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The Moor Strategy

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Abdel Aziz on Islamists and underdevelopment in the Sahel

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Abdel Aziz’s position, overtaken by events, underscored the gaps in our own understanding of the Sahel’s fragility. He knew very well the Malians were in no position to fight off a renewed onslaught by the highly motivated Islamists when the winter fighting season began. What he feared was that the Western powers, if they reacted, would throw the Islamists back into their desert sanctuaries and leave the region’s problems unaddressed.

Only a ew weeks earlier, Abdel Aziz lay on a bed in a French military hospital, thinking about  the war plan the French wanted the Security Council to approve. 

There had been a dramatic automobile race across the dunes, as the accidentally wounded Abdel Aziz piloted his own car—he had been on a private excursion—back toward a hospital in the capital. Reaching his military staff by phone, he ordered a quick deployment toward the desert check point from which the shots that hit him had been fired. Seizing the opportunity to demonstrate that his security policies were effective and that terrorists were not involved (as the first rumors had suggested), the president accepted a young lieutenant’s apologies, though he adds laconically, “He is not fit for command.” Significantly, neither AQIM nor any other armed group tried to gain publicity by claiming credit for the shooting.

While recovering in Paris, Abdel Aziz discussed the security situation with French officials and reiterated his view that it was better to wait than to go for half measures. He offered his own version of what used to be called hearts-and-minds. 

“Since last April,” Abdel Aziz explained, “when the rebels occupied all the north, they began terrorizing the population with the strictest application of sharia law, destroying ancient treasures of great cultural and historical significance, shooting couples for holding hands in public, and amputating the hands of bread thieves. They can be defeated, but if you go in with a massive assault,” as has been proposed, “all you will do is unite the different factions and drive the captive people into their arms for protection. It is not only a handful of Westerners who are being held hostage in northern Mali, it is the whole north Malian population that the terrorists are holding hostage.”

Meeting with Mali’s prime minister in the first days of 2013, Abdel Aziz indicated Mauritania was prepared to help its neighbor, and he reiterated this when the fighting began last week. Reports from Bamako had French helicopter gunships engaging Islamist fighters north of Mopti on Friday; it may be possible to stabilize the front in the coming days or weeks. But the long-term need is for a pan-Sahel strategy more consequential than the one that so dramatically failed last year. This includes taking the vexing issue of development in a very poor region seriously—something ATT never did, according to his neighbor. While Abdel Aziz insists on security as a government’s first duty to its people, he sees development as a close second.

 Mauritania enjoys not only a share in the current West African oil boom, but also significant deposits of gold, iron ore, copper, and phosphate, as well as uranium. “With security and stability,” a business source notes, “our mining and petroleum sectors can turn us into the locomotive of the Sahel, a region that long has needed one. We are not only the ‘safe port west of the Nile’ of oil men’s dreams, we are attractive to investors and a job magnet for our neighbors.” This is confirmed by the presence of a large migrant labor force, notably in Mauritania’s expanding construction industry. 

Abdel Aziz does not view his role as vaunting his country’s merits to investors, but he does insist that international contracts here are inviolable. “Despite having several regimes since independence, we always honored our contracts.” 

“Descendants of nomadic traders,” another business source explains, “the Mauritanians were the traditional commercial leaders throughout the Sahel and much of West Africa. They understand markets and trading.”

Many years ago, John F. Kennedy, who had never heard of Mauritania notwithstanding his support, as a senator, for decolonization, met at the White House with the newly independent country’s first president, Moktar Ould Daddah. Kennedy was impressed with the strategic location of Mauritania, straddling North Africa and black Africa. He said, according to Ould Daddah, they should stay in touch. That was in October 1963, the first and only conversation between American and Mauritanian presidents. A few weeks later, Kennedy flew to Dallas, and the day after that, Ould Daddah, as he recounts in his memoir, formally went into mourning. Ould Daddah’s experiment in one-party rule ended badly, but he did name one of his capital’s three paved streets John F. Kennedy Avenue.

It is, of course, easy to say we should pay more attention to this country or that, just as it is easy to say we should show concern when a head of state takes a bullet. So many countries, so little time. But there has been a bad streak lately in this part of the world. Islamist parties are in power or in positions of great influence all across the Maghreb, while the countries of the Sahel fear the presence of a terror state in their midst. They also worry about the consequences of a poorly conceived rescue. In these circumstances, it may be the better part of prudence to think our strategy through fully—and perhaps begin with a simple phone call.


Roger Kaplan reported from Mali for The Weekly Standard last year.

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