OPINION
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Mali and its neighbors

The challenge is to foster regional stability of the kind Afghanistan has never enjoyed

The French military mission in Mali has popularized the view of that country as a potential Afghanistan in the Sahara, uncomfortably close to Europe. It is likewise tempting to think of Algeria as the Pakistan of the zone: touchy, influential and untrustworthy. And of the West African neighbors as the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia: vulnerable, ethnically linked with Afghanistan, and incapable of playing a role in the conflict. These comparisons are attractive, but may be deceptive: with due caution, the Sahel countries may prove more favorable to the stabilization of Mali than Central Asia has been for Afghanistan.

Mali and Afghanistan share many factors: undeveloped, landlocked, porous frontiers, at the center of regional tensions. They are fragile states that cannot impose their control on the whole of their territory -- in the remoter parts of which networks trafficking in people, arms and drugs pay tribute to radical insurgencies, which regroup there and plan their next international moves.

The differences, however, are important. Physical geography (the vast open desert is not the same as the Afghan mountains); the colonial legacy; the recent history; the composition of the population, and its traditional relation with radical interpretations of Islam.

If France can allay the suspicions of Algeria, then the regional context may lead to progressive stabilization

While the Islamic schools of Pakistan are and were the source of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, we cannot understand the outbreak of radical Islamism in Mali without taking into account the brutal Algerian civil war and its derivatives. Algeria and Pakistan act as regional powers, linked by trans-frontier peoples (the Tuareg, the Pashtun) with their fragile neighbors. In Algeria and Pakistan alike, the military control all the chief strings of power and money. Their secret services constitute a world apart, with opaque links with the same radicals they say they are combating. Both countries share a paternal yet distrustful attitude to their unruly neighbors; they fear that the regional archenemy (Morocco, India) may exploit the chaos on their opposite border; they are extremely distrustful of Western intervention; and, above all, they share the certainty of their own vulnerability to those same radicals in the domestic ambit.

But to pursue the comparison too far is to forget Algeria's mediating role in the cessation of conflicts with the Tuareg in Mali in 1995 and 2009; its suspicion of the troublemaking role of Gaddafi's Libya; and its relative international and military independence.

As for the other neighbors, we cannot equate the irrelevance of Afghan neighbors such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan -- concerned only with avoiding contagion in their own countries -- with the proactive role played by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which first came to the fore in managing the crisis caused by the March 2012 coup in Mali, and has now joined the international military mission by sending troops from Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Ivory Coast, Niger, Senegal and Togo. The Mali government's call for help, and the regional reaction of an ECOWAS that now has solid experience in handling crises, constitute a solid starting point, reinforced by a UN Security Council resolution.

The regional dimension may be the key to solving the conflict, apart from the present military phase. If France can allay the suspicions of Algeria -- an old hand in the struggle against the same radical groups, well connected with the Tuareg, and always distrustful of French intentions in Africa -- and integrate it into a regional solution; and if the ECOWAS consensus can be rounded out by that of the Arab states of the Maghreb, then the regional context may lead to progressive stabilization. Beneath the radar of international attention, West Africa has been equipping itself with proven crisis management mechanisms unknown in some other regions. For all its fragility, Mali may find in its African neighbors the support necessary for the stability that Afghanistan has never had.

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