U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned recently that al-Qaida's presence in northern Mali constitutes a global security threat and that there is a risk that terrorists there would develop "a command-and-control capability from which they could conduct attacks, either in Europe or on this country", the way they did in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Against the backdrop of such concerns, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week undertook her second trip to Algeria this year. High-level discussions between Algiers and both Paris and Washington, have been taking place for a while. On his fourth visit to Algiers, last September, U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, was clearly on a "listening" mode.
"One of the aspects of my visit to Algeria is to improve my understanding of the situation and to find out which terrorist groups are active in the region," he said.
Most diplomats and military strategists say it is imperative that Mali's neighbors, especially Algeria, support or at least do not oppose military action in northern Mali.
"Mauritania and Algeria must involve themselves more fully," opined Foreign Minister of Cote d'Ivoire Daniel Kablan Duncan recently.
Algeria has one of the best equipped armies in the region, shares with Mali an 870-mile border and has had a long experience facing-off with al-Qaida and its affiliates. Mauritania is also a neighboring country, host to tens of thousands of Malian refugees and al-Qaida nemesis.
For a number of reasons, however, Algeria has not been enthusiastic about military intervention in Mali. Anouar Boukhars, a Carnegie Middle East Program scholar, says Algiers' considerations range "from its norm of nonintervention to its wariness about outsider meddling and the spillover of the extremist threat into its territory."
But even before the Clinton trip, several reports have pointed out that Algiers' position was shifting away from opposition to any kind of outside military intervention to something more nuanced. It now favors a double-track approach -- dealing politically with parties amenable to dialogue; but using "all other possible means" against terrorist groups. It is still, however, not interested in deploying troops outside its borders.
Algeria's political dealings could include using its close ties to Iyad Ag Gali, head of Ansar Al Dine, the hard-line pro-al-Qaida militia in northern Mali, to push the latter toward distancing himself from AQIM and the al-0Qaida splinter group, Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa. A number of countries in the region also say the more moderate Tawareq should be part of the solution, now that they have given up their separatist demands.
The dynamics of military intervention are expected to reach full-gear by early next year. On Oct. 12, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted a resolution, stating its willingness to respond, under Chapter VII, "to the request of the transitional authorities of Mali, regarding an international military force assisting the Malian armed forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali."
It gave a 45-day deadline to stakeholders to submit an action report toward this end.
The Economic Community of West African States is not alone anymore in advocating military intervention in northern Mali. Non-ECOWAS neighboring countries are in consultation with each other and with stakeholders and superpowers. On the political as well as on the military and security fronts, the African Union, which has already reinstated Mali as a member-nation, is actively aboard. So are the United Nations and the European Union.
The plan of action is expected to involve holding elections in Mali, first, in order to consolidate sovereignty in the one third of Malian territory not under extremist control, then moving to push AQIM and its allies from the north. Paris magazine Jeune Afrique says a "Somali-model" of intervention is being considered. Several reports state that France, which is expected to lead the campaign, is already providing advisers to Malian troops. It also intends to move unarmed surveillance drones to West Africa from Afghanistan before the end of the year.
Invoking the "Somali model" is not reassuring to many security experts, especially in the Maghreb region.
A number of question marks still remain: Will there be any time soon a central government in Bamako strong enough to lead the fight against pro-al-Qaida forces? What are the guarantees that a military intervention will end quickly or be decisive enough in the inclement terrain of the Sahara? And is the international community ready to face the humanitarian crisis that could ensue?
Some analysts are also worried about possible "blowback". Where will the al-Qaida fighters go and how will they react once they are squeezed out of northern Mali? Abdul Kader Abdur Rahman, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa is not optimistic. "Such a military intervention could have dramatic consequences and create a spillover that will affect not only Mali, but also the entire Sahel and the African continent," he says.
Stirring a hornet's nest never comes with guarantees. But, as other experts have pointed out, tolerating the transformation of northern Mali into a regional and global launch-pad for terrorist and narco-trafficking activities offers even less guarantees. The only certainty is that Maghreb's national security interests require a decisive and concerted approach before the air and land campaign starts in the region's immediate backyard.
(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)