The modern army of independent Morocco became known as ‘Forces Armées Royales’ (FAR) or La Grande Muette (the Absolute Dumb), and was reorganised with newly created units under the leadership of Prince Moulay Hassan and General Meziane in 1956, except for the Moroccan Royal Navy which was introduced few years later, in 1960. French officers recruited the main body of the Moroccan army among Amazigh-speaking mountain tribes with their own Amazigh language and culture that transcend Morocco and Moorish Spain. After independence in 1956, this army, though still largely commanded by French-trained Amazigh officers, increased from 20,000 to 30,000 men by the addition of freedom fighters of the Moroccan ALN that includes those of the Moroccan Sahara.i In effect the core of the Moroccan army was composed of experienced veterans from World War II, Indochina, the Spanish Civil War, the latter provided Marshal Meziane who previously held different post as Commanding-General of Ceuta, Captain-General of Galicia and then Captain General for the Canary Islands. He obtained the highest rank Franco could bestow on him, before he returned to Morocco in 1956 with many of his units and held both military and ministerial posts. In July 1957 there were 150 French officers, 550 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 130 French soldiers serving in the FAR units. By 1960 their number had diminished to about 100, thus almost ending all remnants of neo-colonialism within the military, except for military co-operation personnel operating in bases and military schools. They served in every position except in the infantry, and carried out technical and supervisory tasks. They served as individuals on voluntary basis, and the French personnel wore Moroccan uniforms and received their salaries from the Moroccan Treasury with additional compensation from the French army.ii Between 1964 and 1974 the FAR increased its manpower from 40,000 to 60,000,iii with 884 commissioned officers who had been trained at Saint Cyr, Toledo and Meknes, top military academies.iv It increased further over the question of the Western Sahara and by 1999, the number of the FAR in Morocco was at 198,500 on active duty with another 150,000 as reservists and remain so till they reach the age of 50. The bulk of the FAR is made of Ground Forces, the Air Force, the Navy, the Para-Military and Auxiliary Forces which represent only around 10% of the total forces. The Para-Military has over 50,000 men and women, of which 23,000 in the Gendarmerie Royale, and 30,000 in the Auxiliary Force, including 5,000 Mobile Intervention Corps.v


The actual structure and organisation of the FAR is composed a General Command HQ in Rabat, and two distinct commands: one responsible for the northern zone based in Meknes, where the base is under the command of General Mohammed el Ouadi, covering the old Morocco before the return of its provinces in the South, and the other is in the southern zone, based in Laayoune, with a command post in Agadir. Both were under the command of the highest ranking General in the Moroccan army, Général de Corps d’Armée, Abdelaziz Bennani, the equivalent of a British Lieutenant-General, who was also the Inspector General of the FAR, directly responsible to the King, the Commander in Chief of the Moroccan Bennani retired after a serious illness and was admitted to a Paris Military hospital in 2014 and replaced by another Général de Corps d’Armée, Bouchaib Arroub.vii The southern zone has its own Head Quarters in the centre of the city of Agadir and is under the direct command of General Ahmed Benyasse since the nomination of General Bennani as the Inspector General of the FAR, though the latter remains, officially, responsible for the Southern command until he was replaced by Arroub. There are only Brigades in the FAR and do not have Divisions or Corps d’Armée, which renders the ranks of Général de Division and Général de Corps d’Armée redundant, if not for prestige and vanity. Furthermore, the FAR Head Quarters hierarchy is in disarray and with no real power, and all decisions of promotions, movement of troops and especially officers have to go through the Commander in Chief of the FAR, though Arroub was responsible for some movements of troops under the new King.


