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A Pyrrhic victory?

Algerian forces claimed a decisive victory this weekend over al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants who took over a giant natural gas plant near the country's border with Mali last week and threatened to kill hostages and blow up the facility. But the resolution of the crisis may turn out to be the classic definition of a Pyrrhic victory — that is, one achieved at such high cost that another like it will likely lead to defeat.

The Algerian government reacted swiftly and ruthlessly to the terrorists, eventually capturing or killing all the militants. But in the process, dozens of Algerian and foreign hostages — including at least three Americans — were also killed, while others remain unaccounted for. And though Algeria claimed the raid was meant to deter future attacks by showing it would not tolerate terrorists operating on its soil, there's every chance that the way this incident was resolved will inspire more such attacks. The U.S. needs to develop better relationships with all the governments in the region if it is to protect its citizens when a similar standoff again occurs.

U.S. officials were plainly miffed that they received no advance warning of the Algerian operation, a complaint echoed by Britain and France, whose nationals were also among the hostages killed. Coming at the same time French military air and ground forces were battling to stop other Islamist fighters from northern Mali from capturing the capital, Bamako, the fighting in Algeria served to underscore the threat to stability posed by Islamic extremism across North Africa.

Mali, a former French colony whose democratically elected government was overthrown in an army coup last year, had been struggling with a low-level separatist insurgency of nomadic Tuareg desert dwellers intent on carving out an autonomous tribal area in the country's north. The Malian military claimed at the time that the coup was necessary because the central government had failed to provide it sufficient arms or support to put down the rebellion.

But since the coup, the Taureg insurgents have been pushed aside by heavily armed Islamist militants trained in Libya during the popular uprising that ousted former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. They have taken over a Texas-size chunk of northern Mali as a base for launching attacks to the south, with the ultimate goal of establishing a strict Islamist state and turning the country into a terrorist haven along the lines of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

French airstrikes appear to have checked the Islamists' advance on Bamako, at least temporarily, and France is sending 2,500 soldiers to Mali to join with forces from other West African nations recruited to bolster the government's defenses (the U.S. is providing C-17 cargo aircraft to transport the French military contingent). It was France's intervention in Mali that prompted the al-Qaida affiliate known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to attack the natural gas plant in Algeria, according to a statement by the group, in retaliation for Algeria's having allowed French warplanes to use its airspace to attack their comrades in Mali.

Whether there's any truth to that claim remains to be seen. Western officials say the attack in Algeria was carefully planned and most likely had been in the works for several weeks or months before France sent warplanes to neighboring Mali. But the current instability in Mali, and Algeria's precipitous handling of its own hostage crisis, are clearly obstacles to the U.S. finding reliable partners in the region. Like the aftermath of the Western intervention that helped overthrow Gadhafi in Libya, Western-backed counterinsurgency efforts in Mali are likely to have unpredictable consequences.

Rebuilding America's relationships with the countries of the region should be one of the first tasks of Sen. John Kerry, who is slated to become the next U.S. secretary of state. Whatever the reasoning behind the timing of the attack at the gas plant, the incident highlighted the continuing risks in that part of the world: Mali is unstable, and over the long run, French and West African military operations there may make it more rather than less so.

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