WASHINGTON — Rwanda's ethnic conflict was a quarrel in a faraway country between people of which we know nothing — until it became a byword for moral abdication in the face of genocide. The same was true in Afghanistan, before it incubated a global threat. Americans have learned — or should have learned — to be more discriminating in their indifference.
The Central African Republic now bids for historical notoriety. What began as a military coup by the Muslim Seleka coalition early this year became a national rampage of looting, rape and summary executions. The conflict has attracted foreign jihadists from Chad and Sudan, set off retribution by Christian militias, caused the collapse of civilian authority and resulted in massive dislocation and food shortages.
One vignette from a recent report by Human Rights Watch: In April, a funeral procession crossed the Ngaragba Bridge toward a local cemetery. A unit of Seleka soldiers fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the crowd and began cutting down those who tried to flee. A priest appealing for calm was killed. "After the Seleka convoy started shooting at the crowd," reported an eyewitness, "a woman with a baby on her back was on the street past the bridge when she was shot by a Seleka fighter and left dead in the street with the baby crying on her back."
The international response to the CAR crisis has been relatively swift, though hardly sufficient. The French — as in Mali — have taken the military lead in attempting to disarm militias and hit squads, resulting in recent casualties and significant domestic criticism for President Francois Hollande. France has emerged as one of the few Western countries with its conscience and confidence intact after the global exertions of the last decade. A few thousand African Union troops are also on the ground in CAR, with a few hundred more (from Burundi) being transported by the U.S. America has taken an active but secondary role — pushing at the United Nations to authorize the French/AU deployment and currently recruiting other African nations to contribute forces.
Apart from the essential task of protecting civilians from murder, the most important intervention may come in urging CAR religious leaders to reduce tensions — to calm the paranoia on both sides and encourage trust. CAR has a long history of political instability, but not of Muslim/Christian conflict and hatred. Taking religion seriously is an often-neglected aspect of successful diplomacy, and engaging religious leaders, in this case, may be the best way to strengthen the majority impulse of coexistence.
These measures are important for their own sake; they also relate to a broader regional challenge. While many African countries are making tremendous progress, a number of weak and failed states have attracted parasitic Islamist movements, organized in loose confederations, that exploit disorder and grievance to seek influence and safe havens. This is the story of Mali, Somalia, northern Nigeria, CAR and elsewhere.
The result is an emerging problem comparable in scope and threat to the one found in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Across North, East and West Africa, terrorist groups trade narcotics, take hostages and demand ransom to fund operations. They exploit porous borders, tribal resentments, extreme poverty and fragile governments. We have witnessed (as we saw in the 1980s and '90s) a series of terrorist attacks of escalating sophistication and ambition. Suicide bombings in Uganda and Niger. Violence against U.S. targets in Libya and Tunisia. Attacks on churches, schools and military posts in Nigeria. The assault on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria (which took the lives of three Americans). The massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
So far, these threats have been regional instead of global. But it would not take much of a change in capability and ambition — perhaps through the emergence of a charismatic, anti-American leader — to change that.
Over the last decade, America has gradually developed a regional response, designed to be proactive while avoiding large-scale, direct intervention: promoting economic development, instructing African governments in counterterrorism, conducting joint-training operations, and sometimes deploying military planning cells, commandos or drones. Central to these efforts is American financial and logistical support for proxies and peacekeepers — now needed in CAR.
Americans and their representatives in Congress are often skeptical of peacekeeping operations and reluctant to fund them. But the argument in their favor is this: They promote stability, serve our interests and save innocent lives without sending in the Marines.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.