Real challenge is to secure lasting regional stability

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

ISSUE:With France at war in Mali, Algeria reeling from an unprecedented terrorist attack and 60 people dead after violent unrest in Egypt, these are tense, tumultuous times in north Africa.

Three weeks into its air and ground intervention in northern Mali, a French force of almost 3,000 men has retaken all major towns seized by jihadists last April. The French have been greeted as liberators by flag-waving crowds in towns where, for nine months, music was banned and alleged thieves could have their hands cut off.

The French advance across such vast, forbidding desert has been surprisingly swift, and Paris is doing little to conceal its satisfaction that such a risky operation has so far gone so smoothly. France hopes to withdraw its troops as quickly as possible, leaving it to an African force to pursue the militants into the desert.

But the conflict is far from over; if anything, it’s entering a more uncertain and potentially more dangerous phase. The African force has been hampered by delays, and reports have begun to emerge of reprisals against alleged jihadist collaborators in the towns of Gao and Timbuktu, raising fears of further inter-ethnic violence. Moreover, the Islamist rebels have not been “eradicated”, as French president François Hollande said was France’s aim, but rather moved elsewhere. The big question is whether they could mount a long insurgency campaign from the shadows, and whether a regional force would have the capacity to contain it.

The problems facing north and west African states are complex, long in gestation and driven by forces specific to each country.

Porous borders

But in a region of porous borders, instability can spread and local conflicts can inflame each other. The gang that claimed responsibility for the siege at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, which left at least 37 people dead, is thought to have travelled from Mali via Libya. Many analysts believe the spark for last year’s Tuareg takeover of northern Mali, later hijacked by jihadists, was an influx of fighters and weapons into Mali from Libya after the Gadafy regime crumbled.

The inner core of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is made up not of Malians but Algerians and Mauritanians. Raising the stakes – for the West, regional powers and non-state power brokers in the desert – is the fact that the Mali-Niger-Mauritania corridor is one of the busiest and most lucrative routes for cocaine, arms and illegal migrants heading to Europe.

France’s mission in the desert may soon wind down, but the challenge of bringing lasting stability to the region is only beginning.