The fragile states of the Sahara and just below the desert pose significant challenges — not just for the United States and Europe, but also for the North African states themselves. The sources of their instability and conflict are complex and deeply rooted. Internally, they include institutional weakness and corruption, endemic poverty, sociopolitical tensions, unaddressed identity-based grievances, legacies of past abuses, and religious radicalization. External stresses include transnational organized crime and terrorism, weapons proliferation, foreign meddling, cross-border conflict spillover, and global economic shocks.

Nations in this region are ill equipped to deal with these problems. In fact, in most countries of the Sahel (the belt across Africa, just south of the desert), local governments have exacerbated conflict, either through inept responses or, in some cases, active collusion with criminal networks, Islamist militants, or ethnic dissidents.

Anouar Boukhars
Boukhars is a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is a professor of countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.
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International actors can play a crucial role in helping fragile states address their internal stresses. But assistance programs should be tailored to fit the specific needs of each country. In cases like Mauritania, where social and ethnic polarization is high and is conducive to violence, the focus should be on adopting and implementing legal frameworks that ensure inclusive political participation and equal access to economic resources and services. In situations of high criminality, like in Mali, professionalization of the police, prosecution and other actors in the criminal justice system is a must. But state actors must also thwart the criminal marketplace and the financial flows of the proceeds of trafficking. Otherwise efforts to empower the executive branch and prop up the military, police and judiciary are counterproductive, as was the case in Mali before the coup. 

The international community can also help mitigate external pressures by promoting regional cooperation in sharing intelligence, monitoring financial flows from drug trafficking and conducting joint military operations. International efforts have been hindered by several factors. Western governments and international donors have focused more heavily on propping up the capacity of individual fragile states, but largely ignored that insecurity is often multifaceted and is a product of both internal and external factors. The competition and different perception of threats among regional neighbors also hinders regional cooperation. 

For example, Algeria is distrustful of its neighbors, especially the so-called pro-French axis, led by Morocco and the weaker states of the Sahel. This distrust is a serious obstacle for the region, because Algeria today has the power to be influential. The country has the largest defense budget on the African continent ($10.3 billion in 2012), far-reaching military power (because of its large fleet of aircraft) and recognized counterterrorism expertise. It also serves as a founding member and leader in several regional and global counterterrorism forums.

If Algeria refuses to engage in the conflict in Mali, then the international community must look for leadership in Morocco, the other North African heavyweight directly affected by the chaos in the Sahel. Morocco has the will, the influence and the capability to contribute to conflict resolution in the region.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.