Another Take on ‘The Malian Crisis as seen from Algeria’

The Malian crisis seen from Algeria,’ by Thomas Seres (19 April 2012) presents an analysis of Algerian perceptions of the upheaval in northern Mali. This analysis is insufficient in explaining Algerian behaviour in response to the rebellion in northern Mali or to the March coup d’etat and misidentifies Algerian priorities in relation to the ‘Sahelo-Saharan Space’ and Algeria’s relationships with extra-regional actors in the west.  Additionally, its underlying assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in the Sahel and the west do not match with observations of Algerian behaviour in the past or at the present time. Seres’s analysis also highlights some of the problems facing those seeking to analyse Algeria’s foreign policy and the relationship between its internal politics and external behaviour.

This post does not cover all parts of Seres’s analysis. Instead, it looks at the assumptions Seres starts with upfront, examines some of the claims made and thinks out-loud about some of the problems it shows in popular thinking about Algeria’s relationships with its neighbours. Many of these issues have been raised or discussed on this blog at various times on this blog and so this post proceeds casually; it will be followed by a series of posts looking at problems in analysing Algerian politics and foreign policy in the next several weeks.

Flawed Assumptions

In explaining Algeria’s negative response to the MNLA’s declaration of independence in the Azawad in April 2012, Seres writes:

In addition to the threat of instability across the country’s southern border, the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) made the pragmatic choice to form a short-lived alliance with jihadists from Ansaar Eddine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) during their offensive. Due to Algeria’s own recent history with terrorism, this relationship was viewed with great suspicion.

First, it is not clear that the MNLA allied with Ansar al-Din knowing it was a ‘jihadist’ organisation and claims that the MNLA ever allied with AQIM have never been substantiated and the group has consistently denied any such association. Ansar al-Din’s relationships with AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, an AQIM splinter group) take shape firmly until the push south, after the conquest of Kidal. After the rebellion moved south to Gao and Timbuktu, it became clear that the MNLA, Ansar al-Din and AQIM and MUJWA were divided both ideologically and on personal lines. There is no evidence for the claim that Algeria’s government conflates the MNLA with Ansar al-Din, AQIM and MUJWA; in fact, there is substantial evidence to the contrary not least the fact that Algiers has been openly using the MNLA as a go-between with Ansar al-Din and AQIM in order to figure out the release of the seven Algerian diplomats held hostage at Gao. The Algerian perception of the actors in northern Mali is likely significantly more nuanced and complex than this assumption lets on (for example, it is remarkable that Algeria, given its past positions on negotiations with AQIM’s hostage takings in the Sahel, appears to be negotiating with MNLA or MNLA or other-affiliated intermediaries for the release of their hostages, though this probably with some level of precedent since no ransom payment seems likely). It is probably accurate to say that Algeria views AQIM and MUJWA’s associations with Ansar al-Din as a threat and that this colours its view of the overall situation. But at the current time it look more like Algeria sees the MNLA as a tactical partner against the Islamist groups in northern Mali. (Furthermore, most of the international community responded negatively to the MNLA’s unilateral declaration of independence.)

Seres writes that Algeria sees the crisis in northern Mali as a way to drum up western support for the May elections by positioning itself as an invaluable mediator in northern Mali.

The success of the Tuareg rebels and their allies also has important implications given the upcoming legislative elections in Algeria that will prepare the succession of the Raïs Bouteflika. Western powers have called upon Algeria to support their efforts in solving this crisis, rendering them increasingly dependent on the cooperation of the regime, whose stability has become a priority.

This is not supported by Algerian responses to the crisis in Mali and is contradicted by the behavior of western powers, France in particular. On the one hand it is probably accurate that Algeria hopes to acquire a role as a mediator in northern Mali. Its reluctance to comment on the situation in the early days of the crisis supported this perception, although they have more recently focused their public statements on reinforcing the regional and international consensus that the territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable, but have avoided being seen to support external intervention (breaking ranks with regional states, including Mauritania, over this issue). After the kidnapping of the seven Algerian diplomats at Gao, Algerian and other press accounts speculated at Algerian intervention, though this came to naught and the deployment of elite troops on the frontier with Mali appears to suggest reinforcement of the Algerian side of the border rather than an attempt to project force into Mali.

