With respect to General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s recent appeals to Western governments regarding fighting terrorism in Mauritania, the following should be recognized; all while noting American efforts at military cooperation with Libya, Ould Abdel Aziz’s meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister and the region’s indigenous power relationships. It must be said, though, most Mauritanians are more concerned with the make up of the new government than anything else.
- There is broad-based support within Mauritanian society for combatting AQIM and terrorism generally. Mauritanians view AQIM as serving a foreign ideology that is hostile to their traditional societal values. Salafism is not viewed with high regard; it is seen as a fringe movement. All this becomes ever more true when it comes to violent Islamism, especially because Mauritanians generally frown on political violence. This tendency is associated with fitna, disorder and illegitimate rebellion against Muslim rulers. Many find it hard to believe that Mauritanians would join terrorist groups, associating this with the stupidity (this term is used specifically here) of Arabs beyond the Sahara. Mauritanians see AQIM and its likes as a source of fitna, not the result and consequently a barrier to development and other forms of “progress”. This is not to say that Mauritanians support their leaders without question; there has been popular opposition to all of the military and civilian regimes since independence, in sentiment and organization. But there has not been a tradition of violent resistance to any of these leaders. There is, as of yet, no real tradition of political assassination (or violence, generally), and many Mauritanians fear that if one takes place it will become institutionalized, as the coup has become since 1978. All the major opposition parties denounced the most recent attack, and the general response was one of disgust. Thus, there are at present few broad social barriers to combating AQIM, which is not in the most friendly of environments.
- General Ould Abdel Aziz’s appeals are evidence of opportunism more than an actual commitment to fighting terrorism. While one might assume that, as a military leader, Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz would be the ideal candidate to take on AQIM, this would be an overestimation. His aim in promoting a “holy alliance” against terrorism is a political maneuver, an attempt to get opposition parties and Western governments to legitimize his rule under the guise of fighting extremism. His skills as a tactician are more political than military: His background under both Taya and Abdellahi show not only a laziness with regard to this issue in particular, but also a willingness to put political rivalries before objective security threats. He was among those who dragged their feet to battle the GSPC under Taya, and was at the top of the Mauritanian military when the most serious blunders in fmr. president Abdallahi’s anti-terror “policy”. He seems more concerned with the material benefits of power than the effective excise of it.
- Ould Abdel Aziz is looking for cash above all else. The Mauritanian government is strapped for cash and civil servants are restless. He surely sees the attack as an opportunity to scare Western governments into increasing military aid, both in terms of hardware and cash. There is little reason for Western governments to object to providing Mauritania with counter-terrorism assistance (as they presently do). But they should be weary that any money they send may not end up going towards the training, materiel and socio-economic infrastructure Mauritania badly needs. This should be a given, but in the current political climate in and around the country (e.g. Niger, Guinea, etc.), must be doubly emphasized.
- Broader military cooperation in the region is key to combating AQIM. Again, another seemingly obvious point, but one that seems to be misunderstood by outsiders. While the pan-Sahel Initiative and other Western-sponsored and led efforts are important and potentially fruitful, it is also important to remember that while AQIM’s main area of operation is the Algeria-Mali-Mauritania border region. Western-led efforts make Western troops a tangible target, and produce dependency that weakens the capabilities of troops from the countries inside the region. Algeria is the wealthiest country in this vicinity and is the closest thing to a counter balance to Libya’s influence there is in the region. The recent meeting between military leaders from Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger at Tamanresset, capital of the Algerian Sahara, is a step in the right direction. If its proceedings were in any way sincere, it is an important sign of regional maturity on cross-border problems. The conference’s key issues were the Tuareg problem, AQIM and smuggling of various sorts; Algeria ended up offering logistical and military support to its poorer neighbors in the form of air cover and bombers (“when needed”). The Mauritanians are reportedly concerned about smuggling in particular. This is an arrangement that has great potential, and deserves sponsorship from the outside. A major risk that Ould Abdel Aziz presents those seeking to combat AQIM is his conformity to a negative regional trend towards poor governance, personal rule (as seen in Guinea, Niger and Algeria) and his embrace of Libyan, Moroccan and Iranian patronage (all for specific reasons). Morocco is of little importance in the interior of the Sahara, but its support for Ould Abdel Aziz is well within its pattern of opposing and obstructing the application of international legal norms. His association with Libya encourages Libyan mischief and hostility toward quality government and democracy generally. Where AQIM is most active, there are no ideological disputes or questions over where the borders ought to lay: neither Mali nor Algeria nor Mauritania nor Niger like the organization and all want to be rid of it and want to secure the region’s borders as they are. In the American case, there is a tendency to fear the ire of Morocco when dealing with Algeria; all military dealings involving the later take great care to be structured so as not to offend the former. The Algerians can get useful aircraft from China, Russia and others; but this does nothing for the American position and perpetuates the historic rivalry between the two countries. For American policy in the region to be effective and practical, there must be a reconsideration of how to play the power relationships in North Africa. Algeria can be key to moderating Ould Abdel Aziz’s policy, where as Libya and Morocco are likely to encourage further deviation from regional, AU and other international norms.
- Mauritania’s AQIM branch has become more sophisticated and integrated into the organization’s operations. This is to say, “more sophisticated than previously”. While AQIM remains weak in Mauritania, it has gotten smarter at exploiting the imprudence of the country’s political and military leadership. The chaos of Abdellahi’s late presidency and the post-2008 coup environment, AQIM has been able to repeatedly dupe, outsmart and circumnavigate the Mauritanian security forces and carry out sporadic attacks to the embarrassment of the Mauritanians and the expense of foreigners and efforts to stem the group’s proliferation generally. Mauritania is increasingly a weak link in efforts to break of trans-Saharan criminality, a result of its political instability and enduring poverty. Mauritania’s iron ore and maritime economic structure, based at Nouadhibou and stretching by train up through Zouerate and beyond, is massively vulnerable; its borders, guarded by some troops and camel corps could do with strengthening. One need only consider how quickly Mauritania became crippled when if fought the Polisario, whose pick-up-truck-based cavalry might provide partial examples for some of AQIM’s operations in the hairiest circumstance. While the resolution of this problem will require the development of a strong national political consensus among the Mauritanians, there remains disagreement as to whether Ould Abdel Aziz’s forced resolution is acceptable or capable of doing so. And that uncertainty is well founded. The line for Western governments looking to stabilize the regional setting is therefore remarkably thin. The improper combination of coercion, cooperation and politicking could push Mauritania and the region toward a retrograde model, which its people have little desire to see return after a decade of transitions, in the interest of stability, or contribute to a trend towards the ever more worrisome.