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Concerned citizens react

March 3, 2009

A gathering of Arab and Touareg tribal leaders in the Algerian-Malian borderlands has announced their readiness to chase down and kill AQIM bands, unless the gunmen release their Western hostages without ransom. Why, one may ask, this sudden display of civic-mindedness, by men hitherto known mostly as Kalashnikov-wielding highwaymen?

Well, according to Algeria’s El Khabar,

a high-ranking Algerian security official met with some representatives of tribal notables from northern Mali in the city of Tamanrasset, to discuss the demands of these tribes for engaging in battle against al-Qaida . . . the best way of fighting the criminal bands is to isolate them and deprive them of supplies, food and fuel — which they presently have easy access to in northern Mali in return for money — by way of arming anti-terrorist militias, on the model of the Algerian Patriots.

Tamanrasset is a town in the Algerian south. The “Patriots” are the home guard units established by Algeria during the civil war. That strategy, essentially a wholesale militarization of the countryside, on the one hand helped quell the Islamist insurgency by shutting it out of rural communities on which it had previously depended for logistical and material support, but, on the other, it also helped precipitate the worst years of the war (the era of massacres, c. 1997), as civilian communities were ineluctably drawn into the conflict.

I’d propose the Sahwa project in western Iraq as a more reasonable comparison, though. Like in Anbar, but unlike most of Algeria, this will be about arming and empowering cooperative tribes against foreign insurgents, and against those who do not cooperate. (Although of course on a wholly different scale, the Mali insurgency being absolutely tiny in comparison to the bloodshed that reigned in Iraq at the time. Let’s keep that in mind.) The Patriots were not armed from tribal chief down, as in Iraq, but rather recruited as individuals, although there were all sorts of exceptions. Mali’s north, by contrast, is totally tribal.

* * *

Without reading to much into a single news report, this is a trend that merits attention. I know I’m obsessing a little about it, but the pax algeriana established in northern Mali really strikes me as something with larger implications than just for anti-terrorism. The government in Mali is happy to see the rebellion settle down, but Algeria’s intrusive mediation has also forced Bamako to resign itself to the fact that Algeria now basically runs its own proxy forces in northern Mali. (This is not a new strategy: among the clauses of the agreements mediated and re-mediated by Algiers is a provision that Touareg rebels will form “special units” tasked with eliminating “every foreign armed presence” on Mali’s territory i.e., to combat AQIM and whoever else Algeria doesn’t want running around the borderlands. Of course these groups would be trained and sponsored by Algeria, even if they would formally be a part of Mali’s army.)

In the end, the Saharan borders are just lines on a map, and conditions on the ground rather anarchic. It’s not realistically possible to establish an uncontested monopoly-of-force the way you can in eg. a controlled urban environment, regardless of what resources you bring to the table. What you have is the possibility to insert yourself as an indispensible judge and final arbiter in local disputes, by projecting overwhelming might; and a series of economical, tribal and various other client networks, which, more often than not, will flow across state borders.

While no one imagines total quiet will reign in these areas anytime soon, Algeria seems determined to collect as many as possible of those patronage strings in its own hand, and establish a stable and pro-Algerian environment around its borders. That does have some interesting implications for local politics, as does the fact that no one seems willing or able to move against  it. That eternal meddler Qadhafi may be stirring up north-east, but he seems to have lost out on this one, when his boy Bahanga was routed by the Mali army and the rest of the Touareg insurgency brought round to negotiate by a combination of Mali’s military pressure, and Algeria’s bitterswet mix of money and menace. Rather, El Khabar claims, Libya is now on board pressuring dissident groups, after the summit that was held in Nouakchott recently, grouping top security officials from the Maghreb nations.

* * *

For al-Qaida, a consensus around these strategies presumably spells bad news. But what does it mean for the Sahel more generally, that Algeria has begun muscling into neighbouring countries again, after its long war-era withdrawal from the Saharan scene? Or should it perhaps be interpreted as an early example of how the economy-&-ecology driven weakening of sovereign governments in the Sahel has begun, albeit still on a very small scale, to suck in outsiders into their no-longer-internal disputes?

It may be good or bad, and a sign of more to come, or not — but I say let’s take notice.

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