The Magazine

The New Battle of Algiers

Bouteflika has the upper hand, for now.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Overshadowed by Iraq and Afghanistan in the global war on terror, less scrutinized than Turkey as a laboratory of Islam's compatibility with liberal democracy, Algeria remains a crucial testing ground for the ability of postcolonial Islamic societies to develop modern institutions. Algeria is also, since emerging from its own war on Islamist terror in the 1990s, a de facto partner of the United States, as soldiers of both nations patrol the Mediterranean to its north and the Sahara to its south. But like so much in this long war of shadows and mirages, bombs and machine guns, reversals and betrayals, the Algerian scene is opaque. The attempted assassination of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last month reminds us how ephemeral a success on any front in this war can be, how fragile a truce, how premature a shout of victory.

Who would want to kill Abdelaziz Bouteflika? On the face of it, the question seems absurd. The Algerian president, elected in 1999 and reelected in 2004, is widely perceived as having brought peace and prosperity and even a measure of national reconciliation to a country ravaged by civil war. The war took 150,000 lives in a country of 30 million, according to the government, which rejects the term "civil war" inasmuch as the conflict pitted Islamists--rather than a region or a sect--against an Arab-African society trying to break with its postcolonial system of one-party, socialist, police-state authoritarianism.

Bouteflika is the man who turned the page. Now 70, he was foreign minister during the presidency of Colonel Houari Boumédienne (1965-78), then lived mostly abroad, in the Gulf states and Europe. Returning to Algeria in 1989, Bouteflika stayed in the background, eventually positioning himself on the side of a liberal, multiparty third way between the authoritarian National Liberation Front (FLN) regime of his early years and the theocracy the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) sought to impose. He led cautiously, preferring to let General Liamine Zéroual take the first plunge into a competitive presidential election, in 1994. When Zéroual stepped down in 1999 before the completion of his term, Bouteflika ran with the support of the army leadership. The other major candidates withdrew, claiming a fair election was impossible.

The new president proclaimed an end to fratricide and international isolation (for several years, no non-Algerian airline flew into Algiers, so great was the fear of terrorism). He told people to stop hating one another and get back to work. He sent Algerian diplomats out to reassert a claim to regional leadership. He traveled abroad, reopened the country for business.

Following in Zéroual's footsteps, Bouteflika pursued a strategy of fight, then vote, then reform, then reconcile. It worked, in part because the country was exhausted and the Islamists' original constituency was repelled by their violence. Gradually, as the cycle of terror and counterterror wound down and the fight was reduced to mopping up and policing operations, Bouteflika could play the magnanimity card. He easily won a national referendum in 2005 approving his offer of forgiveness for repentant Islamist fighters.

On the reform side, Bouteflika loosened the fundamentalist-inspired family legislation adopted under Boumédienne, which secularists vehemently opposed and Islamists wanted to strengthen. As a result, women can now sue for divorce, for example, and do not need a male family member's permission to get a passport. Despite his ill-disguised contempt for the Berber-majority region of Kabylie, and his refusal to apologize for the brutal repression of a grassroots movement urging faster democratization there in 2001, Bouteflika continued to insist that Algeria could and would change.

Bouteflika raised the status of Berber languages, doing away with the Arabic monopoly in schools and official business; the military, meanwhile, made English obligatory for career officers. At the same time, he allowed nonviolent Islamist parties to compete in local and parliamentary elections and take portfolios in his governments. Zéroual had already moved in these directions, provoking the same kinds of questions: Did the Islamic parties really accept the democratic ground rules, or were they only fronting for the gunmen? In their heyday, in the early 1990s, the Islamists of the FIS had openly proclaimed that one election sufficed, so long as they won it: "One man, one vote, one time," as the saying goes. Would the amnestied Islamists return to the hills and safe-houses, as some observers, pointing to a recent spike in violence, even now believe?

Today, Bouteflika presides over a cabinet made up of men and women who are not otherwise on speaking terms. Hardliners in the army, called "eradicators," have not publicly challenged the amnesty. No one knows how they will react if the security situation deteriorates.

One factor working against a return to civil war is the hydrocarbons-fueled prosperity that began early in Bouteflika's first term. Favored in geographic and human resources, Algeria should be a prime beneficiary of globalization. Undercutting its potential, however, is chronic mismanagement, due to a pernicious inheritance that combines the worst features of French statism--trying to micromanage everything from the center--and Ottoman sultanism--trying to control everything from the bathhouse and the harem. Here, Bouteflika has reformed little, and cronyism and secrecy remain key to getting things done, or not. The most important thing not getting done in Algeria is job-creation. You do not have to be Benjamin Franklin to see that with a population largely made up of young people, most of whom know someone, or know of someone, gainfully employed in Europe or North America, idleness is social poison. Energy-sector revenues are facilitating some rebuilding of infrastructure, but they have not sparked the small-enterprise boom needed for the creation of real wealth, as opposed to riches divvied up by the ruling cliques.

So Bouteflika's record is somewhat ambiguous. But does that warrant killing him? The suicide bomber waiting for the president in the eastern city of Batna on September 6 apparently thought so. Spotted before the arrival of the presidential motorcade, he detonated his ordnance, taking two dozen bystanders with him. Two days later, in Dellys, on the eastern coast, a truck bomb killed 35. And this followed repeated attacks during the winter and spring, including one on April 11 that simultaneously hit the main government center in downtown Algiers and a police barracks in a suburb. As the toll mounts into the hundreds, it appears that the alliance formed two summers ago between the local terrorists of the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" and a new "Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb" was no mere publicity stunt, as some once assumed.

