U.S. must respond to Algeria’s bloodshed

A quick Internet search using the keyword “Algiers” reveals two links next to each other. One is a Reuters news report on the recent brutal killings; the other is a tourist guide for Americans. The juxtaposition of these two links sums up America’s relationship with that troubled country. In the sun-drenched streets of the former French colony and American tourist destination, children’s throats are being cut by the thousand.
In 1992, the Algerian government cancelled an election in which Islamic religious parties were sure to win. Since then, the struggles between the government and the Algerian people have resulted in an official death toll of 26,000. Unofficial estimates push that figure up to 80,000. Western intelligence sources have scant evidence as to who is behind the slaughter. The government says the killings are being carried out by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups, while former Algerian government officials say it’s a power struggle between retired general President Liamine Zeroual and the commanders of Algeria’s military security service. In any event, Algeria’s almost 28 million Muslims are caught in a growing spiral of terror and violence.
The recent terrorist attacks take place within the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends tonight. Ramadan is a time for fasting and spiritual purification, but for Algeria it has for several years been a time of escalated violence. Algerian officials point to the timing of the attacks as evidence of religious extremism. But the government raises international suspicion by closing Algeria’s borders to observers from the United Nations, the European Union, human rights organizations or even Western news agencies. At least some of the violence is certainly state-sponsored. With so many victims, almost all of them civilians, there is blood enough for many hands. Both the government and the Islamic parties tell the world that the other one is behind the terror, and that terrorism must be crushed.
Cracking down on terrorism is exactly the policy stance the United States should take while determining whether the Algerian government itself is not a terrorist group. The United States, in conjunction with its European partners and the United Nations, is obligated to fight international terrorism. Americans are all too ready to believe that Muslim boogeymen lurk behind every act of terror. But they know very little about the Algerian government, and U.S. foreign policy must be ready to accept that the real terrorists in Algeria might be its governors. If the military regime there is sponsoring terror, U.S. economic ties to Algeria must not blind us to this fact.
Algeria’s oil production and agricultural sectors are closely linked to the U.S. economy. This nation has a stake in Algeria’s future. As such, the United States has an interest in ending the suffering there. Military action is probably futile, but our European allies have all but written Algeria off. They go too far, and U.S. diplomats should push for European and Arab help in ending the bloodshed. Backing European and Arab demands for negotiations with America’s ability to impose economic sanctions or dispense military punishment can make a settlement possible, no matter who the terrorists are.