jihadism in Africa to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1993. The threats they pose to the West ‘are still in a nascent stage and can be dealt with at a price that’s affordable in both blood and treasure,’ he says. Leaving the danger to fester might allow the threat to grow until Western forces are compelled to intervene directly and massively. But the experience of the West in Afghanistan since 2001 holds another lesson: military intervention alone cannot solve the problem. It can disrupt jihadists and buy time to win back the allegiance of the disgruntled and marginalised. For the most part, that is a job for Africa’s beleaguered rulers—if they are up to it.” Sure thing – it’s always the venal local elites who are the problem, and never the counterinsurgency doctrines. And are we sure a quick anti-Taliban mission in 1993 would have gone smoothly?

Parts of the article are good, especially the actual on-the-ground reporting in it. But on the whole, the piece reads like an MRI of the confused, self-contradictory Western thinking about jihadism. It’s local! It’s foreign! We need to act! If we act we’ll make it worse! Locals have to solve the problem for themselves! Locals are too venal to solve this! And on and on.

 

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