Arab Maghreb foreign ministers met in Algiers earlier this month for their first ever security-dedicated meeting. Their main concern was the crisis in a neighbouring region that threatens to become the-Afghanistan-next-door.
The meeting marked one of those rare moments when senior Algerian and Moroccan officials sat around the same table to discuss regional security issues — the most urgent of which originated from the Maghreb itself.
After fighting for the Gaddafi regime in Libya’s civil war, hundreds of Tawareq mercenaries fled Libya and swept with their weapons into drought and poverty-stricken Mali, where they formed the bulk of separatist and pro-Al Qaida forces that have come to exert control over key-towns and even airport strips in northern Mali. “We have underestimated politically the fragility of Mali and the consequences of the fall of Gaddafi,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian, the new French minister of Defence, referring to the inability of the former Sarkozy administration to predict or prevent the unravelling of the situation.
Since early June, Ansar Al Dine fighters, and pro-Al Qaida elements, including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), have triggered alarm bells in the West by behaving in Northern Mali much like the early-day Taliban. They destroyed Marabou monuments in Northern Mali, the way the Taliban destroyed Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They also started to impose an interpretation of the Sharia so drastic that even AQIM’s leader, Abdul Malek Drukdel, found it, “a mistake to impose all the rules of Islam at once on people, overnight”.
Security experts fear that Northern Mali could become a hub for terrorist activities, narcotics trafficking and money-laundering across the Sahel region and beyond. Such activities are already a lucrative business. Interpol estimates that traffickers make more than $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) annually by funnelling drugs from Latin America through the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast and on to Europe. Hostage-taking has made Al Qaida-affiliated groups more than $100 million since 2003. Any armed escalation could expose hydrocarbon installations and vital infrastructure in large swathes of land spanning most of the Saharan part of the Maghreb, as well as Niger, Nigeria, Egypt and the Sudan.
With the fraying of central power, Libya is already concerned about its ability to rein in its own Tabbou and Amazigh populations. Algeria is understandably wary of any Tawareq separatist or terrorist contagion spreading to its territory, especially as it has already been stung deep in its Saharan territory by Al Qaida and its offshoots. Last April, seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped from the consulate in Gao, Mali.
But Algeria has always resisted any Western military intervention in its southern “backyard,” or deploying its own troops outside its borders. This month’s UMA (Arab Maghreb Union) security ministerial, held in Algiers, recommended that “all available negotiation channels be explored”, a clear indication that Algeria has not warmed up to the military option.
A number of international reports have in fact suggested that Algiers, contrary to what the French seem to advocate, would prefer negotiating a deal with Iyad Ag Gali, head of Ansar Al Dine.
French minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, has had strong words about the situation in Mali. “We have already had an Afghanistan and we should not have a Sahelistan,” he said. But according to French political analyst Antoine Sfeir, the Hollande administration is still “reviewing its North Africa policy against the background of the Sahel and West Africa threats. As part of that review, it does not want to jeopardise its relations with Algeria.”
The Europeans are yet to forge a common strategy. They would not object to playing a supporting-role to a “credible” West African military intervention on the ground but are not expected to deploy on land a terrestrial force themselves. The United States will probably offer no more than their current intelligence and surveillance support.
Among the additional hurdles to any military plan for Mali is the continuing instability of the Bamako central government, which is supposed to lead the effort and give it legal cover.
So it is no surprise that outside actors have been reluctant until now to rush to the rescue of Mali. Last June, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2,056 which called on UN states to submit names of individuals and groups linked to Al Qaida, “notably in the north of Mali”, for sanctions. But it stopped short of backing proposed military intervention by a military force from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Many doubt the capacity of such a force to dislodge the staunch pro-Al Qaida forces from Northern Mali. Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security, cautions that “any military defeat suffered as the result of an over-hasty deployment could rock the political foundations of West African nations such as Nigeria that are enduring bloody insurgencies of their own.”
The Maghreb countries have their work cut out for them. Their declared intent to seek “integrated policies” vis-à-vis the Sahel challenge, is a limited but important step ahead, if it leads to more effective cooperation especially between Algeria and Morocco, who still have “another Sahara problem” to resolve. But only time will tell if Arab North Africa manages to get its act together before it has an “Afghanistan-next-door”.
— Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian communication minister.