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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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.