Information regarding the hostage seizure at In Amenas, located to the far south east of Algeria near the Libyan border, remained sketchy as this column was filed last night, scarcely more clear than when I filed an early account, now erroneous on some details, in the Weekly Standard two days ago.
Algerian security forces reportedly surrounded the installation, responsible for some 10 percent of Algeria’s oil revenues, attacked the kidnappers after shooting cannon at them from helicopters, and sent commandos in to finish the job. As many as 150 hostages were reported to have been taken, but most of them were either released early or managed to escape from their captors, some of whom are still holed up in a sector of the site. How many, if any, hostages they are still holding cannot be verified, but reportedly about 20 hostages remained when the Algerian commandos first came in, including six Americans, and at least two -- no Yanks -- were killed, either in the crossfire or by the terrorists, members of a AQIM katiba (company) called Al-Mouthalimin led by the legendary emir and cigarette smuggler Moktar Belmoktar, known as “One-Eye.” One of our “mooj” warriors when the Soviets were dying on Afghanistan’s plains and a veteran leader of the feared Algerian jihad organization GIA, Moktar himself did not take part in the raid.
The obvious question, which news outlets in Algiers did not shy away from raising, is how a major oil installation -- responsible for some 18 percent of Algeria’s oil exports -- could be overrun, when these places are the most “bunkerized” -- to quote an Algerian newspaperman -- locations in the country. Throughout the proto-Iraq war that shook Algeria in the 1990s, with deaths reaching over 100,000 according to conservative estimates, the Islamists (it was during these years that the term was first used widely) never were able to attack Algeria’s hydrocarbon lifeline, let alone cut it off. Yet more than a decade after the Algerian state won its war against terror -- at least according to a former U.S. ambassador to Mali writing in the New York Times earlier this week -- a terror group hits a non-French oil complex over a thousand kilometers away from the front specifically as a warning to French “crusaders” to get their neocolonial selves out of poor little Mali, where meanwhile people are waving French flags and cheering President François Hollande as they have not cheered a French president since the great de-colonizer, Charles de Gaulle.
Nor did it go unnoticed that the warning was also to the Algerian state, which earlier authorized French military flights over its air space. Are there factions within the Algerian government or military that want to send a message to Paris -- or to Algiers? It is a terrible question, but it cannot be avoided if Algerians themselves are raising it. If nothing else, it is a warning to the French -- and eventually to us -- that forging practical counter-terror alliances in this part of the world is not like getting a pick-up game going on the playground.
What is remarkable, however, is that we still have to learn this. Part of our problem is surely our tendency to take a simplistic view of those exotic eastern lands. According to our ex ambassador to Mali, “Algeria‘s military leaders know the extremists’ tactics and their leaders. It defeated them in a civil war…” If it defeated them in a civil war, why are they still operating in Mali and striking at Algeria’s economic lifeline?
The ambassador mentions a tidy sum of $500 million that we spent over the past four years “to keep Islamists at bay in West Africa.” For all we know that may have been money well spent -- it kept them at bay at least that long. But if that is so, we certainly did not use the time to study the human and physical terrain. Our understanding of Mali’s politics was scarcely better than our grasp of a Libya that literally exploded into fragments, well beyond the historical divisions between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But American concern for the North African and Sahel regions goes back much farther than the four years the ambassador would rather lay the blame on. At least since the second Clinton term there has been a succession of counter-terrorism initiatives, joint task forces, training and reconnaissance missions, special operations missions, and sustained campaigns in cooperation with friendly natives.
What happened during the watch of the Hon. Vicki Huddleston, who served in Bamako during the G.W. Bush administration? Was she paying attention to our military aid mission? Did she order any accountability reviews? Was she alarmed at the disproportionate number of generals who seemed to be in Bamako all the time instead of in the north, where Tuareg revolts are endemic? Did she recommend cutting off aid to Bamako if its cliquish politicians did not address the problems of the north, leaving it open to terrorists and traffickers?
The cluelessness of Ambassador Huddleston is not a deformation professionelle peculiar to our diplomats. General Carter Ham, commander of AFRICOM, is on record as having been taken completely by surprise by the collapse of the Mali Defense Force last year. He heard a few months ago, apparently for the first time, of bought commissions and diverted military aid, of ill-trained troops without munitions, and of American-educated officers who took civil-military relations as a green light to push the civilians aside and install themselves in quarters more comfortable than their barracks.
