The West faces a serious dilemma on the African continent as French forces begin the process of withdrawing troops from Mali in April. As the New York Times noted this week, French troops were critical in routing Al Qaeda-linked militants from the northeastern part of the country, where the extremists had managed to conquer a territory the size of France itself and subject the population to a reign of terror. The enclave was fast becoming a bastion of support for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other affiliated groups below the Sahara—whose growth on the African continent poses one of the most grave terror threats to global security today.
The reason for Western concerns about French withdrawal is that the coalition of African armies with whom they are now allied lack the capacity to hold the territory on their own. “No amount of exercise or training in the next couple weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali,” U.S. counterterrorism specialist Benjamin P. Nickels told the Times. And so at precisely the time when most Western governments wish to reduce their military commitments abroad in light of trying economic circumstances, they face pressure to do the opposite.
This problem, in turn, is only part of a larger challenge Europe and the United States face in Africa, a continent which, though formidable, poses opportunities as well as risks. As Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson noted in a statement earlier this year, “It is my firm belief that Africa represents the next global economic frontier. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to weather the global economic crisis more successfully than other regions, and is home to six—and soon to be seven—of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.” Yet he also noted in substance that American entrepreneurs lack the knowledge base and network on the continent to take advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile, elites in the U.S. private sector have observed that foreign direct investment in Africa, while promising in terms of its potential to develop and enrich the continent and investors, could easily be reversed through capital flight should Al-Qaeda gains imperil the security of multinational installations.
In order to scale back military commitments, strengthen indigenous military capabilities, and benefit from the business opportunities Africa poses, the United States would do well to find a local partner that can facilitate all three. A strong candidate to play this role is a staunch US ally, the Kingdom of Morocco: Since Muhammad VI assumed the throne in 1999, the country has worked to establish goodwill, political and economic ties, and a strong security footprint across the continent—both north and south of the Sahara.
King Mohammed VI visited three countries in sub-Saharan Africa last week: Senegal, Gabon, and Ivory Coast. As in forays to seven other African states since February 2005, he brought along teams of intelligence, political and cultural advisors, as well as Moroccan entrepreneurs. This mixed portfolio, unleashed in a series of working sessions with counterparts in each country, reflects the monarchy’s approach to building ties deep into Africa while bolstering continent-wide security as well.
King Mohammed appears to believe that security in any developing country rests on a combination of military operations, intelligence work and policing on the one hand, and anti-poverty measures, the promotion of religious tolerance and opportunity-boosting political reforms on the other. This is the approach he has employed in his own country since a 2003 triple suicide bombing rattled the kingdom. It was recently consolidated by a new constitution that grants sweeping domestic authorities to an elected chief of government, mandates equal opportunity for women and minorities, and democratizes domestic security by establishing a consultative security council bringing the monarchy and elected officials together.
In accordance with these principles, Morocco has established goodwill in much of Africa through a series of development projects. Among the more prominent examples, the kingdom’s National Office of Electricity is now electrifying rural areas along the Senegal River, affecting 550 villages and 360,000 people. Along the way, the venture trains Senegalese experts in techniques honed inside Morocco, thanks to a homegrown project that brought electricity to 98 percent of villages countrywide.
Other Moroccan-led ventures are improving health services on the continent. For example, the kingdom’s pharmaceutical giant, Sothema, was tapped to establish a branch in Dakar which now makes and exports affordable drugs to treat cholera, malaria, and diarrheal diseases in Africa’s poorest countries. These projects, along with the Moroccan private sector’s investments in many sub-Saharan states, are facilitated by a Moroccan banking network spanning 20 African nations. Human resources for the work are typically drawn from a combination of indigenous talent and Moroccan expatriate communities across the continent who lend their bilingual, bicultural skills to these bilateral ventures.
Meanwhile, Morocco’s history as a base of tolerant Islamic Sufi orders has managed to have a salubrious effect on the religious fiber of African societies in the Sahel, West Africa and elsewhere. At a time when Al Qaeda affiliates have been systematically demolishing Mali’s gentle, heterodox Islam, the Moroccan monarch has sought to bolster tolerance in numerous African countries. Consider, for example, his recent meeting with leaders of the Tijaniya Islamic Sufi order in Senegal. The history of this movement has its roots in the territory of Morocco, and so the Senegalese look to its religious leadership for encouragement and counsel. This relationship is on display in a video of the king’s meeting last week with Senegalese Tijanis. Non-Arabic speakers can observe the conviviality among attendants and the king by simply watching the body language.
All these initiatives are barely known to the West. Morocco’s more hard-nosed security projects, on the other hand, have garnered some—though still hardly enough—attention. In December 2012, then holding the rotating chairmanship of the United Nations Security Council, the country played a leading role in enabling the resolution to authorize the deployment of African troops to intervene in Mali. Though the troops played a backseat role to the French military in routing militants and holding the country together, it remains significant that Morocco put together an alliance and a framework for these disparate armies to undergo training and capacity-building together. The kingdom’s army has worked with its Western allies to learn best practices in ground, naval, and aerial warfare—as well as fight terrorism and transnational crime networks.
After years of absence due to political tensions with Algeria, Morocco has announced plans to rejoin the African Union as a member state. Moroccan entry means that the Union’s security capacity stands to be improved by the country’s armed forces, which are considerably stronger.
Thus the North African kingdom is uniquely positioned to help the West reduce its military footprint and bolster its economic aspirations on the African continent over the coming years. What must the United States do to take advantage of the opportunity?
The first prerequisite is deeper awareness on the part of the administration of President Barack Obama of the benefits of a broad U.S.-Morocco alliance on the continent. While some progress has been made in this direction, more work needs to be done. During Hillary Clinton’s final visit to Morocco as secretary of state, she described Morocco as a “leader and a model” in North Africa with respect to economic growth, political reform and security expertise. She also called for greater economic integration among the countries of North Africa. But she made no mention of Moroccan “leadership” or “integration” vis a vis Africa below the Sahara.
It seems that some U.S. policymakers still perceive the continent through a 20th century lens, when the Saharan desert represented a sort of wall between north and south. In recent years, however, new roads and modern transport have breached this wall. People traffic across the desert has markedly increased. This is both for the better—commercial, political and cultural connectivity—and for worse—the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and people. By recognizing this seismic shift in the continent’s internal dynamics, American policymakers can usefully redraw the political and economic map.
The second requirement would involve a new push for multilateralism in Washington’s strategies for African business, development and security. The United States already is closely tied to Morocco in matters ranging from military cooperation to free trade and civil-society exchange. But these alliances have been largely bilateral; Morocco has not been tapped, to speak of, as a bridge to countries nearby, let alone distant. There are profound precedents for multilateralism in the vicinity, however: the U.S. African Command’s Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, for example. A new strategy of building regional centers based on military fulcrums, such as the U.S.-Moroccan alliance, would serve both the world’s superpower and the African continent. Devising similar approaches in matters economic, political, and cultural is a challenge that can be met as well, through the imaginative thinking that has always led to smart American policies in a shifting world.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.