The controversy of the real power behind Bouchaib Arroub, General de Corps d’armée and Director du 3e Bureau, is in his position as the man in charge of the Advanced Command Post (PCA), directly linked to the king when it should be within the hierarchy of the Inspector General of the FAR, raises many questions as to who holds the highest level of command in the Army, outside the Commander in Chief. Nevertheless, these two commands control three mechanised brigades, one light security brigade, two paratrooper brigades, and eight mechanised or motorised infantry regiments. There are also Independent units which include one armoured battalion, two cavalry battalions, 39 infantry battalions, one mountain infantry battalion, two paratrooper battalions, three motorised (camel corps) battalions, nine artillery battalions, seven engineering battalions, one air defence group and seven commando units. They are highly trained with a vast arsenal of US material that has been renewed over the years and comprised 871 tanks, types M60 Patton A3 TTS, 240 second hand M60 MBTs delivered between 1993 to 1994, 9427 Armoured Personnel Carrier/Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 2,605 Anti-Tank equipment, 424 Air Defence weapons, and in 2008 the US sold 140 of its latest M60A tanks. The Russians also delivered 12 Tunguska-M1 air defence system for the protection of the infantry against low-flying aircraft or cruise missiles, 107 surface-to-air missiles, 338 Artillery with over 227 self-propelled and 40 multiple rocket launchers, and at least 13 types of small arms.viii They also supplied some 100 armoured vehicles T-72B (MBTs) from Belarus in 2000, and 125 T-90 tanks in 2008 as well as around 60 BMP-3 were ordered in 2015ix. Furthermore, in 2009, Morocco received 70 Belgian-made armoured vehicles, as well as another 102 armoured cars in a secret deal with Morocco. Spanish electronic systems were also under consideration and Morocco recently, after the reorganisation of the Spanish army, took delivery of Spanish military surplus vehicles and 50 second hand Leopardo tanks.x Morocco also signed in 2006 for the purchase of 1200 Tactical High Mobility Vehicles as well as 800 different types of lorry and 10 troop carriers, in addition to 10 new patrol boats. There were also new deliveries in 2011 from the US of 200 Abrams M1A1 tanks, AN/AVS 9 night vision goggles and 26 advanced M198 155mm towed guns.xi A new contract was agreed in September 2015 to supply 250 Abrams tanks, 22 of which will be delivered in 2016 and the rest by the end of 2018xii. The US also supplied Morocco with many of its surplus supplies and some of it was part of Gifts and others at a preferential deal. Several other deals have been concluded with the USA, including a newly completed contract worth $405,500,000 for the delivery and installation of a “Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINGARS)” including parts, training and fielding support services and should be fully operational by 2021xiii. Most of the Moroccan equipment remains really secret, hence everything about ‘la Muette’ is silence and even Parliament has only the minimum useless information when debating its budget. What is revealed here is just the tip of the iceberg, even the latest agreements concluded with Russia, during the last visit of King Mohammed VI in 2016 were subjected to reciprocal agreement on secrecy requiring both sides not to divulge any details of cooperation and military contract or share any information, relating to the equipment delivered, to a third party before prior agreement of the two parties on any of these issues. Morocco also signed contracts with Netherlands’ DAMEN for 3 SIGMA-class Multi-mission Frigates and also French FREMM to reinforce its Navy as well as other contracts were concluded in the last 10 years. Morocco has actually around 89 vessels and aircraft, 121 destroyers within its Navy, mostly equipped with new multi-mission frigates equipped with MdCN deep-strike cruise missiles, Aster anti-air missiles, Exocet MM40 anti-ship missiles and MU90 torpedoes. It has been negotiating in 2016 the purchase of second hand Italian warships and submarines from Russia. Whereas the Morocco Airforce has more than 367 military aircraft, mostly American, including 23 F-16xiv, French, Russian and also purchased 4 C-27J tactical transport aircraft from Italy in 2008. In terms of financial cost on arms purchases, Morocco spends less than rich Algeria, and according SIPRI’s figure, Morocco increased its spending on arms transfers between 2010 and 2014 by 16% compared to the period 2005 to 2009. Whereas between 2011 and 2015, 16% of arms imports in Africa were destined to Morocco and 30% to Algeria. SDI predicts that Morocco is set to spend over 220 Billion dirhams between 2015 and 2019, representing an increase on defense budget by 8.8% instead of 4.59% between 2010 and 2014. According to the latest Global (2016), the following figures are given: Morocco and Algeria dispose of the following: Morocco has 282 Aircraft (All Types) with Algeria’s 451; 128 Helicopters for Algeria’s 210; O Attack Helicopters 34 for Algeria; Attack Aircraft (Fixed-Wing): Morocco 50 and 99 for Algeria; 50 Fighter Aircraft for Morocco and 89 for Algeria; 81 Trainer Aircraft for Morocco and 64 for Algeria; 158 Transport Aircraft for Morocco and 225 for Algeria; 55 Serviceable Airports for Morocco and 157 for Algeria; 1215 Tank Strength for Morocco and 975 for Algeria; 2,348 AFV Strength for Morocco and 1,898 for Algeria; 448 SPG Strength and 250 for Algeria; 192 Towed Artillery for Morocco and 350 for Algeria; 72 MLRS Strength for Morocco and 148 for Algeria; 26 Merchant Marine Strength for Morocco and 38 for Algeria; 5 Major Ports / Terminals for Morocco and 9 for Algeria; 121 Fleet Strength for Morocco and 69 for Algeria; Aircraft Carriers Zero for both; 0 Submarines for Morocco and 6 for Algeria; 6 Frigates for Morocco and 8 for Algeria; Zero Destroyers for both; 1 Corvettes for Morocco and 6 for Algeria; Zero Mine Warfare Craft for both; 18 Patrol Craft for Morocco and 38 for Algeria.


