The hostage crisis seems to be winding down after a final assault by Algerian forces killed or scattered most of the remaining jihadis occupying the gas processing plant in the south of the country. As of this morning, 23 hostages were reported killed, with the number likely to rise as authorities begin to identify the 20 or so remaining charred corpses.
There has been a lot of criticism of Algeria’s decision so far, as the New York Times reports:
The Algerian government has been relatively silent since the start of the crisis, releasing few details. The government faced withering international criticism for rushing ahead with its first assault on the militants on Thursday even as governments whose citizens were trapped inside the plant pleaded for more time, fearing that rescue attempts might lead to workers dying. The Algerians responded by saying they had a better understanding of how to handle militants after fighting Islamist insurgents for years.
Clearly, rescue operations that lead to the death of the hostages you were trying to save can’t be hailed as unqualified success stories, but Via Meadia thinks it’s probably prudent to let the dust settle before making any sweeping statements about whether the Algerians acted wisely in this case. Given the circumstances, we’re likely to give the Algerians some benefit of the doubt.
Over 100,000 Algerians have been killed in the vicious fight with terrorists over the years, and the country still seethes with ethnic and religious tensions. France, the UK and the U.S. touched off this latest round of violence, first with the poorly planned, poorly executed and poorly followed-through invasion of Libya, and then with France’s invasion of Mali. Algeria is hardly a disinterested party in this broader conflict. It’s a bit rich for the countries who did so much to make this mess without consulting Algeria’s wishes to start criticizing Algeria for a “unilateral” action on its own territory. And, frankly, it would be difficult for Algeria to do anything as incompetent as the clueless Libya intervention; France, the United States and Britain had no idea what they were getting into and even now have no real strategy for cleaning up the mess our clueless humanitarians left behind.
Furthermore, Algerian officials may have been more worried that failure to act decisively would increase the political strength of the terrorists and potentially rekindle a broader war in Algeria than they were about saving the lives of some foreign hostages. While this attitude might rankle foreign governments, it’s hardly beyond the pale. In our mind it’s an open question whether you do more to discourage future terror attacks and save innocent lives by negotiating endlessly and patiently with kidnappers and hostage takers. Maybe the Algerians are right; if terrorists knew that hostage taking couldn’t protect them, we might see fewer hostages taken and fewer such attacks in the future.
Regardless, given how the Libyan afterparty has turned out, the Europeans, the Algerians and the Americans now have a much uglier and more dangerous mess on their hands, and like it or not we are in this thing together. Good relations with Algeria are essential if Libya, Mali, Niger and perhaps a number of other countries aren’t to become sanctuaries and operational platforms for west hating jihadis. Let the military work quietly with their Algerian colleagues behind the scenes to think about lessons learned and best practice for the confrontations that are sure to follow. Sharp public criticism of a government that is fighting a terror attack in its own territory is not the best way to launch an era of good feelings.