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For Peace in the Sahel, Can the U.S. Work with Algeria?

Algeria and the U.S. share interests in stability for Mali and Niger. Can they build shared solutions?

Amid the Sahel region’s crises — a continent-spanning web of communal and terrorist insurgencies and eight coups d’etat since 2020 — U.S. and European attention is focused elsewhere: on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s expanding global influence and the Israel-Palestine conflict. But an opportunity to promote stabilization in the Sahel, notably in Mali and Niger, could be U.S. collaboration with Algeria. Algeria shares borders with those violence-stricken states, and also the U.S. desire to help stabilize them and their Sahel neighbors. A first question for any joint U.S-Algerian engagement is whether the two countries’ visions for Sahel stability, particularly in Mali and Niger, are aligned or contradictory.

A market in the town of Konna stood ruined at the start of Mali’s decade-long insurgencies. Algeria has mediated in those conflicts and shares some, but not all, U.S. interests in stability there and across the Sahel. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A market in the town of Konna stood ruined at the start of Mali’s decade-long insurgencies. Algeria has mediated in those conflicts and shares some, but not all, U.S. interests in stability there and across the Sahel. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, successive governments have declared a foreign policy based on the principle of non-intervention. Yet Algeria has a long history of trying to insert itself as a mediator of conflicts, both close to home (e.g. Mali and Niger) and further abroad; Algerians are quick to highlight the role their country played in securing the release of American hostages from Iran in 1981. Algeria’s track record as peacemaker has been mixed at best and critics have suggested that its interventions are designed to advance its own interests first.

How to Stabilize Mali?

In Mali, Algeria has long brokered peace efforts between the government and ethnic Tuareg armed groups in the north: the Tamanrasset agreements in 1991, mediation in 1992, the Algiers agreements in 2006, and the “Algiers Process” of 2015. Cynics argue that Algerian involvement in Mali reflects its regional counterterrorism strategy or an attempt to control gas and other mineral reserves in the Sahel, rather than a peacebuilding project. Indeed, Algeria’s attempts to stamp out its own domestic Islamist groups did push terrorists into Mali. These included the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which later changed its name to Al Qaida in the Maghreb.

For more than two decades, Algeria and the United States have shared similar concerns about a metastasizing terrorist presence in the Sahel, and counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries has been robust. However, as Mali’s current government seeks to expand relations with Russia and its Wagner Group, Algerian and U.S. interests could diverge. Algeria’s anticolonial foreign policy has historically focused on pushing the European presence out of the region, but appears not to have the same anxiety about the Russian (or Chinese) presence. In part, this can be explained by the strong alliance between Algeria and Russia, which has lasted for nearly 70 years. Algeria is Russia’s second-largest trading partner in Africa; Russia supplies nearly 80% of all Algerian weapons and Algeria is the world’s third-largest purchaser of Russian military hardware. For the United States, the deepening presence of Russia and the Wagner Group is a direct threat to national security interests, specifically the U.S. drone operations run out of neighboring Niger.

While the United States and Algeria share a strong interest in stabilizing Mali, they have different visions for how that should be accomplished. For Algiers, the successful resolution of the Malian conflict does not necessarily mean the restoration of a democratic government, but rather that Mali is a reliable partner in the fight against Islamic extremism and cross-border criminality. Of course, the Algerians would also prefer a Malian government allied to Algeria’s own support for Sahrawi independence from Morocco in Western Sahara, and to Algerian positions within the African Union and United Nations but those are not requirements. For the United States, the conflict in Mali should be resolved through an internationally sanctioned process that reverses the coup of 2021 and establishes a stable government not openly hostile to U.S. and Western interests. Given the United States’ strategic alignment with Algeria’s rival, Morocco, especially with respect to the conflict over Western Sahara, it is in the U.S. interest to delink any cooperation with Algeria in Mali from other regional entanglements.