Military Engagement with the Polisario and Algerian Units

Since its creation in 1956, under the leadership of Prince Moulay Hassan, the army was a stabilising factor in Moroccan politics. It was used as part of its foreign policy in the Congo in 1960, against Algeria in 1963, to reinforce security in Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East in 1967 and 1973. But it saw its heyday under the state of emergency, from 1965 to 1970, when many generals and other high officers became governors, administrators and ministers. As a result of this power, it became then the most serious destabiliser and the most dangerous force for the regime and the people in the country. It felt confident to challenge the king’s power during the 1971 and 1972 coups, forcing him to double his efforts to reach a compromise with all political parties in Morocco. These coups presented new challenges and produced another image of the military. After many years of neglect, it was given a chance to modernise itself and play a role away from Rabat, in a real battlefield. Opportunities were available for its officers to obtain promotion quickly rather than becoming involved in national politics. The issue of the Western Sahara was being discussed and diplomatic efforts were made at the UN, the ICJ, at the Arab League and the OAU. While politicians were given the chance to gather support for the return of the Sahara and went on a world tour to lobby their friends, the Army was given a golden opportunity to show its strength and it was deployed successfully in the border region, first, to organise and control the “Green March” of 1975 and second, to put pressure on the Spaniards to negotiate. There, the army found its role and the Sahraoui Dlimi, General Oufkir’s right hand man, was made the Commander of that region.


