Recently, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal wrote articles with remarkably similar headlines:
- NYT: “Where Terrorism Is Rising in Africa and the U.S. Is Leaving”
- WSJ: “In West Africa, Violent Extremism Spreads as U.S. Trims Military Footprint”
The words “and” and “as” are doing a lot of work in these headlines – more work than should be asked of these poor conjunctions. I know, I know, you’re never supposed to ascribe intentionality to anyone, but it looks to me as though the headline writers wanted to (a) lead readers to think that “as” means “because,” but also (b) preserve plausible deniability for when people call them on their bullshit.
In any case, Nathaniel Powell took the words right out of mouth:
There’s a lot going on with these articles, but one thing that’s clearly going on is that some American journalists went to an annual U.S. military training exercise called Flintlock. The exercise rotates among Sahelian countries, and this year the main portion of Flintlock was held in Burkina Faso. The WSJ, to their credit, is more upfront about the ways that Flintlock informed their reporting; the WSJ article leads with a description of Flintlock. The NYT is less clear about this, not mentioning Flintlock until the ninth paragraph of their story. The NYT buries the context and presents the article as a savvy description of long-term trends – rather than, say, a readout of a few days in Burkina Faso and a handful of interviews with Nigerian special forces officers, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, and a few think tankers and NGOers. (The NYT and the WSJ, I should add, interviewed a lot of the same people, including the Nigerian special forces colonel who gets a prominent role in both articles.)
Some of the quotes from think tankers, moreover, implicitly contradict the framing of the NYT article. Here are Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Alice Friend, both of whom I respect a ton, quoted in the NYT:
Military analysts and human rights groups cited three main reasons for the spiraling violence in Burkina Faso and its neighbors: French-led counterterrorism operations in Mali have pushed the problem south, into Burkina Faso. Armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations. Abuses by security forces have fueled jihadist recruiting.
“These are a series of small rural insurgencies that are spreading,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project in Dakar, Senegal.
Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.
“There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former top Pentagon official for Africa and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
So the analysts themselves are saying (a) any real or imagined U.S. drawdown is not a top-tier cause of spreading militancy, and (b) you can’t solve all this with more guns and training.
Another well-informed response to the NYT came from Peter Dörrie:
In other words, the NYT has really confused some issues regarding causality. The situation in the Sahel is bad. The situation in Burkina Faso is very bad. But the view of the world where American military deployments are the only thing standing in the way of rising jihadist tides is just fundamentally wrong. That worldview is, moreover, politically convenient for politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers in Washington, Stuttgart, Niamey, and beyond. The NYT could’ve done more here to question such narratives.