- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Specialists agree that, in its war on terror, the United States can learn important lessons from the experience of Algeria, which appears finally to have defeated a decade-long Islamic insurgency.

They just don’t agree on what the lessons are.

At a House International Relations Committee hearing last week, lawmakers were offered a variety of analyses of the Algerian civil conflict, which erupted in 1992, after the military annulled the results of an election that would have brought an Islamic coalition to power.

That uprising, which killed an estimated 150,000 people and caused billions of dollars of damage to the country’s infrastructure, has subsided only in recent years.

The sharpest divisions at the hearing were over the counterinsurgency and counterterrorist strategies used by the Algerian military, intelligence and law enforcement.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said that in their response to violence from fringe Islamist groups, the Algerian authorities had engaged in a well-documented orgy of mass arrests, detention without trial, torture, summary executions, vigilantism and “disappearances.”

He said 100,000 to 200,000 people died, but that no one knows for sure how many were killed by terrorists, and how many by the military and its allies.

Such an approach “aids [the terrorists] in their struggle for hearts and minds,” he said. “Algeria is in many ways a model of how not to fight terrorism.”

Harlan Ullman, an adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the issue was more complex, especially with the country battling such a powerful, violent insurgency.

“Algeria shows that there are no easy ways of reconciling the contradiction between imposing stability and maintaining human rights and civil liberties,” he said.

“In most societies where violence or conditions of unrest permeate, almost invariably, the two can only be achieved sequentially, not concurrently,” he said.

Although the United States faces a comparable paradox in Iraq, he said, it is difficult to generalize from the Algerian experience. “What worked in Algeria should be viewed only as likely to bring similar results elsewhere by coincidence or luck.”

Researcher Lorenzo Vidino of the Investigative Project said the Algerian government’s brutal acts were a response to a crisis created by the terrorists, and that as the insurgency waned, the government’s human rights record improved.

Algeria, he said, “is one of America’s closest allies in a region where America desperately needs help. Algeria’s 15-year experience in fighting Islamic radicals can help the United States.”

In particular, he said, the United States should study the way the Algerian government worked to negotiate with and co-opt moderate insurgency leaders. This could help avoid “a full confrontation with all Islamist movements in the Middle East.”

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