As yet there are no indications the Algerians seek to link the prospect of them taking on a mediator role in Mali with western support for the sallow reform program or the May elections. In fact, western powers, including France and the United States, have sought Algerian mediation in Mali without any reference to the country’s internal politics. Western governments for some time now have hoped Algeria would play a more proactive role in Mali and the Sahel in general and despaired at its unwillingness to do so. (This the result of the large gab between Algeria’s self-image as the regional leader and its more understated approach to the region beyond its borders.) Thus, if Algeria wanted an expanded role in the Mali crisis it is probable they could do so with relative ease as far as the western countries are concerned. As far as the Mali file is concerned the May elections are neither here nor there for Algiers or its partners from outside the region.

Perhaps most importantly, this situation serves to reinforce a nationalist rhetoric in Algeria that is based on a fear of division and anarchy, stemming from the civil war.

This assumption is more accurate than the other two but has less relevance in general than one might think. Mali fits into a narrative popular in the pro-regime press in Algeria that 2011 brought multiple, shocking upheavals to the greater Maghreb region, which simultaneously highlight the advantages of Algeria’s relative stability and the dangers of political experimentation and disunity. This might be called the securitised view of the Arab uprisings. It is most true when observing Algerian press coverage of the Libyan crisis and its fallout. Early on in the Libyan uprising, the Algerian government and press was warning that weapons would proliferate widely out of Libya as a consequence of the conflict there. Reporting on developments in the security sector in late 2011 and early 2012, for example the appointment of Gen. Bachir Tartag as head of the counterintelligence section at the DRS, rationalised a hardline approach to the country’s internal politics, painting Algeria as a country surrounded by instability in Libya, Islamist governments in Tunisia and Morocco and rampant terrorism in the Sahel. The crisis in Mali surely fits this narrative. But the government and pro-government press do not appear to be appropriating the crisis in Mali as it did the crisis in Libya to draw parallels and examples to rally support.

Problematic Claims

Seres describes the ‘Shahelo-Saharian Space’ as ‘crucial in Algeria’s regional strategy’ for three reasons. This is problematic because Seres never tells his readers what Algeria’s regional strategy is, what assumptions such a strategy is based on or what it seeks to accomplish. The three reasons Seres says the Sahel is important to Algeria are more or less non-controversial though they do not totally square with Algerian behaviour in Mali or the region more broadly and amount more to descriptions of previous Algerian behaviour.

First, the country’s authorities seek to gain legitimacy from their long experience with counter-terrorism. Second, Algeria played a key role in implementing various forms of international cooperation in order to confront security issues in the region. Third, this cross-border space is notoriously rich in natural resources, and is thus much coveted by many foreign actors such as France and the US, though also including China.

In the first case it is true, Algeria has sought to position itself internationally as a country self-sufficient in combating terrorism. Its military and civilian leadership typically stress that western countries failed to appreciate the threat the regime faced during the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s until after 11 September 2001 and that the Algerians suppressed it with minimal external support. This is a consistent narrative in Algerian foreign policy and its communications aimed at western partners. This is linked the government’s attempt to normalise its foreign policy and to reestablish Algeria’s international prestige in multilateral bodies at the end of the civil war (seen as a function of Bouteflika’s foreign policy agenda, this is an attempt to give Algeria a kind of warrior’s legitimacy similar to the revolutionary legitimacy it enjoyed among the Non-Allied countries during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of its war of independence against France). This does not, however, sufficiently explain why the Sahel is crucial to Algeria’s strategy in the region. In the second case, it is a statement of fact to say Algeria was instrumental in establishing the CEMOC. This is beyond any real dispute. But this again is not a reason for the Sahel to be key to the country’s regional relations. (There are various explanations for the ineffectiveness of CEMOC and the other regional cooperatives, many of them focused on the internal structural limitations facing the Algerian regime and on the weaknesses of the states in the region generally, especially Mali prior to its near collapse this year and the deep distrust between the military and civilian authorities in Algiers and Bamako should not be understated, especially given the disparity in perceived power and the depths of crippling corruption within the Malian security establishment and the political disincentives for ‘action’ against armed groups in the north that faced Ahmadou Toumani Toure.) Finally, it is also true that Algeria, through its state energy firm SONATRACH, has economic interests in the natural resources in the Sahel. Yet it is also true that in northern Mali these resources are limited and that Algeria secured its access to these mineral resources some time ago with relative ease (it should also be mentioned that the supposed great wealth of resources in northern Mali is actually relative limited, including in Taoudeni, when compared to Niger, southern Algeria and even Mauritania for reasons of soil and geography).

