5 October 2012

North Africa: Understanding Algeria's Northern Mali Policy

After years of calling for greater military action in northern Mali, Algeria is now advocating a negotiated solution. Why the apparent change the heart?

Bamako - The whispers out of high-level meetings and shuttle diplomacy in recent weeks suggest an emerging consensus that some form of military intervention will be needed to retake northern Mali from the militant Islamist groups that now control the area. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is seeking a Chapter VII intervention mandate from the UN Security Council, and France has called for the immediate passage of such a resolution.

The United States, having maintained for months that democratic elections should precede any military action, has warmed to the idea of an African-led military intervention so long as it is "well planned", "well resourced" and "has the support of all states in the region", including those who are not ECOWAS members.

The last caveat is particularly crucial as Mali's northern neighbour Algeria continues to call for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Aside from rejecting the idea of the creation of a new state, questions remain regarding the parameters of what Algeria considers an acceptable result in northern Mali. These questions are far from peripheral. Recent history and present imperatives suggest that Algeria will be active - either unilaterally or within an international framework - in shaping security outcomes in the region. As researcher Wolfram Lacher highlights, the challenge for the international community is to integrate Algeria into whatever mechanisms - political and military - that are used to put Mali back together.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a legacy of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s and rooted in an Algerian Salafist movement called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Another group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), emerged from AQIM last year. MUJWA has focused several of its attacks on Algerian targets including a suicide bombing in southern Algeria and the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats from a consulate in northern Mali.

Algeria has long preferred heavily militaristic approaches to combating Islamist militants on its own soil and spent much of the last decade encouraging Mali to take the threat of AQIM more seriously. Algeria's current preference for negotiations may seem at odds with its past proclivities, especially in light of MUJWA's attacks on Algerian targets - this ostensible disconnect partially explains why narratives that purport to detail Algeria's 'double-game' are thriving.

Where (not) to start

While Algeria's ambiguous posture is certainly not evidence of indifference - its government has hosted diplomatic envoys from nearly all the key players, including Mali's prime minister, France's foreign minister, a delegation from one of the militant Islamist groups, and most recently, the commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) - it does highlight the extent to which outsiders find it difficult to decipher Algeria's current policy toward Mali.

As noted by Alexis Arieff, Algeria's policy- and decision-making processes are characterised by opacity, especially in the security realm. Divergent interests among different players - which might include at any given time the presidency, military, state intelligence services, various ministries, the Algerian legislature, local government entities and informal actors - all play a role in shaping and even implementing foreign policy.

This lack of transparency makes it nearly impossible for those on the outside to be sure they have a clear understanding of how Algeria defines its interests. The allure of theories that focus on the state intelligence services and its ties to actors in northern Mali rests on their ability to offer a false parsimony. But what seems like an untangling of a complex reality is really a selective connecting of convenient dots. Some of these accounts may have merit, but scholarship grounded in anonymous sources, circular citations and tautology cannot be engaged or acted upon in any meaningful way.

A more effective approach, and one sure to be less gratifying for those in search of concise answers to complex questions, would be to view Algeria's past behaviour and current posture in realist terms. That the Algerian regime is a repressive one, and that elements within it have demonstrated a willingness to employ ruthless violence on a large scale, does not disqualify it from having legitimate security interests, nor does it preclude Algeria from defining these interests in ways that might resemble those of less perplexing nation-states.

But why oppose intervention?

Algeria's stated preference for a negotiated solution should not be interpreted as opposition to the premise of military intervention in northern Mali so much as it may be an objection to the type of intervention currently being proposed. Algeria's primary concern is that an ECOWAS-led military intervention could destabilise its own territory. This is hardly the stuff of conspiracy theories or paranoia as serious questions remain about ECOWAS' capacity, and even those in favour of an African-led intervention believe a hastily-planned, poorly-executed military campaign would be likely to exacerbate the crisis.

Beyond questions of capacity, however, Algeria has serious reservations about ECOWAS as a security framework and is deeply sceptical of the outsized role of Burkinabé president Blaise Campaoré as 'crisis mediator'. Over the last decade, Algeria has sought to position itself as a regional leader in counter-terrorism and to spearhead collective responses to cross-cutting security issues in the Sahel. Beyond the evident counter-terrorism objectives, Algeria has tried to use these shared security mechanisms to portray itself as an indigenous, legitimate actor in the Sahel and thus limit Western military influence in the region.

But despite these efforts, Sahel governments still often directly partner with France on security issues. Which brings us back to ECOWAS capacity. Though rarely stated in explicit terms, ECOWAS has all but admitted that its plans for intervention are predicated on considerable logistical support from Western militaries. Thus, Algeria may fear that ECOWAS intervention is an inevitable gateway for increased French military influence in the Sahel - exactly what Algeria has been trying to avoid.

The international community is well aware that any durable solution to the crisis in northern Mali will require Algerian buy-in. For its part, Algeria is undoubtedly aware that a purely negotiated solution is untenable at this juncture. To that end, Algeria's current stance probably reflects a desire to leverage its status as a regional military and economic power in order to shape the contours of whatever military intervention eventually takes place. Policy-makers may find its ambiguity frustrating and unhelpful, but within the arena of international politics, Algeria's present posture is certainly not beyond the realms of comprehensibility.

Peter Tinti is a freelance journalist and writer based in Dakar, Senegal. He was previously based in Mali, in Bamako and Gao, and writes on politics, culture, and security in West Africa, with a particular focus on Mali and Senegal. You can follow him on twitter @petertinti.

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