Algeria hostage crisis: frustration for US military, and maybe regrets

A disastrous hostage rescue effort by Algeria's military this week underscores the Pentagon's difficulties in working with its counterparts in parts of Africa. But the US can't criticize too loudly: It needs Algeria as an ally to fight terrorism in the region.

By , Staff writer

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    Rescued hostages hug each other in Ain Amenas, Algeria, in this image taken from television Friday. Algeria’s state news service says nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from a gas plant where Islamist militants had held them captive for three days.
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The disastrous hostage rescue effort by the Algerian military this week – in which innocents appear, among other things, to have been accidentally strafed by government helicopter fire – is a stark reminder of the limits of US crisis intervention and of the challenges the Pentagon faces in working with its counterparts in parts of Africa.

The Pentagon is reported to have volunteered use of its hostage rescue teams for the mission. But the Algerian military apparently shrugged off this offer and forged ahead with its operation before informing any governments whose citizens were captive, including the United States and Britain.

On this point, the Algerian government seemed cavalier. “An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded,” said the country’s communications minister. 

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This approach frustrates US military commanders, who are nonetheless refraining from harsh critiques of Algeria, at least publicly. That’s because the Pentagon needs Algerian support against the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM), which is operating in the region. 

“One thing that is clear: There will not be a satisfactory solution in Mali without Algeria’s participation,” Gen. Carter Ham, who heads US Africa Command, said at a recent news conference.

The difficulty is that the Algerian military, which runs the government, has few incentives to help with the campaign against AQIM, which uses northern Mali as a base of operations.

“Some people are using the Afghanistan analogy for Mali. If that’s the case, then you can think of Algeria as Pakistan,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Anfari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “Algeria is necessary as part of any solution to what’s going on in Mali, but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that what’s going in northern Mali, Algeria is allowing to occur.”

Many AQIM leaders are veteran fighters from Algeria’s civil war who have moved south into northern Mali. “And in many cases, the Algerian government was happy for them to move on,” Mr. Pham says. What’s more, the logistical supply chain of these extremists “would be pretty nonexistent without Algeria,” he adds.

All this has made it tough for Mali's military to defeat the insurgents. The US military has provided training to Malian forces – prior to a March 2012 military coup there that made it illegal under US policy to do so – but none of this training included counterinsurgency instruction.

The reason for that omission was largely political. “Where US policymakers in general may have dropped the ball is that during the period the US military was training Malian forces, we were so desperate for an African success story of any kind that certain parts of the [US government] willfully or subconsciously ignored mounting evidence that all was not well” with Mali's government, Pham says.

This evidence included growing corruption under the democratically elected president and indications that he was engaged in drug smuggling.

Though much has been made of the fact that the US military trained the commander who overthrew Mali's president, the use of the term “training” in this instance is a bit exaggerated, says Pham.

“It’s not like he went to school to be a lieutenant; he went to language school in Texas to be trained as an interpreter,” he says. The military career of the coup's leader, Capt. Aya Sanogo, wasn’t stellar within Mali’s previous government, analysts say, noting that he had been a captain for some 10 years, hardly a record of rapid promotion through the ranks.

For the most part, the US military focused on training Mali's elite units, many of whom remained loyal and died defending the elected president.

The US military training they did not receive, however, is the training they could have used most: counterinsurgency. 

“As a result of decisions made at the US civilian level – and everyone certifying that Mali is a wonderful democracy – of course they’re not going to train for counterinsurgency. The response would be, ‘Everyone loves it there, so why would you train them from COIN [counterinsurgency operations]?' ” says Pham. “Yet that’s exactly the training they needed – otherwise maybe they wouldn’t be doing so poorly” against AQIM now.

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