A sparsely-populated, wind-scorched desert land about the size of Colorado, with virtually no water, barely 50 square kilometers of arable land, and whose primary export commodity, phosphates, has seen its price continue to plummet to below half of what it was only a year ago, the Western Sahara would seem an unlikely candidate to be the object of Africa's longest territorial disputes, one with profound implications for both regional security and economic development in the Maghreb as well as United States interests. What is needed is not only recognition of the need to resolve this forgotten conflict once and for all, but also acknowledgement that any workable arrangement must be based on sober reality rather than flights of fancy as illusory as the desert mirages of the region.


From at least the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century C.E., the various nomadic tribes inhabiting what is today designated "Western Sahara" on most maps owed allegiance to the rulers of Morocco. Since Moulay al-Rashid, founder of the current Alaouite Dynasty, united Morocco under his rule in the mid-17th century, the Sultans of Morocco have issued royal rescripts known as dahirs accepting the fealty and tribute of the Saharan chieftains and appointing them as qaids, or civil governors, over their respective peoples, from whom they also collected taxes in the name of the sovereign. Like most of Africa, the Maghreb was carved up by European colonial powers after the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference opened the way for the "Scramble for Africa." Spain claimed for itself the Saharan regions of Saqiet al-Hamra ("Red Creek") and the rather ironically named Río de Oro ("River of Gold"), unilaterally proclaiming a protectorate in December 1884, although the resistance of Moroccan monarchs made the Spanish claim an ineffectual one until March 1912, when France succeeded in imposing a protectorate on Sultan Abdelhafid. Nine months later, Paris signed an agreement with Madrid which included acknowledgment of the hitherto ineffectual Spanish claim to "Spanish Sahara" as well as other Moroccan territories. Even then, it was four years later before the Spanish established some coastal installations and more than two decades before they overcome stiff resistance from Moroccan Rif and J'bala tribesmen and managed to penetrate to the interior of the Western Sahara to occupy Smara, the territory's only city and stronghold of the Sufi holy man and anti-colonial leader Sheikh Ma al-‘Aynayn (ca. 1830-1910).


Morocco recovered its political independence on from France on March 2, 1956, under Sultan Mohammed V, who proclaimed himself king the following year. Mohammed V began the process of recovering the territorial integrity of the lands which had acknowledged the sovereignty of his forefathers. A month after the end of the French protectorate, Morocco recovered the Spanish protectorate of Tetouan in the northern part of the country. In August 1956, Morocco succeeded in having the international control council for the international zone around Tangier repeal its status and reintegrated the city into the kingdom. It took two more years, until April 1958, for Spain to return the zone of Tarfaya, which was governed under the same colonial regime as the Spanish Sahara immediately to its south. And it was only under King Hassan II, Mohammed V's son and successor, that Spain ceded back Ifni, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco opposite the Canary Islands, headquarters since 1934 of the governor-general of Spanish Morocco.


Although it derived little of value from the colony, Spain hung tenaciously to its remaining Moroccan holding. Perhaps it was nostalgia on the part of the aging caudillo, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who had not only made his early fame as valiant fighter in the "Rif War" to take over the Saharan territory, but from there assumed leadership of the Nationalist uprising in the Spanish Civil War. As a result, in addition to Moroccan demands for retrocession, the Spanish colonial authorities faced, from 1974, an modest uprising from the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro ("Popular Front for the Liberation of Saqiet al-Hamra and Río del Oro," Polisario). On November 6, 1975, 350,000 unarmed Moroccans crossed from Tarfaya into Spanish Morocco, brandishing Moroccan flags, portraits of King Hassan, and copies of the Quran. The "Green March" (the color green for the demonstration was an appeal to Islam) demanded the return of Moroccan Sahara. On November 14, 1975, as Franco lay dying in Madrid, his government—seeing how its Portuguese counterpart had been toppled the year before by troubles in overseas possessions—negotiated a deal which divided the Spanish Sahara with most of it going back to Morocco and a small sliver in the south going to Mauritania.


Egged on by Algeria's socialist strongman Houari Boumédienne, the Polisario Front rejected the Madrid accord and, demanding full independence for the territory, launched a guerrilla campaign against the Moroccan and Mauritanian forces who had assumed control after the Spaniards withdrew (as a result, in 1979, Nouakchott gave up its claims, which was taken up by Rabat). While the Polisario forces, with heavy support from the Algerians—who had their own boundary disputes with Morocco as well as coveted the potential access to the Atlantic Ocean through the former Spanish Sahara—acquitted themselves well in the early stages of the fighting, by 1981, Morocco was in control of more than 85 percent of the former Spanish Sahara's territory and was constructing the "sand berm," a defensive shield consisting of a series of barriers of sand and stone completed in 1987. Since then the Polisario Front has been largely confined to its camps around Tindouf in western Algeria. For its part, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) muddied the waters in 1984 by recognizing and admitting to membership the virtual "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" (SADR) that the Polisario Front had proclaimed in 1976. As a result, Morocco left the OAU and has yet to join its successor organization, the African Union.


