Algeria and the Chaos in Mali

algeria-mali-france-united-statesWith reports of a possible military intervention underway in Islamist held northern Mali, Algeria has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.

Algeria shares a 2,000 km border with Mali. It is believed to possess the biggest military in the region and has been dealing with northern Mali’s top Islamist leaders – most of whom are Algerian – for years. Algeria is Africa’s largest country, a top oil and gas exporter and sees itself as the major regional power. Naturally, it is wary of any outside interference.

Algeria fears military action in Mali could push al-Qaeda militants back into southern Algeria as well as triggering a refugee and political crisis, especially among displaced Malian Tuaregs (nomadic Berber tribes) heading north to join tribes in Algeria. Algeria has repeatedly advocated a diplomatic solution to the Mali crisis, and has ruled out military intervention.

Although Algiers would not be able to veto an intervention operation by other countries, it would be diplomatically risky for African states backed by Western powers to intervene in Mali without its consent, especially as the conflict could persist for months.

France, the region’s biggest former colonial power, drafted a UN Security Council resolution urging Mali to engage in dialogue with Tuareg Islamist rebels Ansar Dine if they cut links with radical groups, a move that satisfied Algiers’ calls for dialogue.

It appears Algeria wants to contain the risk posed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali but fears that military involvement could backfire. After successfully defeating terrorism within its own borders, Algeria does not want any backlash and seeks to avoid becoming the main target of these movements.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria last week seeking Algeria’s support for a West African force to help Mali’s military regain control of the north. Her talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were dominated by the issue of how to deal with the terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists who took control of more than two-thirds of Mali.

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A military approach is in the works. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is working with Mali’s military-backed transitional authority in Bamako on plans for a 3,300-strong military force to help retrain the army and retake the north.

Like the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, that West African force will depend heavily on international support for military intelligence and logistics. Therefore Algeria’s help is critical.

Once considered one of Africa’s most promising democracies, Mali has tragically descended into chaos this year. Renegade soldiers overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure in March. The coup was short-lived but a Tuareg rebellion that had launched a major offensive two months earlier took advantage of the power vacuum to seize the entire northern half of the country. The dominant secular Tuareg group was soon overpowered by Islamists with ties to AQIM – an evolution itself of a fundamentalist movement involved in Algeria’s bloody civil war.

The stakes are very high for both Algeria, Mali and the international community. While it is understood that Algeria must play a role in the future stability of Mali, achieving a comprehensive solution to eliminate the threat of al-Qaeda remains elusive.

Abdul Sharif is a Somali-American freelance journalist and independent Africa researcher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.