Joseph McMillan, who serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Obama administration (biography here), recently met with Algerian officials to discuss US counterterrorism policy in the Sahel. His remarks at a press conference afterward give us some insight into how Washington’s approach to the region is evolving.
First, McMillan stressed that Algeria and its allies will take the lead in the Sahel, with some support from Washington:
“It is my view that the problem of terrorism is best dealt with by the countries that are the most affected. Intervention by outsiders, especially the use of force by outsiders, needs to be a last resort,” said [McMillan].
McMillan made his comments to journalists in Algiers after two days of what he called “very productive” talks with Algerian authorities.
“It is very much the preference of my country to help countries like Algeria take the lead and deal with the problem in their own region,” said McMillan, who complimented Algeria’s defense ministry for taking “the intitiative to bring together the countries of the region to try to create a unified response to the threat.”
Ennahar adds that McMillan weighed in against ransom payments to AQIM.
He stressed that the U.S. government has a “clear position” on the criminalization of the act of paying ransoms, saying that “no concessions should be made” to terrorist groups.
Finally, El Watan (French) emphasizes the atmosphere of US-Algerian cooperation that reigned during the press conference. El Watan writes that McMillan “remained vague on the question of acquisition of military equipment by Algeria,” perhaps meaning that US military assistance to Algeria is increasing. In any case, McMillan pointed to the two countries’ “common objectives and interests.”
McMillan’s visit and his remarks afterward do not signal major changes in US policy toward the Sahel, but it does seem to me that US interest in AQIM is increasing. The idea of American military involvement in the Sahel has been floating around since at least 2003, and the Pentagon does have several training programs in the region (see Operation Flintlock). So I am not surprised that McMillan would mention the remote possibility of a larger intervention. More significant perhaps is the focus on Algeria. The more that the US involves itself in Sahelian counterterrorism efforts, the more it will have to negotiate regional politics. That could prove complicated.\
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