The recent decision by the Malian government to end the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, does not portend well for stability and the protection of civilians in the region. The White House blamed Russia, via the Wagner Group, for the failure of the U.N.-led process, all but acknowledging that the current Malian government is firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. However, if the United States and Algeria can reach an understanding vis-à-vis Mali whereby Algeria’s counterterrorism priorities are met and U.S. military interests are not threatened, it’s conceivable that the two could collaborate to support a peacemaking process in Mali. Any effort supported by both Algeria and the United States would presumably have a higher chance of success than what has been tried previously.

Niger: Algeria and ECOWAS

The situation in Niger is slightly different. The military coup in July raised tensions over how to respond. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanded that the coup leaders reinstate the former president or face direct military intervention while the governments of Mali and Burkina have warned that ECOWAS intervention in Niger could invite a military response leading to a much broader regional war.

As in Mali, Algeria is concerned about instability in Niger, with which it shares a 620-mile border. If violent extremists can operate freely in Niger, that poses a direct threat to Algerian national security. The United States shares Algeria’s concern about the presence of terrorist organizations and has a significant military presence, maintaining several “enduring” and “non-enduring” bases in the country. Administration officials made clear that maintaining that presence, especially in light of the persistent terrorist threat and the Wagner (and Russian) presence in neighboring Mali, is critical.

Given the U.S.-Algerian alignment in Niger — at least with respect to counterterrorism — Algerian mediation efforts could be mutually beneficial. However, the U.S. interest in maintaining its presence in Niger may conflict with Algeria’s general opposition to a foreign (especially Western) military presence on its border. An important question for U.S. policymakers will be whether Algeria would require a U.S. military withdrawal from Niger as a condition for coordinating with the United States in a stabilization effort there.

In August, the Algerians proposed a six-month transition period to let Niger restore “the constitutional and democratic order,” while formulating “political arrangements with the acceptance of all parties in Niger.” Initial reports that conflicting parties in Niger had accepted Algeria as the mediator proved to be unfounded or at least unrealized. That unsuccessful attempt raises a question whether Algeria can be readily accepted as a neutral arbiter by Niger’s conflicting parties — or whether it still needs to cultivate that credibility.

Another question: How far could Algerian mediation efforts conflict or align with those of ECOWAS? ECOWAS has been adamant that Niger’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, be reinstated; Algeria appears more sanguine about working with the junta of General Abdourahmane Tchiani. Would ECOWAS accept an Algerian-led meditation process that falls short of reinstating President Bazoum? And would the United States accept an Algerian-led mediation process that is rejected by ECOWAS?

Change in Algeria

In 2019, popular protests forced Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office. To reestablish popular credibility, the subsequent government made several constitutional changes, including reversing the country’s long-standing principle of non-intervention. The revised constitution states that “Algeria may, within the framework of the United Nations, the African Union and the League of Arab States, and in full respect of their principles and objectives, participate in operations maintaining and restoring peace.” The president and a two-thirds majority of parliament can decide “to send army units abroad.” These changes received little public attention at the time, but they could be significant in light of the current instability in the Sahel.

Mali and Niger pose threats to U.S. and Algerian interests — and an opportunity for U.S.-Algerian collaboration. In Mali, the two countries share a concern of a growing terrorist and criminal network that perpetuates instability. The Wagner Group’s presence should also be a shared concern albeit for different reasons: for the United States because of the group’s threat to military operations in the region; for Algeria because Wagner operates smuggling and other illicit enterprises that thrive in unstable or ungoverned spaces. These aligned interests should create opportunities for the United States and Algeria to work together to restore stability in Mali.

The situation in Niger is untenable for both Algeria and the United States. Niger’s crisis creates too much opportunity for terrorism and criminal networks to exploit and destabilize Algeria’s border region. The United States, Algeria and ECOWAS should seek a convergence of their objectives to help stabilize Niger in the interests of all. Questions to watch are whether a continued U.S. military presence in Niger becomes a sticking point for Algeria and whether Algeria and the U.S. can put aside their differing views on Western Sahara.

U.S. Ambassador to Algeria Elizabeth Aubin and Secretary General of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lounes Magramane discuss how Algeria and the U.S. are working to address instability in the Sahel.

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