The longer the small desert war lasts, the more America’s African strategy is undercut.
2:30 PM, Mar 8, 2012 • By ROGER KAPLAN
The southern Sahara represents strategic and economic assets that vary with the position of the appraiser. The Algerians desire tranquility above all, but their regional detractors claim they are not above sustaining troublemakers, both among the jihadists and among the Tuareg, for use against their competitors. Influential spokesmen among Algeria’s Berbers, notably among the Kabyles, express support for the Tuareg against what they call Mali’s “military dictatorship.” They chide Algeria’s diplomacy for being officially in favor of the inviolability of post-colonial borders even though it supported Eritrea’s breakaway from Ethiopia some years ago and South Sudan’s secession last year. They also note that Algeria officially supports the claims of the Sahrawi people to the Western Sahara against Moroccan “colonialism.” No one has explained yet why the Tuareg found themselves among Qaddafi’s elite troops—unless it really was all a matter of money, as anti-Tuareg Malians insist—even as the Tripoli tyrant waged an unrelenting campaign of persecution of Libyan Berbers. The latter played a decisive military role in overthrowing him in last year’s civil war, and as a reward are being persecuted by the triumphant al Qaedists whom we helped bring to power in Benghazi.
It may be true that the French, whom Malians suspect of fomenting the Tuareg insurrection, have not given up the idea, originally broached in the years of decolonization, of a Tuareg state as a kind of aircraft carrier to project Parisian influence in the great sand sea. Of course, it is foolish to speak of “the French,” when such schemes are the somewhat feverish fantasies of small lobbies among what used to be called the Colonial Party and are now concentrated in the more romantic—or cynical—bureaus of the Quai d’Orsay. Their main spokesman at present is the foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who as mayor of Bordeaux comes from a center of the colonial (and neocolonial) tradition in French politics. He has been pushing hard in the past several weeks for negotiations with the MNLA on the strength of its fighters’ early successes in January and February, successes that the Malians call ruthless AQIM-assisted terrorism.
In the face of these desert intrigues, the U.S. position remains a model of fairness—or naïveté. Apart from resupplying the Malians from the air, our gallant fliers and unrivaled special forces are quietly and tenaciously helping African rifles from Mauritania across the Sahel all the way to the Central African Republic and Kenya to resist and when possible destroy the marauding bands of gangster-terrorists such as the child-killing Lord’s Resistance Army in the east to the kidnap-and-drugs gangs in the west. This may well represent the application of the Bing West model of counterterrorism which the Marine strategist has for years recommended in the “small wars” that mark marginal regions. What remains to be seen is whether we can devise a diplomatic strategy that will induce the Northern and Sahelian Africans to, as we say in the neighborhood, get their act together. Whether even a Metternich could devise such a strategy is doubtful, but we are Americans and we can give it the old college try. Surely, it will include some measure of justice for the Tuareg and the other neglected desert peoples. It will not pay our debt to the Sioux, but it will demonstrate a new commitment to pluralism.
Roger Kaplan, a longtime contributor, was embedded with the 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York National Guard.