In his second inaugural address, President Obama announced that “a decade of war is now ending.” Yet there is a danger that the administration is expanding the “war on terror” in North Africa. In response to recent events in Algeria, Mali and Libya, administration officials have promised to step up Washington’s counterterrorism efforts, including deepening cooperation with Algeria and establishing a drone base in Niger. But before the United States plunges more deeply into the region, American leaders must learn the lessons from earlier Western interventions and ask whether US strategy is itself partly responsible for the spread of Islamist extremist groups.

The first lesson is that it is a mistake to assign global or national security significance to movements involved in local power struggles. Just as indigenous national liberation groups adopted Marxist-Leninist language to attract Soviet support during the Cold War, many movements in North Africa have adopted the Al Qaeda brand to improve their local appeal and attract international funding. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is demonized by Westerners as a global threat, but as veteran war reporter Patrick Cockburn has pointed out, “AQIM has never launched a single attack in France and Europe since it was established in 1998.”

Indeed, the groups that carried out the recent attacks in North Africa are better described as local thugs or, at best, ethnic self-determination movements rather than part of a global threat to Western security. The attack on the Algerian gas plant, for example, was carried out by the Al Mulathameen Brigade (“the brigade of the masked ones”), led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which funds itself by smuggling drugs and tobacco and by taking Western hostages. The principal group responsible for the takeover of northern Mali was Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, who has spent most of his life fighting for the rights of his ethnic group, the Tuareg.

The second lesson is that any Western military footprint, however small and well intended, could be destabilizing
and lead to blowback. It is no coincidence that the string of attacks in North Africa came after the Western military intervention in Libya and the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The Libyan state, however brutal, did maintain regional order, keeping groups like AQIM under control. The collapse of the Libyan government, and the influx of weapons and money for Islamist jihadists, have resulted in greater chaos and lawlessness. Indeed, as Hugh Roberts, former director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project, notes, the fall of Qaddafi “destroyed a bulwark of the anti-jihad alliance in north Africa, encouraging a proliferation of Islamist militias, flooding the region with sophisticated weaponry and precipitating the return to northern Mali of heavily armed, disgruntled Tuareg.”

A third lesson is that an extensive counterterrorist strategy inevitably entangles the United States with regional allies and players who often have different interests from ours. American officials seem to believe they can orchestrate strategies by carefully picking allies. This sounds good in theory, but the relationships in the region are so tangled that presumed US allies often prove to be a liability. Algerian intelligence, for example, is suspected of having links with AQIM, just as
Pakistan’s intelligence services have had longstanding links with the Taliban. The Malian government, on whose behalf the United States helped the French intervene, came to power after a coup in 2012; it has since been guilty of human rights abuses and has exacerbated tensions between Mali’s north and south. Meanwhile, our supposed Persian Gulf allies often fund the very jihadists we are trying to target while pursuing their own anti-Shiite regional ambitions in other parts of the Middle East.

American officials may have the illusion that they can control this mini–Great Game in the Middle East and North Africa while being on the right side of history by destroying oppressive regimes like Qaddafi’s in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria. But inevitably the United States becomes the victim of its own intervention—along, of course, with the people of the region. The larger lesson, then, is that Washington’s “war on terror” results in more harm than good. The threat to US or international security from the current collection of Islamist groups in North Africa is small enough not to warrant the risk of US intervention.

If we want to help stop the regional drift toward deeper sectarian conflict, we should reduce our military footprint and support formation of a peacekeeping mission by the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States. At the same time, we must end drone attacks and threats of intervention and support international efforts to create jobs, build schools and infrastructure, and resolve conflicts. We have to accept that in the near term, popular uprisings in North Africa in most cases will result in less US influence no matter what we do militarily. But we can still advance our interests with a policy that seeks to dampen sectarian conflict and improve the welfare of the people.

Robert Dreyfuss writes that the conflict in Mali is a real problem, but it's Africa’s problem, not Washington’s.