The Army had to redeem itself from its role in the political instability it created during the coups of 1971, 1972 and the foiled attempted coup of 1973 attributed to Libya. For the first time since independence, Morocco witnessed the dissatisfaction of the army, which organised three coups in as many years. Before the coups, the army was considered faithful to the king who controlled it. He selected his own officers for promotion and provided the material required to modernise the army. When Hassan II reigned unchecked from 1965 to 1970, he believed that his authority over the army was unquestionable. However, the technocrat ministers who were mostly Arabs, abused their posts by acquiring wealth and took the settlers’ land as well as shares in foreign businesses in Morocco, thus indulging openly in corruption, whereas the military was dominated by Imazighen and left without promotions or wealth, as Mark Tesler writes: “The elimination of effective political opposition failed to prevent two attempts by the army and the air force officers to assassinate the king, one in July 1971 at Skhirat and the other in August 1972 in Rabat. Discontent over Hassan’s autocratic rule and over corruption among many of his associates helped to bring on the attempted coups.”17 In addition to the officers being Imazighen, the coups were organised by officers who were trained in the USA, like General Madbouh for the July coup, and officers of the Kenitra base, like Colonel Amekrane or Major Kouera. The Kenitra base was also shared with the Americans, which raised the question whether they were aware of the attackers’ objectives or just assumed that the four Northrop F5s were going to escort the king’s plane returning from Paris. Ruf has his own thesis when he writes: “Ce sont les intérêts considérables que les Etats-Unis possèdent au Maroc qui amènent l’exécutif américain à voir l’évolution du gouvernement chérifien avec un scepticisme de plus en plus marqué: le maintien des structures féodales et la corruption qui va en se développant constituent à long terme une menace potentielle pour les intérêts américains. Aussi peut-être ne faut-il pas s’étonner de ce que la première tentative de coup d’état de Skhirat ait eu lieu peu de temps seulement après le retour des Etats-Unis du général Madbouh, retour à la suite duquel une importante affaire de corruption a été dévoilée aboutissant à la mise en cause de certains ministres.»18 This antithesis was, probably, to safeguard French interests in Morocco especially as military contracts were very valuable to France. General Madbouh was Hassan II’s Head of the Royal Cabinet and was killed by the rebel forces who attacked the Palace at Skhirat. The details of his involvement were not clear, just as the suicide of Oufkir was not convincing when, at first, it was announced that he shot himself with one bullet, as Pédron writes: “Visiblement mal à l’aise, Benhima [the Minister of the Interior] explique: ‘Oufkir reçoit trois balles. Une dans le mamelon. Une on ne sait où et la troisième qui sera fatale. (Mais où?).”19 It would be wrong to assume that the coups were mounted because of any American influence or that the officers were Imazighen. The coups were nothing more than the general trend which had been going on in Morocco between different factions seeking to hold power, and consequently wealth, in Moroccan politics, since independence. More repression followed and the general elections scheduled for 1973 were cancelled. It was only when the Western Sahara question emerged that political participation started to take shape, as Tesler writes: “In 1976, the security apparatus eased press restrictions and released political detainees and the government held elections for provincial assemblies and municipal councils. A year later, the long-postponed parliamentary elections finally took place as well.”20 The Western Sahara question gathered a political consensus and elections were held in unified Morocco in June 1977. The army was now engaged, away from Rabat and internal politics, fighting the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara. Unlike the early period of independence, Morocco now had increased its army from 50,000 at independence, to 200,00021 during the Western Sahara early conflict, allowing it later to become an interventionist force.


Immediately after the ICJ issued its ruling, Morocco sent some of its units to the north-eastern region bordering Algeria on 31 October 1975 to control the flow of people being coerced to cross to Moroccan Tindouf, others were persuaded to leave because the Polisario and the Algerians convinced them that they were attacked and not that the Moroccan military were targeting the Algerian military entering Morocco, whereas others were just running away with their herds to escape from the conflict zone but were forced to exile by the Polisario, whereas others were just following a member of their family whether he was with the Polisario or not. The Algerian troops were sent into the territory also to help, not only to take Sahraoui Moroccans as ‘hostages’, but also to provide the logistics to evacuate the Sahrawi militia who have been bombarded by the Moroccan air force. This was the first military confrontation between units of the Moroccan armed forces and the Algerian national army before the first major battle of Amgala in 1976. 


