AQIM: Western-Sahelian Cooperation Deepening

In recent days General Carter Ham of the United States’ Africa Command (AFRICOM) and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe have both visited Mauritania, signaling a positive Western response to Mauritania’s recent offensives against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as a continuation of the trend toward deeper cooperation between Western and Sahelian governments on counterterrorism. Mauritania, which has undertaken the most aggressive military campaign of the three Sahelian countries most affected by AQIM (the others are Mali and Niger), is receiving the lion’s share of the attention right now, but visits by top Western officials come as the entire region is asking for outside help.

AFP reports on Gen. Ham’s trip:

“I congratulated him for the success of the Mauritanian army in its fight against AQIM, in collaboration with Mali and other countries in the region,” Ham said after a meeting with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott.

The general, who has been in the capital since Sunday, also welcomed the Mauritanian peoples’ rejection of the north African Al-Qaeda branch, and committed to work to “advance security co-operation between America and Mauritania.”

ANI (Ar) reports on Juppe’s trip to Nouakchott, which spanned Sunday and Monday. Juppe met with Abdel Aziz and affirmed French “solidarity” with Mauritania on counterterrorism. CBS adds that Juppe combined praise for Mauritania with pressure on other goverments:

Juppe told reporters on his visit to Nouakchott that Mauritania has “led an exemplary fight.” He said France wishes other nations in the Sahel “would be more engaged.”

Juppe and Abdel Aziz also discussed the crisis in Libya, an issue with broad political significance in the Sahel as well as direct significance – in terms of potential movement of Libyan weapons to AQIM – for counterterrorism.

Mauritania’s government is not the only one in the region exploring a deeper partnership with the West. Niger’s President Mamadou Issoufou recently visited France (Fr), and the crisis in Libya and security issues were major themes in his meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mali, though Western powers have sometimes seen its government as less willing to engage fully in counterterrorism, has partnered with Mauritania in recent efforts against AQIM. Malian-Mauritanian relations have recovered substantially from the low they hit in February 2010 when Mauritania recalled its ambassador from Mali in protest over the latter’s engagement in negotiations with AQIM.

Mauritania, Mali, and Niger may not be on exactly the same page when it comes to AQIM, but they are moving toward greater cooperation. Regional cooperation may in turn facilitate deeper partnerships with the West. The existence of such partnerships is not new – all three countries have participated in US training exercises and counterterrorism programs for years, and all three are planning to attend a summit in Algeria this September where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend – but the degree of cooperation seems to be increasing. That could have diverse implications for Sahelian counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel: on the one hand, stronger partnerships with the West could enhance local military capacity; on the other hand, perceptions of ever stronger political ties to the West could generate local political opposition. For now, though, the Mauritanian military’s star seems to be rising, both overseas and within the region.

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