As Seres notes many of the leaders of AQIM are Algerians and the Algerians have been urged by the countries in the Sahel (except for Mali) to take a more aggressive role in northern Mali because the Malians have habitually failed to exert control over their own territory. But there is little evidence the Algerians have a strong desire to intervene beyond their borders, as evidenced by their frequent refusal to do so and that Algeria’s force structure does not support the deployment of forces south into territory like Mali’s.

Seres writes, as many have, that Algeria’s reluctance to use its military in the Sahel points to a possible conspiracy to destabilise the region and that this has to do with the designs of western actors.

[. . .] the powerful military intelligence (once called Sécurité Militaire and now known as the DRS,Département Renseignement et Sécurité) is suspected to be involved in the strengthening of the Tuareg Rebellion. Some critics go so far as to assert that the DRS might use the threat of terrorism in the Sahelo-Saharian space as a way to gain leverage with France and to justify American interference in the region. Given the past activities of the DRS during the civil war, these assumptions seem credible. Undoubtedly, Algeria is key to the geopolitics of the region due to its military superiority, experience in anti-terrorism, and the important role played by its intelligence services. These factors provide the regime with an opportunity to strengthen its national and international position.

There have been accusations, mainly from Malian and Tuareg sources, that the DRS is involved in fomenting rebellion in northern Mali. Similar accusations from similar sources (and perhaps most prominently and prolifically from Jeremy Keenan) have it that the entire AQIM phenomena (going back to the GSPC) is the result of a DRS-originated plot to export terrorism to the Sahel, to justify outside intervention as Seres writes here. The supporters of this thesis point to the Algerian military’s infiltrated of armed groups, including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) during the 1990s civil war. The assumption that because the Algerian regime infiltrated armed groups during the civil war it has infiltrated the GSPC and AQIM is highly problematic, chiefly because those who most frequently raise this claim rely on circumstantial reports from suspect or biased sources or because they fail to provide any support for the claim that AQIM is being ‘run’ by the Algerian secret services or that the Algerian regime has any interest in creating instability in the Sahel.

Seres’s supports this claim with Tuareg sources well known for taking an anti-Algerian line in the Mali conflict and to Jeremy Keenan. During the last decade, Keenan helped produce a whole intellectual style of writing about Algeria and the Sahel – with a vocabulary including such terms as The Saharan Front, The Banana Theory, The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy — which found its way into academic journals, conferences and even an Al Jazeera English documentary. This view had the tendency to down play Islamist militant threats to the stability of the Sahel and to look with heavy skepticism on the intentions and activities state actors in the region, especially in describing the ‘war on terror’ as little more than a rent seeking opportunity for authoritarian regimes in the region. This perspective suffered from all the troubles that face simplistic broad-brush narratives. The most lengthy expositions on this line are (Keenan’s essays in the Review of African Political Economy and the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, and his two books The Dark Sahara and The Dying Sahara, though other scholars have incorporated his views into their writing) are heavily circular in their logic and citation, relying heavily on previous articles written by the same author which include repetitious but lightly sourced claims based largely on assumptions as opposed to empirical evidence. Keenan himself admits that many of his claims about AQIM, its members and the Algerian regime’s motivations in the Sahel are not supported by any evidence (he says as much in The Dark Sahara). Most problematic is that these varied assumptions and arguments about Algeria’s role in the Sahel ignore or minimise Algeria’s well established and well known foreign policy priorities in north-west Africa and in general because they discount any reference to empirical evidence. A cool evaluation of Keenan’s theories about AQIM and the geopolitics of the Sahel in general is probably in order, though readers can find very fine critiques of his work here and here. (It should be noted there were many scholars who took similar views to Keenan but whose writing was more sophisticated and rigorous in its scholarship, but Keenan’s narrative has become exceptionally prominent in the popular geopolitics of the Maghreb-Sahel; this is deeply unfortunate.)

