U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has announced that he will make what officials believe is the first visit to Algeria by a someone in his position, during his current swing through North Africa. The secretary says he wants to thank Algeria, as well as Tunisia and Morocco, for their help in the war on terrorism, an effort the United States is supporting with money and technical assistance, as well as this high-level visit.
Secretary Rumsfeld says he decided to visit Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria because all three countries have provided moderate leadership in the Arab world, and support the global war on terrorism. He indicated that Algeria, in particular, has come a long way in recent years as new leaders have come to see the world differently than their predecessors did.
"Algeria, of course, was very active in the nonaligned group for many years, and then had a long battle with terrorism, and has been a very good partner and friend in the war on terror," he said.
The secretary noted that Algeria is participating later this year in a NATO counterterrorism operation in the Mediterranean.
According to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African Affairs, Theresa Whelan, that is typical of Algeria's active involvement in efforts to fight terrorism.
"The issue of terrorism really hits home for the Algerians, and I think they are trying to share their lessons learned with their neighbors so that their neighbors can avoid having similar problems in their countries," she said.
In a VOA interview, Whelan noted that Algeria participated in a U.S.-led counterterrorism training exercise in West Africa last year, and that it won the right to host the African Union's Counterterrorism Center of Excellence, which will host its first conference soon.
"Algeria has really taken, I think, a very positive lead role in trying to address this issue and the issue of ungoverned space, both in their own context and also in the regional context," she said.
The United States has been particularly interested in training African armies to get control of those 'ungoverned' spaces, the vast, remote areas where terrorists can establish bases and easily cross international borders.
"We think one of the interesting things we have been doing in the last couple of years is trying to facilitate greater linkage between the North African states and their southern neighbors because there are a lot of issues that cross those borders," said Whelan.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Whelan says Algeria has been among the most active countries in taking advantage of funding and training from the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. The five-year, $500-million U.S. aid program for African countries is designed to help them build counterterrorist capabilities with better equipment, communications and tactics, and more cooperation with their neighbors.
Another senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity, notes that Algeria has also increased other types of defense cooperation with the United States, establishing just last year a joint military commission that will meet annually. Neighboring Tunisia has had such a relationship with the United States for 20 years.
The official also praised Algeria's leaders for being willing to take a position on terrorism that is not popular in many parts of the Arab world.
But the official says while the United States wants to continue to develop military relations with Algeria, it is also sensitive to the concerns of Tunisia and Morocco about any move that would make their powerful neighbor even more powerful. And the official says the United States wants to see political reform and improvements in the human rights situation in Algeria before it will be willing to expand military relations, particularly military sales, much further. For now, the official says such sales will be limited to equipment for counter-terrorism operations, such as specialized vehicles and night-vision goggles.