October Algeria report (Part III)

Foreign Relations

Algiers, as we observed in our last report, is faced with a quandary in the festering crisis in northern Mali, where a trio of jihadist groups (AQMI, the closely related MUJAO, and the Malian Tuareg Ansar Dine) have taken power in the wake of February’s revolt led by the ostensibly secular Tuareg-separatist MNLA. While it is clearly uneasy about the emergence of a jihadist quasi-state on its southern border, Algiers is leery of sending its own armed forces to attempt to quash it and is at the same time very reluctant to see other forces – especially extra-regional and a fortiori French forces – take on the job.
Algiers objects to military intervention on several levels. Operationally, the Algerian military foresees only disaster. As a high-ranking Algerian army officer quoted by French daily Le Figaro (Oct. 1) puts it:
3,000 men[3], thrown into a theatre of more than 8,000 square kilometres, would be insignificant. What’s more, the invisible, elusive enemy will conduct a war of attrition that it will win for sure, pitted against a military force such as the one ECOWAS is suggesting – a force that is not acquainted with the terrain of the Sahara, either. Finally, armed groups will be able to draw on the support of the local population, the Tuaregs, for whom an African army amounts to a foreign occupation force.
Politically, Algiers fears the destabilising effect of a military intervention, especially (but not only) if it were to commit troops of its own. Rachid Tlemcani, professor of international politics and regional security at the University of Algiers, sets it out in stark terms:
Stability is a fundamental issue for Algeria’s leaders. Between now and 2014 (when the next presidential election is due) they want unity and social peace at any price… [Algeria fears] that military intervention could awaken regional, religious or ethnic extremism, and risks opening a Pandora’s box. An explosion in the south would destabilise the north all the way to Morocco. That would be unavoidable. The principle of the inviolability of borders would be challenged, with the risk of implosion as happened in Somalia.
And on the geopolitical level, the involvement of forces from outside the region in any such adventure gives Algiers nightmares. As we have observed on several occasions over the past year and a half, the NATO intervention in Libya, inspired largely by the French, shocked and dismayed the Algerian regime, which saw the whole episode at best as a dangerous precedent in terms of overriding national sovereignty in the name of the ‘right to protect’ and at worst as proof of the neo-colonial ambitions in North Africa of France and its allies. Since then, there has been a tendency on the part of leading Algerian politicians – including notably President Bouteflika himself and, more recently, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal[4] – to pepper their speeches with references to sinister « foreign hands » seeking to stir up strife in Algeria and generally to prepare the way for outside intervention in the country’s destiny. A person close to the Presidency quoted by Le Figaro explains that what is feared is:
the return of the old spectre of territorial amputation, as proposed by de Gaulle in 1961[5]. Since the partition of Sudan, our new position as the largest country in Africa ​​makes us extremely fragile – all the more so since, on our southern border, the Tuaregs broke with Bamako and declared their independence.
Such fears have been expressed with great clarity in an article in Algerian French-language daily El Watan (Oct. 10):
The fact is that Paris does not care much about the chronic instability in Tunisia, where the Salafists are now able to strut around as if they owned the place. And even less [about the situation] in Libya, where the political crisis is in full swing and where insecurity is rife. For France can barely conceal its geopolitical intentions in the Sahel. Its uranium in Niger has ended up radiating throughout the crisis in Mali, which is as complicated as that of Syria. Spoiling for a fight, under the banner of the UN, France has gone as far as to risk alienating neighboring countries, such as Algeria and Mauritania, which will inevitably suffer the blowback from any military intervention. That is why Algiers and Nouakchott are busy too, drumming up support for efforts to avoid a « French solution ». Faced with the prospect of a quagmire in Mali, there are two distinct camps: the war front led by France and the rejectionist front led by Algeria.
And indeed, in September and much of the first half of October, there were very clearly two camps in competition: on the one hand the French, lobbying for support for a UN Security Council resolution authorising the ECOWAS to use force against the jihadist entity in northern Mali; and on the other hand the Algerians, lobbying equally actively for a political solution through dialogue and negotiation. To this end, Algeria’s Minister-Delegate for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel undertook a tour of Sahel capitals in early October, accompanied amongst others by Maj-Gen. Rachid ‘Attafi’ Lallali, head of the Direction du Renseignement Extérieur (foreign intelligence department) at the DRS. This served to confirm and consolidate the support of the governments of Mauritania and Niger for Algiers’ approach; the government of Mali, which had earlier formally requested a UN resolution authorising the use of force, remained clearly aligned with France. Meanwhile, representatives of Ansar Dine were quietly invited to Algiers for exploratory talks, in the hope of finding at least one negotiating partner. This in turn developed into a further point of disagreement between Algiers and Paris: with the French rejecting negotiations with terrorists outright and considering Ansar Dine to be of a piece with AQMI and MUJAO in this respect, Algeria began to argue that a distinction could be made between Ansar Dine, as an indigenous Malian Tuareg organisation, and the other two groups, made up of committed jihadists from all over north-west Africa.
By the time French Interior Minister Manuel Valls arrived in Algiers for a two-day visit on Oct. 13, however, Algerian government officials had become much more placatory. This was perhaps in part because Washington, after some humming and hawing, had thrown its weight behind the French-sponsored UNSC Resolution 2071 on northern Mali (approved unanimously by the Security Council on Oct. 12). But it appears also to have been in part the result of the lobbying process of the proceeding weeks. In its attempts to win over the Malian government, Algiers had been compelled to adopt a strong and unambig
uous stance in favour of Mali’s territorial integrity, which it now considers “non-negotiable” (by contrast, it will be recalled, there were widespread suspicions at the beginning of the year that the Algerian authorities were backing the Tuareg rebellion). Under pressure, the MNLA announced that it was no longer insisting unconditionally on independence for the Azawad (northern Mali), leading in turn to splits in the organisation; in parallel, Algiers appears to be trying to provoke a split in Ansar Dine, between out-and-out jihadists and members of the Ifoghas clan who have joined its ranks largely out of tribal loyalty to Ibrahim Ag Ghaly but have no interest in transnational terrorism. At the same time, Resolution 2071 invites the Malian government, those rebel groups that have “cut off all ties to terrorist organisations” and representatives of the local population to “engage, as soon as possible, in a credible negotiation process in order to seek a sustainable political solution, mindful of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Mali », and leaves 45 days for this before the Security Council shall « respond to the request of the Transitional authorities of Mali regarding an international military force assisting the Malian Armed Forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali ».
This formulation leaves room for Paris and Algiers to express consensus that, while there can be no negotiations with terrorists, drug-traffickers and secessionists, talks are an essential first step. But Resolution 2071 also seems to leave plenty of room for the divergences between France and Algeria to re-emerge later down the line. As things stand now, it seems unlikely that Ansar Dine will really break with AQMI and MUJAO, while the divided MNLA’s real strength on the ground is a matter of conjecture, leaving very little prospect for meaningful negotiations towards a “sustainable political solution”. Consequently, there seems to be every likelihood that, when the allotted 45 days run out, the UNSC will be called upon to make good on its implied promise to authorise the use of force. And while Resolution 2071 does make a show of putting the Malian army and ECOWAS forces at the centre of a hypothetical military intervention, there can be little doubt that any operation in northern Mali would require French support (in logistics, transport, probably air power and electronic intelligence) and could also entail direct participation of French special forces (notably in attempting to retrieve French hostages held by AQMI/MUJAO). All of which suggests that by late November – with President Hollande’s tentatively planned visit to Algiers just days off – tensions between France and Algeria could be on the rise again.

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