Seres goes on to describe Algeria’s view of the Global War on Terror as an opportunity to seek ‘geopolitical rent’.

De facto, Algeria is a key player in the Sahel, perhaps now more than ever. The crisis in Libya and Mali will likely bolster the geopolitical rent that has benefited the Algerian regime since 11 September 2001. As long as the country is involved in the so-called “war on terror,” its international partners are forced to avoid making any interference in Algerian affairs. Interested in maintaining the stability of the country, they must also court the (widely corrupt) military aristocracy, which is a key player in political decisions. With the upcoming legislative elections in May that will determine the succession of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Malian crisis provides the military elite a welcome occasion to make itself indispensable in the eyes of its international partners.

This again sits in contradiction of Algerian behaviour and inaccurately describes Algeria’s geopolitical position and worldview. In the first place, Algeria is not dependent on the western countries for economic or military aid or support; this is a straw man that has been frequently used in reference to Algeria and the Global War on Terror.  Algeria maintains a high degree of autonomy in its foreign affairs, largely due to its rentier economy, low external debt, and its use of Russian and Chinese arms. (It does not rely on the United States or France or NATO for military supplies or maintenance or other aid.) Algiers is already seen as relatively ‘indispensable’, and its inaction in the Sahel is a point of frustration for many in the west (this idea probably originated with the Algerians after 11 September 2001 but is already strongly established in many western circles to the point where it is taken as a given). The Algerians do not need the Malian crisis to create the impression of themselves as a key actor in the region, especially — in the American context — given the role of ideas such as ‘off-shore balancers’ and ‘regional hegmons’ in western geopolitical thinking in areas where the use of western military forces is considered undesirable. Indeed, Seres notes that

[. . .] intervention of any kind is impossible without the agreement of Algiers, who has been careful not to give its consent. In fact, despite the insistence of Washington and Paris, the country’s authorities remain narrowly focused on their own territory[1]. One cannot overlook the fact that the strengthening of Sahelian jihadists is directly linked to NATO’s operation in Libya, which has been strongly criticized in Algeria. Moreover, a direct intervention by French or American forces would be seen as an attempt to take direct control of the region’s ground resources, mainly uranium and hydrocarbons. Such a risky venture would also, logically, be understood as another instance of aggressive imperialism in the name of the “global war on terror.”

This is an accurate description of the Algerian view of western management of the Libya crisis. But this does not mesh with Seres’s claims about Algeria seeking ‘geopolitical rent’ from western partners. What Algeria receives as ‘rent’ from this arrangement — aside from official visits during which the Algerians routinely refuse to adopt policy changes requested or recommended by western officials — is unclear. The Algerians rarely purchase western weapons (despite frequent comments by some analysts who believe Algiers is attempting to exploit the ‘war on terror’ to acquire western weapons (the Algerians mainly use and purchase Russian materiel, though on the technical front there are areas the Algerians have sought and obtained from the NATO countries but this is marginal and cannot easily be construed as collecting ‘rent’); it is also worth noting that

At the present time, the Algerian regime and army must also contend with internal dissent, a situation that would only be worsened were they to support a foreign intervention in the Sahel. Even though the ANP participated in the military committee of NATO in January 2012, the institution is reluctant to assume a direct partnership[2]. This form of alliance would fit neither with the history nor interests of the army. Instead, Algiers seeks to continue a pragmatic approach based on a series of strategic bargains, which ensures that their Western partners are dependent upon the good will of the regime.