In 1991, the United Nations managed to achieve a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, monitored by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), a peacekeeping force which, as its name implies, is theoretically supposed to work towards a vote on whether the territory reintegrates into Morocco or becomes independent. Since then, a series of high-level special representatives of the UN Secretary-General and special envoys have come and gone (including former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, who served from 1997 until 2004), although the process remains deadlocked over who should vote, when they should vote, and what they should be voting on.


Meanwhile, in a November 2005 speech commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the "Green March," Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who succeeded to his father Hassan II's throne in 1999, announced that he would begin an internal national dialogue within Morocco on the subject of possibly granting autonomy to the country's southern provinces (i.e., the Western Sahara) and would present proposals to the United Nations once a consensus had been reached.


As part of the process of consultation, in 2006, Mohammed VI revived the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) as a consultative body for proposals relating to the Sharifian Kingdom's southern provinces. The 141 members of CORCAS include leaders representing the various Moroccan political parties, tribal sheikhs, elected delegates from women's groups and youth organizations, and representatives of civil society. Perhaps the most interesting member was one Khalil Rkibi, a retired non-commissioned officer of the Royal Moroccan Army living in Kasbah Tadla, a walled city built in the 17th century by Moulay Ismaïl ibn Sharif, second sultan of the Alaouite Dynasty. Khalil Rkibi is none other than the father of Mohamed Abdelaziz, chief of the Polisario Front and self-proclaimed president of the chimerical SADR (M. Rkibi's two other sons, a surgeon and a lawyer, both live in Morocco).


In April 2007, Rabat sent a proposal to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that included not only an elected local administration—including executive, legislative, and judicial branches—for the "Saharan Autonomous Region" that would be created, but also ideas about education and justice and the promise that financial resources would be forthcoming to support them in addition to whatever revenues can be raised locally. (Unlike many Arab countries, Morocco has a tradition of elected municipal councilors and other local government officials; in fact, candidates from thirty political parties are vying for some 27,795 such slots to be filled this Friday by voters in 1,503 municipalities, including in the Saharan provinces.) Under the autonomy proposal, the only matters that would remain in control of the capital would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the postal service.


The autonomy proposal was well received around the world as a significant step forward. In his June 2007 testimony before the full Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, echoing language that was adopted by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1754 a little more than a month earlier, described the Moroccan proposal as "serious and credible". Welch also noted that, unresolved, the dispute would be "an obstacle to increased regional integration and this impedes U.S. policy interests." Moreover, maintaining the Polisario Front administration of its area of control "leaves 90,000 Sahrawi people languishing in refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, and the territory a potentially attractive safehaven for terrorist planning or activity." On the other hand, a settlement along the lines of the autonomy proposal "would offer real hope in strengthening political, economic, commercial, and counter-terrorism cooperation for the Maghreb and the Sahel." In October of that year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, addressing a joint session of the two chambers of the Moroccan parliament, likewise hailed the autonomy proposal as "a serious and credible basis for negotiation," adding: "The Moroccan autonomy plan exists, it is on the table and constitutes a new element proposed after years of impasse. I hope that the Moroccan plan of autonomy can serve as a basis for negotiation in search of a reasonable settlement."


Two years later, the proposal is still on the table. On April 30, 2009, in renewing for another year the mandate of MINURSO through unanimously adopted Resolution 1871, the UN Security Council explicitly welcomed the "serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution." More interestingly, just weeks before the Security Council acted, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives—some 229 members, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Minority Leader John Boehner, Majority Whip James Clyburn, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence—sent a joint letter to President Barack Obama urging support for the "ground-breaking" plan for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty as "the only feasible option."


Why all this attention to a conflict that most Americans have never heard of, much less formed an opinion about?


First, the House members noted that "vital U.S. interests in North Africa are increasingly challenged by growing regional instability," including terrorist incidents which "have increased more than 400 percent since September 11, 2001"—facts which are familiar to regular readers of this column which, in the last year alone, has reported on the surge of attacks by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, political upheaval in Mauritania, the rising challenge of extremism in Morocco, and, just last month, AQIM's increasing involvement with criminal networks in the Sahel. Although, as I noted last week, Morocco has made tremendous contributions to regional and global security with its comprehensive counterterrorism approach, as the representatives correctly observed, "the single greatest obstacle impeding the security cooperation necessary to combat this transnational threat is the unresolved territorial dispute over the Western Sahara." In addition, as the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center documented in a report entitled "The Polisario Front: A Still-Active Destabilizing Force in the Region," published in October 2008, while the Polisario Front has largely been secular throughout its history, more recently there has been "rapprochement of some elements of the Polisario with Islamist terrorism." The report went on the note that "although the contamination of one part of the Polisario by Salafist ideology does not mean the Islamization of the movement as a whole, the Polisario nonetheless has become one of the principal pools of recruitment for AQIM."


