Fortress Algeria

Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. Egyptian prot
Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. Egyptian protesters, largely ultra conservative Islamists, have climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, went into the courtyard and brought down the flag, replacing it with a black flag with Islamic inscription, in protest of a film deemed offensive of Islam. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

Algeria is a country that is often overlooked in the U.S., and Algerians like it that way. A popular saying in Algiers, the capital, is la bonne vie est la vie cachée. But Algeria has become an important component of U.S. foreign policy. On the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the group responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate mission in Benghazi, Libya may be linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda affiliate that controls a large part of northern Mali. If true, then there is an al Qaeda haven in northern Mali fueling jihadi terrorism in Libya, and Algeria is squarely in the middle.

The U.S. is well aware of Algeria's centrality and would like it to play a greater regional role. In fact, General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM, was in Algiers on 30 September and the U.S. will launch its U.S.-Algeria strategic dialogue on 19 October, just one week after Secretary Clinton is expected to give a speech about North African stability in Washington.

To understand why the U.S. sees Algeria as such an attractive solution to North African and Saharan instability, and to understand how many Algerians view their own country, it is useful to sketch a rough portrait. To start with geography, it is simply a vast country, about five times the size of France. With the division of Sudan in 2011, Algeria became Africa's largest country in terms of landmass and the tenth largest country in the world. The distance from Algiers on the Mediterranean coast to Algeria's southern border is longer than the distance from Algiers to London. Algeria's border with Mali in the Sahara is 800 miles long -- about the distance from New York City to Chicago.

In addition to being big, Algeria is rich. In a 2012 ranking of countries according to their foreign exchange reserves, Algeria ranked twelfth in the world, with $200 billion. This puts it just behind Germany and ahead of France. But unlike France or Germany, Algeria has only $4 billion of external debt, or roughly 3 percent of GDP. France's external debt is 182 percent of GDP and Germany's is 142 percent and their GDPs are considerably larger than Algeria's.

Almost all of Algeria's wealth is due to hydrocarbons. Algeria's state-owned oil and gas company is the tenth largest oil company in the world according to proven reserves. It reported 2011 revenues of $72 billion. It exports 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day and Algerian natural gas accounts for almost 20 percent of EU gas imports.

For the most part, hydrocarbons revenue supports the economy, but the money also goes to buy weapons. Algeria ranks sixteenth in the world in defense spending as a percentage of its budget and spends more per year in dollar terms on defense spending than Pakistan or Iraq. And while the military was once a prominent political force, especially during the 1990s, Algeria's current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has professionalized the army, moving it out of the halls of the presidential palace and back into the barracks.

Algeria's military is also battle hardened, having fought a bloody Islamist insurgency throughout the 1990s. Not only did Algeria face conventional guerrilla threats, but it countered terrorism in the form of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its predecessors. And it did so successfully, reducing AQIM in Algeria to an ineffectual organization.

As if this -- a large, wealthy country with a powerful military that has experience combating terrorism -- was not enough, Algeria is even more attractive to the U.S. as a potential regional partner because it stably navigated the events of the Arab Spring. There are different theories why Algeria did not have an Arab Spring but whatever the reason, President Bouteflika remained in power and he steered the country through parliamentary elections in May 2012.

But despite -- or maybe because of -- all these attributes, the U.S. is unlikely to be able to enlist Algeria's support in eradicating AQIM from northern Mali and in combating jihadi groups in Libya. The reasons for Algeria's hesitancy range from the ideological to the pragmatic.

First, the principle of non-interference is at the core of Algeria's foreign policy. Simply put, Algeria does not interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. The policy is a legacy of Algeria's colonial experience, where after 132 years of French occupation (1830-1962), Algeria saw itself as the standard bearer of the sovereign rights of nations. Algeria most recently invoked the principle during the early stages of the NATO-supported rebellion in Libya. Algeria was no friend of the Gaddafi regime, but non-interference was sacrosanct and Algeria voiced its opposition to foreign intervention.

Algeria also subscribes to the Pottery Barn Rule -- you break it, you own it. Even though it opposed foreign intervention, it hoped that Libya would quickly transition to stable democratic polity, all the while knowing that Libya would likely succumb to volatility and that weapons flowing out of Libya would end up in AQIM's hands. In short, Algeria holds NATO responsible for the instability that now surrounds it and it does not see it as its responsibility to clean up a mess that was not its making.

Algeria's unwillingness to directly confront the situations in Mali and Libya is also in part driven by its experience during the 1990s when it was fighting its own violent Islamist insurgency. Over the next decade, the insurgency resulted in approximately 150,000 deaths. Algeria felt that it was only after the attacks of September 11, 2001 that the U.S. acknowledged the steep challenges it had faced combating terrorism. The U.S. was ten years too late in 2001 and it is twenty years too late to come asking for Algiers' help in Libya and Mali now.

Lastly, Algeria has immediate life-and-death concerns. In April 2012, an offshoot of AQIM kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in northern Mali. On 2 September 2012, the group claimed to have executed one of the diplomats. The three others are allegedly still being held hostage (three had been released in the summer). Algeria is no stranger to the loss of life among its diplomatic corps. In 2005, al Qaeda in the Lands of Mesopotamia murdered two Algerian diplomats in Iraq. Algeria is sympathetic to the need to capture those responsible for the Benghazi attacks, but it is also mindful that its own diplomats are still in harm's way.

One of the consequences of French colonization and the 1990s insurgency was that Algeria learned to be truly independent and it has adopted a "fortress" attitude ever since. Bad things may happen on the other side of the border, but Algeria's priority is to keep them out. And the U.S. has little leverage to lure Algeria over its borders. The sooner the U.S. recognizes this, the sooner it can concentrate on more viable solutions to the challenges in Libya and the Sahara-Sahel that rely on the governments in Bamako, Niamey, Nouakchott and Tripoli, rather than Algiers.