- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

The military coup in Mauritania - the arid, thinly populated nation on the northwest corner of Africa - dramatized often-contradictory goals of U.S. policy on the continent - promoting democracy and fighting terrorism, current and former U.S. officials say.

“You can’t create institutions similar to Westminster democracy while at the same time fostering the militarization of that society for other ends,” said Joseph Sala, a former State Department official who continues to watch African developments closely.

U.S. military support for Mauritania was intended to fight terrorism in the predominantly Muslim nation. But it helped arm soldiers who were just as apt to attempt a coup against the civilian government, said another former official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

Herman J. Cohen, assistant secretary of state for Africa in the first Bush administration, said the continent suffers from a lack of “social capital,” which he described as the absence of “earned trust among the people that those in power will relinquish that power peacefully.”

One indicator of African reaction to this issue is that the United States could find virtually no African state willing to act as host for the headquarters of a proposed Africa command.

“The reason is obvious: Africans fear that their societies could be threatened with militarization,” a source declared.

The United States has decided to locate the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. It is scheduled to be launched formally on Oct. 1.

The new command, a military coordination organization, is modeled after U.S. military commands for other regions of the world such as Central Command for the Middle East and Southern Command for Latin America.

Before European colonialism rolled up virtually the entire continent as a fief in the late 19th century, Africa for the most part was ruled by strongmen or village chiefs in ethnic units much smaller than the modern nation-state. Working with armed forces that remain loyal to civilian rule is a relatively new phenomenon.

The Mauritanian coup occurred in the early hours of Aug. 6. A group of army officers toppled the government of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi shortly after he ordered four high officers fired.

Although unpopular, Mr. Abdallahi was the first democratically elected leader of the country. The coup leaders accused him of seeking a deal with Islamic militants. According to U.S. sources, the deposed leader was offering Islamic militants posts in the government if they promised to halt their violence.

The coup enjoyed considerable popular support in the country as dissent mounted over soaring food prices and repeated accusations of government corruption.

The leader of the coup, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, had accused Mr. Abdallahi of being soft on terrorism and freeing from jail radical Muslims who had been implicated in plotting attacks on Western embassies.

Gen. Aziz is the same man who three years earlier staged a coup against the decades-old military dictatorship of Gen. Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya.

The U.S. sees Mauritania as a bulwark against the southward encroachment of al Qaeda-linked militants who are far more active farther north in Algeria.

Mauritania paid the latest price for its support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism last week when the army found the bodies of 12 soldiers who were attacked in an ambush purportedly claimed by a branch of al Qaeda, the Associated Press reported citing a government spokesman.

The men were found Saturday with their throats cut in the open desert about 20 miles north of the town of Tourine - the site of the Sept. 15 ambush - said spokesman Mohamed Ould Mohamed Abderahmane Ould Moine.

Several Web sites known to be close to extremist Islamic movements published a statement attributed to al Qaeda’s North Africa branch in which the group claimed responsibility for the attack.

“This jihadist operation targeted the allies of the Americans, the crusaders on Islamic Mauritanian territory occupied by infidels,” the statement said, saying that the 12 soldiers had been taken prisoner.

Mauritania has for more than a year been dealing with low-level violence that its government has blamed on terror cells linked to al Qaeda, including last year’s killing of four French tourists.

In 2005, the United States accepted a promise that there would be elections in two years and continued its aid program. This time, it suspended most of the $20 million in aid, joining the international community in expressing its displeasure at the coup. The bulk of that aid went to the military.

The U.N. Security Council also condemned the coup and demanded its immediate reversal. The African Union suspended Mauritania’s membership in the organization.

In 2005, the standing of Mauritania in the eyes of the international community appeared bright indeed. It promised to fight terrorism. It became one of only three countries in the Arab world to recognize Israel - after Egypt and Jordan. And there were prospects of considerable oil reserves.

Now most of the dreams appear to have faded.

The oil prospects do not appear as bright as they did three years ago. For now, the hopes for the development of democracy are also dim. And the international community is glaring, instead of smiling, at Mauritania.

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