Secondly, as the congressional letter remarks, "resolving the conflict in the Western Sahara would have considerable economic benefits and improve the lives of millions of Africans." A recent report by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), prepared by a task force led by Professor I. William Zartmann that included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and retired General Wesley Clark, argues that the nascent subregional organization of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), has been largely "frozen" since 1994 as a result of the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara issue. The report goes on to point out that:


Economic model analysis suggests that a full-fledged free trade area among the Maghrebi countries would yield a gain in total merchandise trade of some $1 billion. Even this modest figure would almost double the extent of commercial relations within the region and might pave the way for a future deepening of ties. [Free Trade Agreements] between the EU or the U.S. and the major Maghrebi countries would generate even larger gains. Based on gravity model (GM) calculations, total Maghrebi trade would expand by $4 to $5 billion (3.0 to 4.5 percent) if the EU and the U.S. separately establish FTAs with the UMA countries, and by nearly $9 billion (nearly 8 percent) if both establish regional FTAs with the UMA countries. In terms of a possible EU‐US‐Maghreb FTA, total Maghrebi inward foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks would increase by $5.8 billion (75 percent), and total Maghrebi outward FDI stocks would rise by $3.9 billion; both the U.S. and European economies stand to benefit from enhanced integration with the Maghreb region as well.


Thirdly, as the House members remind the President, Morocco is "our oldest ally and partner for peace in the Middle East." Above and beyond the security and economic reasons for favoring Rabat's offer of autonomy, there is the political consideration of the existential importance of the reintegration of the southern areas under Moroccan sovereignty for the stability of the state itself as well as its symbolic value for the populace of a country which the United States has designated a "major non-NATO ally." The successful management of international relations is not only about prioritizing and pursuing the national interests of one's own country, but also about recognizing the legitimate interests of other countries, especially of one's partners. One longtime observer of the situation in Western Sahara observed bluntly recently: "If the options are either destabilizing Morocco or radicalizing Polisario, the choice is clear for policymakers."


Fourth, while Morocco is an old ally, Algeria is also important for a number of U.S. interests. Last year alone, the United States imported an average of 547,000 barrels of petroleum a day from Algeria. And Algeria, a leader in the Arab world, is also the key partner in U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts across the region, especially the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP). Hence it does not advance America's agenda to have two valued partners with ongoing bad blood between them.


Moreover, given the importance to the United States and its allies of a stable and secure Maghreb, the compromise of autonomy offered by Morocco—reasonably located between complete assimilation into the Sharifian Kingdom and total independence—is the only realistic course. With no arable land to speak of and only the barest of natural resources, an independent Western Sahara would be an instantaneous failed state. Its prospective population of less than 200,000—that is, those Moroccans (including Sahraawis) who didn't opt for the more promising prospects of life in Morocco and abandon the territory before any independence—would thus be among the poorest and least economically viable people in the world. Internally, its peoples are already divided among themselves: the Polisario Front's pretensions to represent all Sahrawis is belied by the fact that its base of support is among the Reguibat tribes of the east, while the Reguibat tribes in the western part of the territory as well as the Tekna confederation are largely pro-Moroccan. These sharp divisions would certainly be heightened in an independent state with very limited resources. Such tensions would, in turn, create circumstances that are favorable to subversion and the activities of extremist groups like AQIM and criminal organizations like drug and human trafficking cartels (see my report one year ago on the emerging challenge of the West African criminal networks) which are already active in the subregion. These factors guarantee that, detached from the Moroccan state, the territory would become an even greater source of conflict between the Maghrebi countries. The Potomac Institute/SAIS report is not exaggerating by much when it speculates that an independent Western Sahara would be "another Somalia on the Atlantic coast of North Africa." (Given what my update on Somalia just two weeks ago chronicled, the prospect of another Somalia is hardly comforting.)


For the sake of regional stability and development as well as the security and interests of the larger international community, Western Sahara can no longer be a "forgotten conflict" peripheral to world affairs. The United States, which arguably has the greatest leverage with the Maghrebi states of any outside power as well as the most significant stake in countering extremism in this strategic region, should use its influence to help move the dispute to a peaceful resolution along the lines of Morocco's proposal for autonomy, a generous solution founded on the principle of realism which alone assures its long-term sustainability.



— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.


Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).


In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.


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