US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been in Algeria
this week as part of “a growing American effort to build a military
relationship.” According to Pentagon officials, he is believed to be
the first defence secretary to visit the country.

And he brought back a message: as The New York Times puts it,
“Mr. Rumsfeld said [Algerian president Abdelaziz] Bouteflika reviewed
his country’s decade-long battle with Islamic militant groups and
offered suggestions to the United States for conducting what Bush
administration officials have recently begun referring to as ‘the long
war’ against Islamic extremists.”

” ‘He described it from the inside as to what took place and how they
fought off the terrorism,’ Mr Rumsfeld told reporters. ‘It’s
instructive for us to realize that the struggle we’re in is not unlike
the struggle that the people of Algeria went through.'”

As a piece of context-dropping, this would be hard to beat. The reason
Algeria faced an Islamic insurgency, which is estimated to have cost
150,000 lives, was that the military intervened in 1991 to cancel
democratic elections that the Islamic parties looked like winning. The
west turned a blind eye to both the coup and the resulting carnage.

But the moral of this seems to have escaped the Bush administration
entirely. The policy of trusting repression ahead of democracy is still
alive and well, with reports of American plans to destabilise the Palestinian authority and force fresh elections when Hamas takes power.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from Algeria; as I said in
Crikey six months ago, “it graphically shows how anti-democratic
strategies to combat extremism don’t work.” But Rumsfeld and the
Americans seem determined to learn the wrong lessons.

Peter Fray

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