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Military campaign in northern Mali leads through Algeria

France and the US are encouraging Algeria to intervene militarily against Islamist fighters in northern Mali, and there are reasons why that is in Algeria's interests.

Last month, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution giving the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union a 45-day time limit to submit a comprehensive plan for military intervention against Islamist fighters in northern Mali.

Aware that the clock is ticking and that key partners need to be convinced before a course of action is decided, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has embarked on shuttle diplomacy in the interim. Her visit to Algiers last month was intended to sway authorities.

Washington wants Algiera to join the US and France in backing a West African force to help Mali's government restore its authority and retake the northern areas now held by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - an umbrella group of Tuareg tribal militias combined with the narco-jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

While international consensus has swung in favour of military action, there are wide differences in opinion about the details of any operation. At the UN, it is France that has led the diplomatic campaign in favour of Ecowas intervention. Irrespective of earlier reservations, the US has decided to back the plan. This newfound resolution explains, in part, the urgency of Mrs Clinton's visit to Algiers, which was her second this year.

Amid arrangements to deploy the 3,000-strong West African force, the largest obstacle Ecowas and the US have to overcome is the reticence of the Algerian regime. And as the French are already providing training and logistical support to the Malian army, many in Algeria are wary that old habits die hard and that France is returning to its dubious post-colonial role as "Le Gendarme de l'Afrique", the policeman of Africa that Algerians fought in their bloody war of independence.

There is also the so-called Libyan syndrome. An Algerian Tuareg politician, Mahmud Guemama, has explained the rationale behind Algeria's opposition to a military intervention. The perception is that "the United States and France have colonial objectives ... We know how military operations start, but we never know how they end. Libya is an example."

Nonetheless, after Mrs Clinton's visit to Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, she seemed optimistic: "I very much appreciated the president's analysis, based on his long experience." This is the kind of recognition the Algerian regime hankers for - to be acknowledged by the US as a respectable partner.

Algeria is a key military power in the region and its cooperation is critical in any intervention given its long shared border with Mali. A senior US official accompanying Mrs Clinton tactfully acknowledged this reality: "Algeria has unique capability that no one else in the region really has, including the strength of their military and intelligence gathering."

It is not too much of a stretch to say that many foreign observers have ignored or forgotten how the Algerian military was able to overcome the Islamist threat during the 1992-1999 civil war. Algerian generals certainly did not demonstrate a high regard for human rights, and thousands of civilians were jailed in concentration camps in the Sahara desert, massacred or exiled because they were suspected of harbouring Islamist militants.

For all of its success, however, that policy could not be replicated in the current conflict. In an interview that was aired on Algerian television in 2003, the former general chief of staff Mohamed Lamari declared that "the Islamists were militarily defeated, but not ideologically". The strategy the Algerian generals used at home is not applicable to northern Mali, not least because foreign troops would be watching closely. This may be the main reason that Algeria has been reluctant to intervene in an Ecowas campaign.

Besides, the regime believes that as long as Al Qaeda-related groups are no longer terrorising the Algerian army, and as long as they pose no real risk to the oil and gas fields in the Algerian Sahara desert, Algiers does not have much to worry about. But this is a real mistake. Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Mujao could transform northern Mali and all the Sahel region into a safe haven for radical militancy. The last thing Algiers would want to see is a launching pad for militant operations into other parts of Africa and Europe.

US State Department sources report that Algeria has been warming to the idea of an intervention led by Ecowas. Algeria is desperate to preserve its sway over sub-Saharan Africa. If Mr Bouteflika cannot prevent an Ecowas campaign, he may well join it.

The worst-case scenario for Algiers is to see Algerian Tuareg and other visible minorities like the Ibadis and Berbers become more assertive about their rights. Algerian authorities might feel that the neighbouring Tuareg in Mali will force them to take action.


Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a visiting professor at The State University of New York at Potsdam

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