On Afrighanistan

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Laura Seay – better known to me as @texasinafrica –  has rightly taken issue with simplistic coverage of Mali and comparisons with other conflicts involving Islamist movements:

Among the most egregious — and inaccurate — claims about the crisis to emerge is the idea that Mali could become France’s Afghanistan. Apparently based on the understanding that engaging in war against Muslim extremists on difficult terrain in a fragile state, reporters and politicos across the ideological spectrum have embraced the comparison, warning of the possibility of mission creep and/or other dire consequences. The Economist took this notion the farthest last week, dedicating its cover to “Afrighanistan?”Time followed suit with a brief cover reference to “Africanistan.

We’ve just had a twitter chat about this and she has clarified her point a little:

should have been more clear in the piece that issue is people just look at covers & make assumptions. My bad.

Which is fair enough. For my money, these two examples constitute some of the finest writing on Mali. Both set out in detail the local tensions and relations that have contributed to the conflict in north and west Africa, and take on the notion that Mali is the next Afghanistan. The Economist sets up the comparison as a question before debunking it:

Yet all wars are different. The lessons from one campaign need not map neatly onto the next.

Alex Perry in Time uses Africanistan as a device for describing the nightmare scenario in which a quick intervention gets bogged down, not for describing Mali itself.

I too have been irritated by cheap comparisons with Afghanistan. Enough other people have responded to that point, and I won’t add to the chorus. But it seems to me that the link actually is quite powerful when it is used to describe the intervention itself and the comments of, say, David Cameron, when he said we face “a large existential threat” from terrorists in “ungoverned spaces”.

Africanistan (or whatever it is) thus becomes a worldview. The danger is that Afghanistan becomes the prism through which we make our analysis and how we fight our wars. Just like generals always fighting the last war, so too our foreign interventions are governed by the last one. That, I think, was the point of those two articles. Or am I just stating the obvious?


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