Background Briefing En Route to Algiers
MODERATOR: We are en route from Washington to Algiers, escaping Frankenstorm. Here to give you a little bit of a setup for our time in Algiers tomorrow, is [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. Take it away, [Senior State Department Official One].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. So we’re on our way to Algeria. The first ever U.S.-Algeria Strategic Dialogue was just a week (inaudible) ago, October 19th, in which we had a broad set of discussions about the kinds of ways that we can broaden the U.S.-Algerian relationship, focused, of course, on counterterrorism, which [Senior State Department Official Two] will talk about in a minute, but also focused on what more we can do on the economic side, on the commercial side, on education, and on political engagement.
The Algerians, of course, were probably one of the first to work with violent – work against violent extremism with their revolution and working against the Islamists for a decade, a decade of civil war basically. We had a difficult relationship with Algeria during that dark decade, as they call it, but after 9/11 the Algerians turned around and decided they would work with us on counterterrorism. And we used that as the basis on which to broaden the relationship.
So for instance, the kinds of things that the Algerians have been working on more recently in order to get ahead of the Arab Spring or to make themselves less vulnerable to the Arab Spring, they saw that as an opportunity or a time that they really should work on some of the political reforms that we had been advocating for a long time. So for example, they finally canceled the 19 years of the emergency order in 2011. They broadened women’s engagement, women’s participation in the political scene so that they – I think the requirement is for 30 percent of women to be elected. They reduced and eliminated a lot of the restrictions on the broadcast media. Those kinds of things.
And one of the biggest issues in Algeria is youth unemployment. The official unemployment rate is 10 percent. We think the effective unemployment rate is up to 20, 25 percent for the youth. Some 70 percent of the population is under 25 years old. So one of the big issues, of course, has been unemployment, but also salaries. So one of the big things that the Algerian Government did to get ahead of the Arab Spring was they really radically increased the salaries of the people in the government, which is by far the largest employer in Algeria. Thirty percent of employment is in the government sector.
Algeria, of course, is not a poor country. It’s a wealthy country. It has tremendous gas reserves. It’s one of the largest gas reserves in the world. I’ve forgotten the number; I think it’s like the second largest gas reserve in the world. But the problem, of course, is that it’s unbalanced. It’s a statist economy; it’s unbalanced in terms of its revenues. About 60 percent of the budget revenues come from the oil and gas sector. So there’s a lot that can be done in terms of opening up the economy for foreign direct investment and the kinds of things that will actually bring jobs for all of the kids that need jobs.
Some of the things we’re doing on the education sector is it’s mostly focused in all kinds of ways on English language, whether it’s English language training for doctoral students in the universities or free English lessons for kids in various of our places where we have American Corners, American Centers, and that kind of thing. So that’s primarily the focus of our public diplomacy engagement.
GE – you’ll hear about this probably during the visit. GE is bidding on a huge contract, a $2.5 billion contract in the energy sector. They just won a small piece of that, so they’re very pleased by that. This is a big advocacy effort on the part of the United States Government. GE is competing with Siemens for this $2.5 billion contract for 31 gas turbines, I think it is. The bid that – the contract that GE won is in upgrading or developing emergency power in Algeria.
So why I don’t turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two] to talk about the CT focus, which is the primary focus, frankly, for this visit.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: A/K/A Number Two. It’s safe to say that counterterrorism has been a critical prism through which the Algerian-U.S. bilateral relationship has been developing for some time.
When the Administration came into office, it was evident that we had a natural affinity with Algeria and we had a shared concern about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. You’ll recall that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was previously called GSPC, which was – which came out of the Algerian Civil War and was an al-Qaida – had al-Qaida-like aspirations, an al-Qaida-like ideology. The Algerian Government had waged a very effective campaign against it over many, many years and at an enormous cost and had a kind of unique level of knowledge about such groups. It then became – GSPC became al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, although some of its leadership and some of its cadre remain in Northeastern Algeria along the Mediterranean littoral. The group moved down into the Sahel and particularly into the poorly governed area of Northern Mali. And Algeria being really the strongest Sahel state became a critical partner in dealing with AQIM.
I should add that before we even had a strategic dialogue with Algeria, we already had a CT bilateral arrangement which began, I believe, in 2011. I worked very hard with my counterpart and we worked on a lot of issues together, including one of particular concern to both of us, which is kidnapping for ransom. Algeria has been a leader in opposing this practice, which has been absolutely critical; that is, kidnapping for ransom has become the critical means of keeping terrorists in the field of keeping them funded, and Algeria has been a strong bulwark against that. And together we have tried to work diplomatically to work more and more countries into the column of not being ransomed.
