Mauritania shows risks in US strategy

DAKAR — When it comes to fighting militants in Africa, choosing allies is a risky business.
Soldiers who overthrew Mauritania’s president this month may have ended 21 years of authoritarian rule and triggered dancing in the streets, but they also deprived the United States of a key ally in its “war on terror”.

Maaouyia Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya assiduously curried Washington’s favour in the later years of his rule, shifting support from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to Israel and the United States in a stunning diplomatic about-turn. He made Mauritania only the third member of the Arab League to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel and leapt at the chance to jail scores of Islamist critics in the name of the “war on terror.” The strategy may have won him friends in Washington but it infuriated many in a country straddling black and Arab Africa, who say it played a large part in contributing to his demise.

“Mauritanians were never consulted. It was a major bone of contention,” Cheikh Ould Horma, an opposition leader imprisoned twice under Taya’s rule, told Reuters, adding that the policy left Mauritania ostracised both in Africa and among Arabs. Washington appeared wrong footed when Taya fell, initially calling for his return but later — realising the extent of popular opinion in the Islamic republic — saying it was prepared to work with “the guys running the country right now.”

“The United States, which had been far too closely associated with supporting the former regime, took the opportunity to back away from a former client now clearly on the losing side,” said Olly Owen, Africa analyst at economic and political research group Global Insight. “It was a function of the very shallow knowledge among some of those making US policy. They are pursuing very short term goals,” he said.

Washington’s radar

Fearing militant Islamic groups could be broadening their base in West Africa’s vast, weakly governed tracts of desert, Washington has been courting nations in the region, offering military training in return for help in hunting down extremists.

While the United States has a more permanent presence in Djibouti where troops are stationed to deny militants access to the Horn of Africa in the east of the continent, West African states like Niger, Mali and Chad are increasingly on Washington’s radar.

But analysts say the coup against Taya reveals the risks of backing leaders who play up the risk of militant activity as an excuse to clamp down on legitimate opponents with no connection to terrorism.

Mauritanian authorities had said the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a movement allied to Al Qaeda, is recruiting Mauritanian youths to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. US military officials have said they fear the GSPC is trying to broaden its base in countries around the Sahara Desert after a posting on an Islamist website said it had killed 15 Mauritanian soldiers in an attack on a remote outpost in June. But some analysts had warned that Taya was taking advantage of the US-led fight against terrorism to oppress opponents and said that there was barely any evidence of a terrorist threat. “They had nothing to do with terrorism,” said Mohameden Ould Ichidou, a lawyer who defended some of those imprisoned.

“They used mosques to speak out against the tyranny of Taya’s dictatorship. That is a normal thing to do in a Muslim society.”

Shifting sands

Burned by the sudden loss of a regional ally, US military officials are being cautious as they consider how to rebuild a strategy in Mauritania around leaders not yet tried or tested. “We’re waiting for a return to constitutional order. We’re very much following the lead of the African Union on this,” said a US official when asked if military training might resume.

The 53-nation African Union suspended Mauritania after the takeover saying it did not agree with coups in principle but has said it is ready to work with the new government to ensure a return to constitutional rule.

The military junta that seized power has appointed a civilian prime minister as head of a caretaker government and promised democratic presidential elections within two years. The new prime minister told Reuters last week that Mauritania, which is due to start pumping oil next year, set great store by its relations with the United States and was committed to the fight against terrorism.

But the new rulers have also made clear that being an Islamist activist who voices a strong political opinion is not tantamount to extremism, a distinction which some in the country accuse the West of blurring too readily.

Days after taking power, the junta ordered the release of around 20 Islamist activists jailed by Taya, who were met by hundreds of jubilant people honking their car horns as they walked free across a sandy square.

“Islamist politicians are very popular in Mauritania. They are centrist, not violent. They suffered a lot of injustice under Taya, they have been humiliated,” said Mohamed Limam Ould Sidi Mohamed, a university student who watched the release.

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