Declaring war on a continent

When your son is an army cadet, it’s helpful to know the probable location of the foreign field that his remains may one day make forever England.

Going by today’s UK media, the faces on the daisies he could be pushing up in few years’ time will be turned to an African sky.

The BBC, FT and Telegraph all ran variants of the same headline: “War against al-Qaeda in Africa could last decades”. The Times has “New front opens in war against al-Qaeda”.

They mean war as in boots-on-the-ground embroilment. Bases in poor, dusty countries. Body bags at Brize Norton. A formal declaration? Not required. All it takes these days are unanimous headlines advertising the next venue for the war on terror.

Standards of provocation

How things have changed since 1967, when an unprovoked attack by foreign jets and torpedo boats on a lightly-armed US Navy research vessel killed 34 of its crew and wounded 171 others. To this day, there is strong suspicion that the incident was an attempt to drag the US into someone else’s conflict by cynically murdering an entire ship’s complement of Americans in international waters.

Or again 20 years later, when 37 American sailors were killed by an Iraqi fighter that fired a missile at the USS Stark for no apparent reason during the Iran-Iraq war.

The first incident was settled with a quick apology by Israel and payment of modest compensation. The Navy relieved the Stark‘s captain and two officers of their posts over the second.

Two deliberate attacks by sovereign military forces on US naval assets, then, and death tolls commensurate with this weekend’s Algerian raid, but no retaliation. Certainly no instant declaration of war on half a continent.

Lowered barriers

But since the launch of the war on terror, the entry barriers to full-scale anti-insurgency operations (henceforth known as ‘war’) have been massively lowered. When every Western workers’ compound in every energy or water facility on the face of planet is a potential causus belli, then the ‘good guys’ in the war on terror have effectively stuck a placard on their backside reading “Provoke me”.

So if dragging Europe and America into another post-9-11 sinkhole is what the group or groups behind the attack on the Algerian gas plant had in mind, they appear to be succeeding. And at a fraction of the cost and complexity of the Twin Towers operation.

Why Britain and France have bundled so obligingly into the frame is anyone’s guess. But we seem to be heading for another long war in a vastly bigger and more dangerous theatre than Iraq or Afghanistan. And we’ve announced it as casually as a junior rugby club putting up next season’s fixture list.