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Clinton woos a reluctant Algeria on Mali intervention

In a bid to win Algerian support for a planned military intervention in northern Mali, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers Monday. But is Algiers likely to come on board?


As the international diplomatic mission on the Malian crisis kicked into high gear, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a critical one-day visit to Algeria Monday amid questions over whether the regional powerhouse could play a spoiler role in a planned military intervention in northern Mali.

Hours after landing in Algiers Monday, Clinton met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in a bid to secure Algeria’s support for an emerging international effort to push Islamist militants out of northern Mali.

The current crisis in Mali was sparked by a March 22 military coup that ousted the West African nation’s democratically elected leader, creating a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize control of northern Mali only to lose it to a motley mix of Islamist groups – including militants linked to al Qaeda’s North African branch.

Clinton’s visit came just over three months after her French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, made an official trip to Algeria, where the Malian crisis topped the agenda.

French President François Hollande is also expected there in December.

The high-level stops in Algiers highlight the mounting international offensive to win Algeria’s backing for an UN-approved plan for an African-led military intervention in northern Mali.

“Algeria is probably the most important actor in the region,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst for the New York-based Eurasia Group. “Clinton’s visit shows that the US and France are working toward the same goal to ensure that Algeria is on the same plane, and that Algiers is not actively or passively boycotting or throwing obstacles in the process.”

A long, complex history in a difficult region

The wealthiest country in the region, Algeria also has the best equipped and most battle-tested military in the Sahel, the remote transition belt between the Sahara desert and the African savannah that straddles the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

But while Algeria is a natural leader on security issues in the area, Algerian authorities have been reluctant to endorse the military intervention in Mali, sparking questions over the notoriously opaque North African nation’s intentions in the region.

With a 1,300-kilometre border separating the desert terrains of Algeria and Mali, Algiers has a historic and often complex relationship with its neighbours in the Sahel, home to the traditionally nomadic Tuaregs.

In the past, Algeria has played a critical role in mediating peace deals between Tuareg separatist fighters in northern Mali and the Malian government based in Bamako, in the country's south.

Its intervention in the Tuareg rebellions over the past few decades was often aimed as a counterweight to the regional ambitions of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

The current upheaval in Mali is at least partly a consequence of last year's ouster of Gaddafi, whose Tuareg fighters fled southwards into Niger and Mali, while weapons spilled out of Libya to Islamist and armed groups.

A reluctant regional powerhouse

But following the 2011 Arab uprisings, Algeria has been deeply sceptical of any military meddling in the region. Algiers opposed the NATO campaign in Libya and it has warned against a hastily conceived and executed military intervention in Mali.

"Algeria’s position is very clear: they want to avoid the possibility of military intervention and they don’t want foreign troops in the region,” said Fabiani.

During his meeting with Clinton Monday, Bouteflika appeared to have voiced those concerns.

“I very much appreciated the president's analysis based on his long experience as to the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali and the terrorist and drug trafficking threat that is posed to the region and beyond,'' Clinton told reporters in Algiers.

She added that they had agreed to continue discussions with the UN and African nations “to determine the most effective approaches that we should be taking”.

Fears of ‘the next Afghanistan’

More than seven months after the disastrous military coup saw Islamists entrenched in a region the size of France, the international pressure to address the northern Malian crisis is intense.

Intelligence and security officials have warned that the region could be “the next Afghanistan” - a breeding ground for terrorists, notably al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

Last week, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington that the US had to “ensure that al Qaeda has no place to hide and that we have to continue to go after them.”

Under the terms of the French-led UN Security Council resolution, which was approved on October 12, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS has until November 26 to clarify its plans for northern Mali.

The military intervention is expected to involve around 3,000 West African troops aided by France and the US in a support or advisory capacity.

Algeria was initially opposed to any military intervention, calling instead for a dialogue in a bid to reach a political solution to the crisis.

But following Clinton’s visit, US officials travelling with the Secretary of State have indicated that Algeria has been "warming to the idea" of intervention led by West African states.

It is unlikely Algerian troops will take part in any military operation. But if Algeria did agree to provide intelligence – if not boots on the ground – it would be an important development in the latest bid for military intervention in northern Mali.

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