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Opinion

Attacks in Mali, Libya, Algeria show why Africa still needs US support

Attacks by Islamist insurgents on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, at a gas plant in Algeria, and in Mali expose several reasons for persistent security weakness across Africa. For one thing, many countries are too poor to supply the funds and soldiers for regional peace efforts.

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Third, political disagreements among neighboring states weaken regional cooperation. In southern Africa, where the former liberation movements now in government have been reluctant to criticize each other, the region has failed to rein in Zimbabwe’s autocrat Robert Mugabe. Farther north, a simmering dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the former’s territorial claim to the Western Sahara – which Algeria rejects – has prevented tighter counter-terrorism cooperation between the two most influential powers in the region.

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Geography affects the security of North Africa in another way. Insurgent groups and terrorists are finding haven in the semi-arid region of the Sahel, the vast transitional zone that stretches across North Africa and separates the Sahara Desert to the north from grassland savannahs. Uprooting those insurgents requires operating in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Troops from tropical sub-Saharan countries are ill-suited to the conditions of the Sahel.

Countries undergoing a dramatic political transition need sustained international support. Democratization in North Africa, like efforts to build effective governments in crisis states like Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, pose a riddle: Which is more important in thwarting insurgencies – security or economic and social development?

It is close to a false choice. Both are equally vital in creating the space for new governments to take root and civil society to flourish. Benghazi is only the latest consequence of unrealistic security expectations that the international community – in this case the United States – imposes on fledgling governments.

Since 9/11 the US has worried that “ungoverned spaces” – broad, sparsely populated areas far from national capitals – could function as portals for extremism in Africa. It now seems they do. Concentrated initially in East Africa, the elements of transnational terrorism have gradually spread across the Sahel, where they have found havens among cross-border smugglers and traditional nomadic groups.

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