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  • Operation Overseas Series

  •   With Military, U.S. Makes an Overture to Algeria

    By Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 12 1998; Page A01

    The United States has held its first bilateral military exercise with Algeria, part of a quiet effort to build ties that some U.S. diplomats and human rights activists fear may be sending the wrong message to a regime Washington has accused of widespread rights abuses during a seven-year war against Islamic extremists.

    The military overture ends a hands-off policy pursued by the Clinton administration toward Algeria, and follows an assessment by U.S. defense and intelligence agencies that the military-controlled government has gained the advantage against extremists. U.S. officials described the moves as a reward for several recent decisions by Algeria to allow foreign groups to investigate human rights allegations and press censorship.

    The Clinton administration has turned increasingly to the U.S. military to initiate or lead its diplomacy in areas where the civilian foreign policy apparatus lacks access or resources. In the case of Algeria, the Navy is repeating a role it has played in improving bilateral relations with China, Russia, Ukraine, Yemen, Mexico, Chile and Bulgaria, to name a few.

    There are no American plans to help Algeria fight the war against Islamist radicals, which has claimed between 75,000 and 120,000 lives, U.S. officials said. Instead, they said the initiative was a cautious first step toward better relations.

    "We do something periodically to show that we're not anti-military," said Ronald E. Neumann, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to Algeria until 1997. "But we're not going to get close to them or join their war until we're sure they are for reform and the human rights situation gets better."

    Human rights advocates, some U.S. diplomats and other Algeria experts fear that hard-liners in the Algerian military are still in a position to quash what political pluralism has survived since 1992, when the government canceled elections and banned the leading opposition party. The new U.S. approach, they said, could lead hard-liners to believe they have Washington's tacit backing.

    "This is a bad move," said John Entelis, an Algerian expert at Fordham University. "The situation is so fluid. There's so much uncertainty. It's a mistake when we're perceived to be on one side, when an even-handed approach is cost-free to us."

    In August, Adm. Thomas J. Lopez, then commander-in-chief of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, became the first high-ranking American officer to visit Algiers. On Oct. 4, the U.S. and Algerian navies conducted a small search-and-rescue exercise in the Mediterranean, their first bilateral exercise since Algerian independence in 1962.

    The Algerian military responded with requests for more exercises and training. It invited U.S. officers on a tour of two air force training centers, began negotiations on U.S. submarine transit rights and offered use of a large training range for U.S. warplanes, according to several U.S. military officials.

    "Certainly there is an interest in having a closer relationship with the U.S. military in terms of training and their experience," said Ramtane Lamamra, Algeria's ambassador to the United States. "I think there will be an increase in training."

    While private U.S. investment in Algeria stands at $2 billion, mostly in the oil and natural gas industries, until this year U.S. direct aid amounted to $61,000 in international military education and training program (IMET) funds.

    This year officials doubled the IMET program to $125,000. Washington approved the commercial sale of a radar control system and agreed to allow the Algerians to buy more U.S. military training through the expanded-IMET program, which focuses on nonlethal training for mid-level officers.

    U.S. officials went ahead with the exercises after Algeria allowed a United Nations human rights commission into the country for a much-restricted, but first, visit. The government in Algiers also permitted the Committee to Protect Journalists in to investigate press censorship. Six parliamentarians, including several from opposition parties, participated in a U.S.-funded visit to study the U.S. political system.

    "Algeria, in my view, is turning the corner," said Lopez, who favored the exercise as part of his strategy to increase U.S. military engagement in the Mediterranean. The exercise "is an indication that if there is possible change, we'd like to be a part of it."

    The U.S. military involvement and the reception it received in Algiers are in contrast to modest diplomatic efforts -- infrequent visits to the region by senior State Department officials and routine dialogue with U.S. Embassy representatives -- that have failed to earn Washington leverage with the regime, U.S. officials said. "There's a vague notion that we should have some sort of a plan, but no one knows what to do," said a State Department official involved in formulating policy toward Algeria.