Obviously, against the context of what happened in Northern Mali when the government forces up there collapsed and the coup happened, Algeria’s importance in this realm has become ever more important and it’ll really be a central focus in the talks between the Secretary and President Bouteflika. We have an awful lot at stake here, an awful lot of common interests, and there’s a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution.
This comes at a very propitious time too because Algeria, which is a fascinating country because of its revolutionary heritage and a strong belief in national sovereignty and a disinclination to act outside of its borders, has been making more and more strong statements about the need to combat terrorism throughout the region. So this will be a very important subject for conversation. And as I said, I think our cooperation is going to be vital in terms of the restoration of order in Northern Mali and reducing the space that AQIM has to operate in and the kinds of options it has available.
QUESTION: Can I just pick up right on that? What role would you look for Algeria to play in any possible future intervention in Northern Mali? And then just broadly speaking, what would the U.S. role be in any such international intervention?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, you might want to talk --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible) take the second one.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Obviously, we’re going to be very supportive of ECOWAS’s efforts and of the international community’s efforts to deal with this. I don’t want to prejudge what the Algerians are doing, but their cooperation – for a long time they’ve been working to build regional cooperation with a whole host of partners. They established something called CEMOC in the Southern city of Tamanrasset. It’s an intelligence fusion center. It’s been getting going, finding its feed, but it’s an important place where the regional players come together and work, and we expect that to be a more and more productive area.
A whole range of countries in the region really look to Algeria for leadership on this. Obviously, they’re not ceding sovereignty, but they know Algeria has unique capabilities that no one else in the region really has. And so its ability --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, the strength of its military forces, its intelligence-gathering capability, all up and down the road on this stuff. So Algeria’s central role in leading the fight against the AQIM is really central.
QUESTION: Does Algeria now support the idea of an ECOWAS intervention in Mali? Do they support that now? Have they changed their position on that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: There have been some recent press reports to the effect that they are warming to the idea. One of the things that the Secretary wants to talk about is how we would see this working. I think you’ve seen Assistant Secretary for Africa Johnnie Carson speak about the way the AMISOM mission works in Somalia, where you have an African-led force strongly supported by the international community both including the United States both in terms of training, intelligence fusion, logistics, coordination. So one of the things that we’ll be talking about is that model and the role that Algeria could play if ECOWAS provides the boots on the ground, if you will, in coordination with the forces of Mali, and then the rest of us have to support that and create the means for it to succeed.
QUESTION: So is one purpose to secure Algeria’s support for this intervention by explaining how it would work?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Again, they are beginning to warm to the idea to talk through how it might work, but I think none of us is going to be able to fully support it until ECOWAS comes forward with its plan, which it hasn’t yet done.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think the bottom line here is that Algeria has always had a strong inclination toward multilateralism. They are going to be supportive of a major effort in Mali to both restore democracy and restore order in the North. Everyone has their favorite institutions to work with, and there’s a lot that has to be sorted out in the geometry of the thing, if you will.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about Algeria’s position and role vis-à-vis Libya? Are we satisfied with sort of how they’ve dealt with the Libyan situation, or is there more that the U.S. would like Algeria to do to help stabilize Libya?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the best way to put it is that we’re still working – waiting now to see what develops with Libya putting its own government together. So there isn’t yet a government in Libya for anybody to work with in any specific way. The Algerians are as interested as everybody is in the region in securing borders and making sure that the weapons that have been washing around as a result of the fighting in Libya don’t go beyond – don’t go anywhere and can’t be used are collected is a big effort by the United States to work to make sure that those weapons are neutralized, shall we say. So when there is a Libyan government to talk to about these kinds of issues, I am certain that Algeria will be part of that discussion.
QUESTION: Do you think that the Algerians would be comfortable with a ECOWAS which could be seen as a French-led operation, and do you think that you will be able to convince them to be onboard?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Can I just take issue with your premise? The whole reason to have ECOWAS out front along with Malian forces is to have an African lead. So the question then for the United States, for France, for Algeria, for other interested states, is how to support that force. I don’t know if you want to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I just wouldn’t want to prejudge it, having just been in Paris and talked about these things as well, it’s a very dynamic situation and I think everyone has their eye on what needs to be done. And I would say that the atmospherics are better than they have been in a long time.
MODERATOR: Scott, anything? All right, thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
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