Whether the French know the human terrain better or happen to have been feeling a greater sense of urgency, they did not waste time worrying about knowing what they did not know or the legal subtleties of coming to the rescue of a country where constitutional rule is as they say in sports day-to-day. If Mali south of the river Niger goes, West Africa is up for grabs, and the two thousand marines and legionnaires of France’s Operation Serval will scarcely be sufficient to save it. As of this writing, French forces are battling an Islamist assault in the locality of Diabaly in Mali’s west, even as their air attacks reportedly succeeded in driving the Ansar Dine and AQMI forces out of Gao and Timbuktu. The enemy’s strategy would appear to be to try to stretch French forces as far as possible, the better to hit and run at will, and not only in Mali.
Ambassador Huddleston’s plea is titled “Why We Must Save Mali,” and while she has the why more or less right (stop Mali from becoming a “launching pad” for terrorism, though it would seem it already is), she does not get around to the “we.” However, she implies we must deal with the Islamist onslaught on black Africa and not worry about why we ever let it get to this point. She has the priorities right, but it is also a convenient way of forgetting that she was asleep at the wheel. The Secretary of Defense allowed as much too, saying the other day that he really had no idea what the balance of power is in Mali. He offered this was because the Islamists based in the north do not use cell phones, so electronic intercepts are hard to come by. However, anti-Islamist human beings in the north of Mali are not hard to come by. What does seem hard to come by are American officials military and civilian with a will to get their feet -- and their ears -- on African earth.
But the ambassador is right that we cannot avoid getting drawn into France’s Mali war. The French and the African troops who are joining them from across West Africa will need re-supply and sustainment that only we can provide. Perhaps our policy leaders can send the bill to the Algerians, or the Qataris, or even the Saudis, all of whom are flush these days. The problem with the Middle Eastern sheikdoms is that although we give them -- or sell them -- advanced warplanes, they give, according to very good sources, funds to the very people we are trying to beat down. As to the Algerians, their relations with the Sahara terror organizations are ambiguous. Quite understandably, they do not want the Mali conflict to be internationalized, with the threat that carries of seeing their 1990s war come home again, instead of being tucked away safely in their deep south.
The ambassador says that “Algeria has a moral responsibility to act,” whatever that is supposed to mean, and has ethnic affiliations with the rebels in northern Mali, a point that is even more bizarre until one gets to her statement that the solution to the Mali crisis is North African not West African. In Bamako this would strike most people as laughable, but it does contain a germ of historical insight. Mali was demarcated at the end of the French empire to include large territories with diverse peoples -- whites in the north, though they tend to be pretty dark, and blacks in the south, who usually are indeed pretty black -- who historically distrust and make war on one another. The nomads of the desert north raided the south for slaves and still consider the Bambara speakers of Bamako to be good for little more than slavery. The black northerners, typically Songhai and Peul peoples, fought a guerrilla war against the Tuareg in the 1990s which both sides claimed reached mass-murder proportions.
Mali, in other words, is a creation of the colonial era. In this it is not much different from many modern African states, Sudan before partition for example, or Nigeria or Cameroon or even South Africa or for that matter Algeria. In this sense it is correct to observe that the “North” Africans will have to decide whether they want to share in the responsibility for bringing law and order to their geographical zone.
The West Africans, however, are the ones with the guns at their heads. If they do not save Mali, they will have no one to blame but themselves (and us, as usual) when the Islamist forces march on their capitals, as they have announced they intend to do. In a completely weird remark, our Foggy Bottom eminento claims that Nigeria is the wrong country to get involved because it has English-speaking Christian troops who may exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions in Mali.
If anyone is exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions, it certainly is not Nigeria’s or any other country’s Christian warriors. However, since she mentions it, why should not Nigeria’s Christian soldiers -- who initially will number under a thousand and will be under the command of General Shedu Abdul Kader, a good Christian name if ever there was one -- come to the rescue in a war against Islamic fanatics? And, moreover, what have we come to when a public servant with a name like Huddleston takes a dim view of Christian warriors fighting for civilization against savages? But let us not lose sight of the real issue here. Mali will surely have to reorganize its political system, and the question of the north will have to be addressed, including a practical power-sharing formula among the several northern tribal groups. If French arms can establish the conditions for working this out peacefully, well then, good for the French, and if they need our help to do this, as the Ambassador Huddleston thinks they do, then let us be Christian about it -- and serve our own interests too.