The government, which normally downplays terrorism news, claims its forces destroyed a substantial terrorist band in the Kabylie region last July, and followed up with successful engagements there in September. Kabylie is not jihad-friendly, but its rugged mountains have long served as hideouts for outlaws and insurrectionists.

After the assassination attempt at Batna, Bouteflika blamed a "foreign plot" for the resurgence of violence. This, or "banditry," has long been the preferred line. His ambassador to Egypt, meanwhile, assured a newspaper interviewer in Cairo that the army is dealing with the residues of the homegrown Islamic Salvation Front. Algerian newspapermen, reflecting a range of sources inside the government and military, reported variations on these explanations. The U.S. ambassador in Algiers, for his part, is convinced al Qaeda is to blame.

The truth is that all of the above are mutually compatible. There are surely foreign fighters in Algeria, and have been since the late 1980s, when bearded, wide-pantalooned "Afghans" began to be reported by security forces. Some really were Afghans, others were Algerian kids who had paid their dues and got their political and military training in the anti-Soviet war. But the locals have never mixed easily with their foreign accomplices. A top Algerian Islamist named Hassan Hattab recently surrendered after protracted negotiations, underscoring a divergence of both strategy and tactics with the al Qaeda-Maghreb lot. Hiding in the Sahara and the Sahel, the operatives of the Maghreb al Qaeda know they are in no position at present to take over Algeria, and in any case they view that as the parochial objective of small-minded locals like Hassan Hattab. They take a longer view.

To the south, they see the vast regions of African Islam. To the north, they see the land they still call Andalus. Someday, they know, they will emerge like avenging angels from their desert redoubts, the Koran in one hand, the sword in the other, and give the infidel his due.

Which is precisely why the American infidel would like to keep al Qaeda confined to the dunes. For the past several years, a containment policy in all but name has done just that. The Algerians, our tactical allies in this task, can be prickly, difficult. We send new surveillance and communication equipment, and teams to train local forces in their use and to back them up on long-range patrols. But the Algerians have nixed the U.S. suggestion of a permanent base in the region for the new U.S. Africa Command, which at present is still operating out of Europe Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Nevertheless, on the whole, the policy has been successful--so far. In coordination with the State Department and other agencies, the Defense Department seeks to defeat the enemy while making ourselves attractive to the locals.

The Maghreb al Qaeda, whoever they really are, are trying to do the same thing, by sharing the grievances of the indigenous peoples and playing them off against their distant governments. Quite apart from wanting to make friends and influence people, no one can function in the Sahara without help from the locals. These, for the most part, are Tuareg camel herdsmen and highwaymen who are not in the jihad business and never have been. They are cigarette smugglers, eco-tourist kidnappers, tent-dwellers. They wrap themselves in blue linen against the sun and the sand. In the early years of colonialism, they made sport of French and Spanish military explorers who ventured into their sand sea and left their bones to bleach on its reefs.

Trapped between Algeria, Mali, and Niger, despised and neglected by governments, for most practical purposes stateless, their herds decimated by the long Sahelian drought, the Tuaregs are like Apaches in the Arizona deserts at the turn of the last century--fighting for their lives and their livelihoods against forces completely beyond their understanding. They trust no one--and there is no reason why they should. As recently as September, a C-130 transport, flying U.S. Special Forces to the rescue of a Malian garrison which the local Tuaregs proposed to turn into barbecue, was almost downed by riflemen on camelback.

An important test of our willingness to learn how to fight a long war--which experts assure us we are facing no matter what the outcome in Iraq--is thus to be found in this vast sand sea and the countries that surround it. How much time will we give ourselves to learn the mores and the languages of the peoples in these parts? How much frustration are we willing to put up with?

In the past year the Algerian government reportedly signed off on a $7 billion contract to upgrade its air force. The happy salesman? Vladimir Putin. Annoying? Perhaps. But can we, profligate sons of the West, complain? We want the Algerians to defeat their Islamists. This is a complicated fight, as the Hassan Hattab case demonstrates. Will the Islamists focus on the regime in Algiers or concentrate on the larger pan-Islamist war? Will they send a commando to kill a heretic like Bouteflika, or find a front man to take a ministerial portfolio, knowing he'll be marked by the security police? We Americans have to understand that this is the background against which our tactical allies maneuver for advantage--and for survival. Maybe airpower will help them more than rule-of-law seminars and other measures to win hearts and minds funded (to the tune of a mere $200 million) by our Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Perhaps, too, strong air forces make good neighbors.

For the time being, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is in charge. He enjoys the support of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is acutely aware of Algeria's value as a trading partner and its importance to one of his key foreign policy schemes, a Mediterranean Union, presumably including Turkey and Israel, on the model of the EU and serving as both buffer and bridge to the Middle East. It is true that Bouteflika has health problems, but so have many other statesmen. Then there's the awkward fact that the Algerian constitution limits him to two terms, ending in 2009. To remove this obstacle, the president is working on a constitutional amendment. Who can say--Bouteflika's remaining in office might represent some valuable stability, much as we like to think constitutional predictability is the best kind. As we juggle the challenges of keeping the lid on a vast region while staying on good terms with its most powerful country, discretion may well prove to be, as it usually has in U.S.-Algerian relations, a necessary part of wisdom.

Roger Kaplan is the author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.