THE BLOG
02/18/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

The Kingdom of Morocco and the Promise of Mali

The promise of Africa below the Sahara has been recognized far and wide as a rich and diverse swath of humanity as well as a rapidly growing market of more than 800 million people, with enormous potential for human development and economic opportunity.

At the same time, new parts of of Africa have grown politically unstable -- wracked by ethnic and sectarian violence and failed or failing states. As Americans know well, the northern section of the volatile state of Mali -- that is, a portion of the country roughly the size of France -- fell into the hands of Al-Qaeda for months in 2012 and early 2013. It was an unprecedented achievement for the terrorist group -- a nucleic al-Qaeda jihadist state -- requiring urgent and immediately countermeasures from the West. The French armed forces played a vital role in liberating it, with crucial support from the United States. But both countries are aware that going forward, Mali and other countries nearby need to be secured by indigenous African armies. Nor is there a permanent military solution for the threats these countries face: In the long run, economic development and sweeping counter-radicalization strategies are necessary to drain the swamps in which jihadism festers.

As I have observed in prior articles, Morocco has begun to play a vital role in rolling back radicalism in Mali, and maintained that commitment after the French and American military presence ebbed. Morocco has been training Malian and many other African forces and providing intelligence and counterterrorism expertise to the central government. It has also built on the veneration which King Mohammed VI enjoys in the country to foster tolerance and fight extremism. Within his country, the monarch enjoys the special status of Amir al-Mu'mineen ("Prince of the Believers"), the ranking religious authority and steward of its Islamic culture. In the broader region, he is embraced by Sufi mystics and practitioners of "popular Islam," by virtue of his family descent from the prophet Muhammad and representation of Morocco's distinguished place in the enduring history of Sufism. Morocco has organized the training of 500 Imams in Mali; from their pulpits throughout the country, they are bravely waging a war of ideas within Malian Islam to help tolerance and nonviolence prevail.

Meanwhile, the king Mohammed is leveraging the goodwill generated through constructive military and spiritual engagement to play a diplomatic role in Mali, as a potential mediator between its warring factions. Last year a new Malian president was sworn in -- Ibrahim Boubacar Keita -- having won elections on a platform of good governance and reestablishment of security and stability in the country. The Moroccan monarch moved swiftly to establish a close partnership with him, pledging sustained support. Having forged this relationship, the king more recently began to engage an erstwhile rival of the central government in Mali, Bilal AG Cherif, a leader of the restive, ethnically Touareg population and Secretary General of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Cherif visited Rabat on February 1. The group's decision to rebel against the central government in 2012 began the devastating chain of events that led to a jihadist occupation of the country's north. Now the MNLA has committed to the path of political engagement, hoping to achieve greater rights and opportunities for its constituents. By forging its own relationship with King Mohammed VI, the group has in a sense consecrated its commitment to political engagement, entrusting its legitimate aspirations to a foreign statesman with enormous moral and political clout in Mali. It is a significant step forward toward the stabilization of the country.

These developments raise questions about the potential role of another neighbor of Mali's, the heavily militarized Republic of Algeria. That country views Morocco as a rival, and for decades have supported a secessionist Polisario militia that lays claims to the southern half of the kingdom. It cannot be entirely pleased at the warming of ties between Morocco and Mali. Going forward, will Algeria's displeasure prove constructive or problematic? On the one hand, it could be a force for good -- lending its own military capacities to the stabilization of Mali and the broader environment, and pledging financial assistance. (Algeria is a major exported or oil in North Africa.) On the other hand, it could choose a darker path and choose to expand its enmity from Morocco into Mali, stymying the country's aspirations as it has for decades by draining Moroccan resources via the Polisario conflict.

In either case, the promising beginnings of rapprochement and stabilization in Mali, thanks in large part to Morocco's commitment to the country, can only benefit from enhanced American support. Backing for Morocco's exportation of Islamic tolerance can increase the magnitude of its efforts and help score a decisive, peaceful victory against jihadism. Through enhanced military partnership, Morocco can serve as a conduit for training and a collaborative architect for a new security systems to stabilize Mali, from its borders with other unstable countries to its heartlands. And as for Algeria, its own hopes to win improve relations with the West can be leveraged by the United States -- ensuring that its role in Mali is a benefit, and never a hindrance, to its promising future.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the Moroccan weekly news magazine L'Observateur; Chairman and CEO of MED Radio national broadcast network and chairman of the daily newspaper Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya. In the United States, he sits on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council of United States and the board of trustees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.