While this may be vaguely correct, it misses the broader, structural concern the Algerians have with cooperation with NATO and other western security arrangements: Algeria’s foreign policy is structured around maintaining the absolute sovereignty of the state and self-reliance in security affairs. Since 11 September 2001, Algeria has portrayed itself to the west as a country that dealt with the terrorism issue on its own and used this as evidence of their ability to control the state and society, arguing that Algiers can contribute to counterterrorism efforts and not that it needs or seeks tutelage from western governments on the issue. As late as 2011 an Algerian official could say, on the record, that Algiers has ‘nothing to learn’ from the United States in the field of counterterrorism. NATO has been reluctant in part to pursue deeper cooperation with Algiers because of the Algerians’ preference for what Seres calls the ‘pragmatic approach’, somewhat distinct from the example of Morocco which actively seeks ‘geopolitical rent’ from the NATO countries in a manner far more overt and far more obvious than the Algerians ever have in the last five years, if not the last decade.

Seres’s discussion of Algeria’s opposition to the MNLA’s declaration of independence for the Azawad similarly comes close to the mark but still misses the target.

The Malian crisis is also significant for political debates in Algeria. Defensive nationalism is a longstanding rhetoric of authoritarian regimes. This discourse does not insist so much on the greatness of the nation, but rather emphasizes the risks that would occur should disorder prevail. Thus, the Algerian response to Azawad’s declaration of independence echoes an old nationalist strategy. Playing on the fear of a secession of the South has become a way for political leaders to show their commitment to defending the Algerian nation. For example, Bouguerra Soltani, the President of an Islamo-nationalist party that left the presidential coalition to form a “Green Alliance” with other moderate Islamist formations, reacted strongly when Algerian diplomats were taken hostage by Ansaar Eddine in Gao. He claimed that the unity and integrity of Algeria were a “red line” for him.

It is true that Algeria likely looks at the Malian Tuareg nationalism and separatism as a potential threat to its own territorial integrity. Algeria has roughly a half million Tuaregs living in its southern provinces, many of whom have kinships in Mali and Niger. The risk of spill over is relatively high, and local perceptions of the central government culturally, ethnically and politically complicate this. But Algeria’s opposition to the secession of Azawad from the rest of Mali comes partly from pragmatic and legalistic origins, its desire to see the colonial boundaries remain static (to combat the appeal of irredentism) and to keep border changes inline with the African Union principle of uti possidetis. These concerns from part of the basis of Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara and it has been at the root of Algeria’s border disputes with Tunisia, Libya and Morocco since independence (each country at one point or another sought to claim parts of Algeria’s desert frontiers, usually seeking resources; this is also part of why Algeria’s diplomacy has been more centred on building relationships within multilateral organisations in Africa and the United Nations than on the regional organisation it belongs to, because this principle is not widely supported in the Arab League).

Internally, Algerian politicians who are running for office – like Mr. Soltani – are prone to playing the nationalist card, especially Islamists who have been accused of taking money from foreign governments to fund their campaigns. But it should also be noted that there is nothing extreme in saying that a country’s territorial integrity are not negotiable; one would expect that, if probed, elites in Niger, looking at the situation in Mali and looking at their own Tuareg population, would expected to say much the same. This is not to say that Seres is incorrect in point out that Algeria’s elites habitually appeal to the threat of secession in the Kabylie and other parts of the country as a way to drum up support for the regime; or that the Saharan provinces have seen strikes, demonstrations and increased tensions in the last decade and demands for greater state investment in their infrastructure or that Prime Minister Ouyahia’s comments at Tamanrasset were explicitly aimed at discouraging Algerian Tuaregs from being tempted by the Azawad example.

The MNLA has repeatedly said it does not seek to expand into Algeria (and has actively sought, without success, to gain Algerian support) or other neighbouring countries, seeking only the ‘liberation’ of the Azawad specifically (though they have had to emphasise this in various media), the death of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga last summer probably made a wider Tuareg rebellion outside Mali less likely; Ansar al-Din in recent weeks has be explicit in saying that seeks to establish shari’ah in Mali and not beyond. Though cynical and vulgar, it is understandable Algerian leaders would attempt to exploit fears of spill over or irredentism, and it speaks less as an appeal of nationalist extremism; and in the case of individual Algerian politicians they may occasionally mean what they say, especially given the assumptions many northern Algerians have about the south (for some looking south the description of Tamanrasset as “Mars” is meant to describe both the landscape and the people) and comments about the country’s territorial integrity probably speak to.

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