Algerian forces train to fight jihadists

Jan. 7, 2013 at 12:25 PM
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ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Algeria, North Africa's military heavyweight, is reported to be intensifying counterinsurgency training for its army and air force amid moves by African states to mount a U.N.-approved offensive against jihadists in northern Mali.

There has been no sign the Algerian government plans to participate, or possibly spearhead, in the multinational military campaign against the Islamic militants expected to be unleashed in the coming months.

It seems more likely that the stepped-up training and an ongoing tightening of Algeria's 1,200-mile border with Mali, as well as the frontiers with Libya and Tunisia, indicates Algiers is preparing to prevent any spillover of the looming conflict into Algerian territory.

There's not likely to be an offensive until September at the earliest and the African forces face formidable challenges in the difficult desert terrain against an agile, well-armed foe.

The military-backed Algerian government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is engaged in battling Islamists at home and has repeatedly ruled out any direct involvement in the proposed offensive into Mali involving forces of member states of the African Union.

Algiers doesn't want foreign forces on its territory, particularly troops from France, the former colonial power against whom Algerians fought a bloody independence war from 1954-62.

Algeria also fears the proposed offensive, if it ever gets off the ground, could drive the jihadists who seized two-thirds of neighboring Mali last March, into Algerian territory to reinforce those operating there.

The web site reports that Algeria's defense ministry ordered ground forces to reinforce the southern border regions deep in the Sahara Desert, particularly the provinces of Adrar, Tamanrasset and Illizi, in early December.

"The decision was made as part of arrangements made by Algeria's security agencies to prepare for any possible military action by African forces in northern Mali," said.

The Algerian daily Al Khabar reported that the military, the paramilitary national gendarmerie and special operations units "have trained all month in ways to conduct large-scale battles against armed groups."

One element of this plan to is to crack down hard on groups that provide the jihadists with logistics, funds and intelligence, such as narcotics smugglers, gunrunners and nomadic Tuareg tribes with which al-Qaida's North African branch often has ties through marriage.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is based in Algeria, forms the core of the constantly growing jihadist force in northern Mali. It's been entrenched there since a military coup in Bamako, Mali's capital, brought about the collapse of Mali's army last March.

On Dec. 21, the U.N. Security Council approved the deployment of an all-African force to retake northern Mali.

Regional and Western power fear that in jihadist hands it will become a launching pad for terrorist operations across the region and in Europe across the Mediterranean as has happened in the past with groups from Algeria.

The U.N. decision followed weeks of disagreement between France, the former colonial power which favors urgent military action, and the United States.

Washington has reservations about the prospects for a multinational African force, even if heavily supported by U.S. intelligence and command-and-control facilities.

In the last few days, the Algerians are reported to have given their tacit approval for an African-led campaign and agreed that foreign troops will be needed to give the offensive any chance of success.

Even so, Algeria's reluctance to join the offensive deprives the proposed African force of troops well seasoned in combating insurgents.

Algeria battled throughout the 1990s against an Islamist insurrection and the diehard groups that fought on after the civil war petered out, leaving a death toll estimated at 200,000.

It's not clear how the proposed African force will be composed.

The Economic Community of West African states has pledged to provide 3,300 troops headed by Nigeria.

But the Americans argue the desert terrain of northern Mali, an area the size of France, will be more suited to armies from non-Ecowas states, such as Chad and Mauritania where U.S. Special Forces have trained counterinsurgency units.

Algeria prefers a negotiated settlement in Mali. But with the government there weak and unable to fend for itself, and the jihadists unlikely to agree to negotiations, there seems no prospect of that for the time being.

Meantime, the political wrangling has given AQIM and its allies time to dig in.

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