    For three decades after its independence from France, Algeria was a one-party socialist state, dominated by the military, that promoted social welfare programs, developed its oil and natural gas industry and was nearly self-sufficient in food production. In the late 1980s, it set a course of political and economic liberalization. But in 1992, as the largest fundamentalist organization, the Islamic Salvation Front, was poised to win elections, the government canceled the vote, outlawed the Front and jailed many of its leaders.

    The country plunged into civil war. A campaign of terror by the extremists has included the torture and mutilation of women and children and the annihilation of villages in the northern half of the country.

    The government responded by turning its 125,000-man armed forces, the second-largest on the African continent, and its 150,000 paramilitary troops into a counterinsurgency force. It created and armed neighborhood-based, self-defense groups that have become an important intelligence network, according to U.S. defense analysts.

    In the last 18 months, there has been a significant drop in the number of killings as weakened Islamist armed groups have shifted from large-scale attacks to smaller bombings of markets and other public places. But the fighting has by no means ended. Some self-defense groups have engaged in indiscriminate killings and the military allegedly has abetted massacres. In the first two weeks of October, 215 people were killed, including 83 by government forces in a major sweep of the Ain Defla province, according to U.S. sources.

    "The security forces carried out extrajudicial killings . . . routinely tortured or otherwise abused detainees, and arbitrarily arrested and detained or held incommunicado many individuals suspected of involvement with armed Islamist groups," according to the State Department's latest human rights report, published in January. "On some occasions, security forces failed to intervene to prevent or halt massacres of civilians. Questions have been raised about security forces' indifference to, or complicity in, civilian deaths."

    The Algerian government denies the charges.

    The United States has avoided involvement in the war. More than 24 Algerian air force officers have been trained in various U.S. Air Force schools since 1993, but Washington refuses to sell Algeria needed replacements for its Soviet-built MiG fighter jets. According to one knowledgeable U.S. official, the Algerians have used their MiGs to mark targets for other planes that drop napalm on extremist bases. This month Algeria took possession of 12 of 39 MiG-29s it bought recently from Belarus.

    France is said to supply the Algerian military with intelligence, training and logistics. U.S. intelligence agencies monitor ground movements from satellites and other overhead means, but do not share the data with the Algerians, officials said.

    U.S. officials acknowledge that they do not know much about the workings of the regime or about whether the hard-liners or a more moderate faction is in control. Nor do they know with any certainty why President Liamine Zeroual, considered more favorable to a pluralistic form of government than the military, said he is leaving office early.

    Some experts believe Zeroual is being pushed out by the military, which considers him soft on political opponents. Others believe there are significant factions within the military that support political reform and want Zeroual gone because he is tainted by allegations of corruption. Elections are set for April but no government-backed candidate has yet emerged.

    "This is a very, very dicey period in Algeria," said William Quandt, an expert on Algeria and a National Security Council staff member in the Carter administration. "Things could get worse; they could get better." Increasing military contacts as a way to encourage the military to allow greater political freedoms is a gamble, he said, but it may be worth it. "It's something that has an unpleasant taste until you've succeeded."

    The decision to conduct a bilateral exercise was taken in consultation with U.S. Ambassador to Algeria Cameron Hume and was discussed at length at the assistant secretary of state level, Neumann said. "We picked the search-and-rescue exercise precisely because it has nothing to do with the war," he said.

    On Oct. 3, Algerian and U.S. naval officers met at the Algerian Maritime Authority headquarters in Algiers to plan the one-day exercise involving the USS Mitscher, a destroyer, and a P-3 surveillance aircraft. The next day, about 450 sailors, including 80 Algerians on two Algerian coastal patrol boats, spent the day 25 miles off the western resort town of Sidi Fredj searching for a dummy, supposedly an overboard fisherman.

    Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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