4 February 2013

North Africa: Shades of Grey in U.S. Policy Towards Region - Foreign Policy Association

Washington, DC — "The United States is struggling to confront an uptick in threats from the world's newest jihadist hot spot with limited intelligence and few partners to help as the Obama administration weighs how to keep Islamic extremists in North Africa from jeopardizing national security without launching war. We want to put up a map here and explain to people where this is-Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger." - Chuck Todd to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, February 3, 2013.

On Sunday's "Meet the Press," contributing editor Chuck Todd cited a February 1, 2013 Associated Press account which highlighted the challenges facing the US as it fights terrorism in North Africa for President Obama's second term. Among the most recent developments was the killing of nearly 40 hostages, including 3 Americans, during a raid near a gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria after a hostage siege by operatives linked to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) based in Algeria. Last September 11, 4 Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens were killed during an attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

As I sipped my morning coffee, I was puzzled by Todd's map graphic as it appeared on the screen, so I pressed pause. (How did we exist before DVR's live-tv pausing capability?) Amongst all the reds and oranges, threatening arrows and markers, Morocco was so greyed out that it almost went unnoticed.

Grey seems such an inappropriate color for a critical US ally.

In one sense, the color choice is testimony to Morocco as a model which has maintained stability while being surrounded by an ocean on one side and chaos on all others. It is no accident of history or fluke of policy that this chaos didn't bleed across its borders.

However, in another sense, it's indicative of the fact that US policy in North Africa needs work. As conflicts brew in several theaters around the world, the US must balance its domestic appetite for involvement with protecting vital security and strategic interests. When we look to partner with other nations with their own interests wrapped up in these conflicts we find that our relationship status with them is often "complicated." We are forced to make strategic decisions on how we engage and partner - sometimes navigating around serious policy differences in other areas.

In North Africa, the US doesn't have that problem. What we do have is Morocco (for more than 225 years actually.)

What's more - than a history of good bilateral relations - is that we now have an official framework, the Morocco-US Strategic Dialogue, which was put in place for the very purpose of making sure that our two countries can efficiently communicate, coordinate and act on several fronts, including security. Add to this, Morocco's role as a Non-Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and the 2013 Chair of the UN Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee.

"Within this framework, the problem of security, notable in the Sahel-Sahara zone, is a shared priority [with the US.]" - Youssef Amrani, Morocco's Minister-Delegate for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.

While the growing instability in North Africa may be new to the radar screens of some in the US, it has, necessarily, been Morocco's focus for some time. As Minister-Delegate Amrani noted, "We've been following the worrying developments in the Sahel-Sahara zone for years and we have not stopped alerting the international community to it." Morocco has been largely successful in combatting the threat internally, though it has still suffered losses such as the bombing in Marrakech's Argana cafe in Jemaa el-Fnaa square which Morocco attributed to terrorists linked to AQIM. Unlike many of its neighbors, Morocco must maintain a delicate and difficult balance of being the open, progressive and tolerant society it has been known for with tough policies, measures and enforcement against outside influences and threats.

Then there's the Western Sahara conflict, whose significance many Americans, admittedly and understandably, don't appreciate. The territorial dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front (a Cold-War era guerilla movement) is nearing its fortieth year, but here's why you should care now: The Polisario has holed itself away in camps in Algeria where no outsiders can see in AND where thousands of refugees are in forced confinement with rejects and cast-aways from every conflict in the region, including "al-Qaida, its affiliates, and its wannabes. " (I stole that one from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) It is already a challenge for Morocco to address the economic needs of the large number of unemployed, often disaffected, young people who are recruiting targets for terrorist networks. So, imagine the vulnerable situation of the thousands of young refugees for whom the Polisario offers no alternatives for livelihoods except for smuggling, kidnapping and aiding terrorist networks who benefit from the lawless, closed nature of the Polisario camps.

Inaction is perpetuating a conflict that doesn't have to exist. As Morocco's King Mohammed VI has said, the conflict is from "a long-gone era" and it's time to move on and address very real, contemporary regional crises that are threatening interests and costing lives - including American ones. Morocco understands this threat and has presented a compromise solution which is gathering dust on the negotiating table because the Polisario's priorities and focus are still wrapped around a fallen Wall, dead (and dying) dictators and a worldview that is older than many of the conflict's refugees (as well as the author of this post.)

The US should also remember that having an ally means being an ally. Morocco faces serious threats to its own stability and security and vocal US support for progresses made and actions to back up this support is key. Over the last two years, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have had to grapple with change and reform and Morocco is no exception. But it did so in a way that was productive and peaceful - so much so that it is often "greyed out" in commentaries and analyses of the "Arab Spring" fall-out and follow-up. Let's not punish the student that did his homework by ignoring him - let's support him so he can rise to greater challenges. (I'm sure there are some easily bored former honor roll students that feel me on this one.)

In President Obama's second term, a successful US foreign policy in North Africa cannot grey out our strategic partners. I hope that someone has taken the time to add a little color to Morocco on the maps in Secretary Kerry's briefing books, so he doesn't overlook a ready, very potentially useful ally in a region that will dominate US foreign policy and attention for the near future.

Calvin Dark is an international policy and strategic communications professional based in Washington, DC.

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