The New York Times reports that Algeria has dropped its objections to an international effort to push Muslim militants out of Mali as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the North African country on Monday to garner support for an intervention in its neighbor to the south.
Algeria was wary of intervention as it could drive the religious fanatics who have taken control of northern Mali into its own territory. The country’s support was deemed necessary for outside powers to develop plans for suppressing the jihadist insurgency, however, as it is the region’s most powerful actor.
While a military plan has yet to be drafted, the basic idea is for forces from Nigeria and other West Africa countries to help Mali’s military mount a campaign against the militants. France, the United States and other countries would help with training, intelligence and logistics.
The Associates Press reported last week that France was already deploying surveillance drones to West Africa and holding secret talks with American officials in Paris to mount a multilateral intervention.
France has hundreds of troops stationed across French-speaking West Africa, in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Senegal, but would rather support a regional peacekeeping effort than going it alone. The United States have no full-time military presence in the area. Last month’s attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya was a painful reminder, though, of the rising terror threat in the Sahel.
After the toppling of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime last year, mercenaries that were once employed by the Libyan dictator fled to Mali where some of them joined the Tuareg uprising in the north of the country against the central government in the Christian south. As Algeria pressed its own fight against Islamic militants in the Saharan desert, fighters associated with the Al Qaeda group in West Africa also headed to Mali.
There are, then, two Islamist insurgency groups present in the north of Mali: the Tuareg Ansar Dine which also operates in Niger and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, originally an Algerian terrorist organization.
The Moor Next Door suggests that Algerian hesitation to back military intervention in Mali also stems from its regime’s sense of self preservation. As long as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb threatens Algerian security, the government can “justify security and emergency procedures that would otherwise appear extreme as means of maintaining tight political control and the military’s institutional benefits from the security premium.”
From this perspective, that AQIM had been pushed out of Algeria into the Sahel countries benefits the Algerian state by displacing resistance outward and by making the enemy the responsibility of others while not terminating its relevance at the political level inside Algeria.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Anouar boukhars agrees, writing (PDF) that if Algeria wants to sustain its special relationship with the West, which is based on its perceived usefulness as a partner in the fight against Islamic extremism, it “must control the instabilities in its southern Sahelian hinterland, protect against Western intrusion and interference and neutralize its regional rivals.” A Mali intervention championed by Atlantic powers could strengthen to pro-French axis in West Africa, led by Morocco, at Algeria’s expense.