After the first early skirmishes, the Polisario responded by declaring the independence of the region. As Morocco secured its position militarily, the Polisario, with the help of the Algerian army, became engaged in its first tactical military operations against the Moroccan FAR, resulting in a number of casualties on all sides in the battles around Amgala.xv The case against units from the Algerian army’s involvement was evident in February 1976 long battle in Amgala, where all three sides suffered heavy losses, and the Moroccans took several Algerian soldiers as prisoners of war. The Algerian army suffered hundreds of deaths and more than a hundred soldiers were taken prisoners by the Moroccan army as later shown with the exchange of prisoners. It required intervention from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to calm down the situation and prevent a full-scale war between the two countriesxvi. As the Polisario and its supporters from Algiers failed to make an impact on the FAR, the Polisario directed its raids against economic targets in Mauritaniaxvii. Because of these attacks, Mauritanian iron ore production was affected and running at 25% below capacity when 65% of the national budget was devoted to defence. However, Algeria and the Polisario made several mistakes when they threatened the economy of Mauritania by disturbing the production of iron ore vital to France as well as the kidnapping and the murdering of French nationals. The Polisario presented France with an ideal opportunity to become directly involved in the conflict after the murder of a French doctor and his wife and the kidnapping of eight French nationals, working as technical assistants at Zaouirate mines, in Mauritania. The Polisario took the French technical experts as hostages in order to halt Mauritanian mineral extractions. This was intended to cripple the Mauritanian economy, as iron ore was the main source of its income and deprive France from its raw material to operate its foundriesxviii. After all efforts had failed to secure the return of the hostages, the French, together with the Moroccans and the Mauritanians, formed a tripartite offensive strategy to liberate the French personnel. The French launched their “operation Lamantin” in December 1977, using Napalm against the Polisario columns and the operations continued in the region until July 1978xix. French involvement was justified because it liberated the kidnapped French citizens and protected French interests in Mauritanian iron ore mines. Their engagement helped the Moroccan and Mauritanian forces by passing to them valuable information that allowed their military forces to monitor the Polisario movements on the ground. “The French reaction was realistically based on the need to protect French nationals, satisfy the widespread anger and contempt caused by Boumediene’s policy and safeguard Mauritania’s economic installations.”xx 


The French air force was based in Dakar, Senegal from as early as November 1977 when it started to give logistic support to Mauritania and Morocco, deploying six Jaguars with the Bréguet-Atlantic planes supplying the required intelligence and surveillance regarding the movements of the Polisario Front unitsxxi. It marked not only the end of French neutrality in the conflict, under the presidency of Giscard, but also its open support for Morocco by providing logistical support as well as by increasing its military supply and technical co-operation in the field. Both Moroccan and French presence in Mauritania had some drawbacks as some elements of the Mauritanian army, more sympathetic to the Algerian regime, started to plot against the weakened regime in Mauritania. These facts coupled with the resentment felt by some in the Mauritanian military at having Moroccan troops stationed in the country, on the one hand, and the support given by Algeria to dissension in Mauritania on the other, resulted in a coup d’état there on 10 July 1978. The overthrow of President Mokhtar Ould Daddah, a staunch ally of Morocco, resulted in the new president, Mustapha Ould Salek,xxii who was the Army Chief of Staff under the previous government, asking for the withdrawal of Moroccan troops from his country. As a payback to Algeria, the new government declared its intention to withdraw from the Sahara sector of Tiris-el-Gharbia, in 1979.


The Polisario sought to declare independence in the region of Tiris-el-Gharbia, in the Mauritanian sector, but Morocco was more determined to recuperate all its territories, as originally and historically claimed. In August 1978, Hassan II rejected the suggestion that an independent Saharan Republic be created in the Mauritanian sector alone. It emerged later that Mauritania and the Polisario Front signed a ‘definitive peace agreement’ in Algiers on 5 August 1979, under which Mauritania renounced all claims to the Western Sahara and withdrew its forces behind its own bordersxxiii. There was also an unpublished clause stipulating the transfer of the southern region of the Sahara to the Polisario, to which the Moroccans responded immediately by claiming their pre-emption rights ‘droit de pre-emption’ and moved into the Tiris el Gharbia. The government appointed a governor to the ‘new Moroccan provinces’ and announced new elections to be held there to choose representatives to the Moroccan Parliament. In 1979, after the recuperation of Tiris el Gharbia, Morocco started to target its criticism towards Libya, the Polisario source of finance, which was now identified as the agent provocateur in the region and the Polisario was branded as a gang of ‘Mauritanian dissidents’. As a result, Mauritania responded by recognising the Sahrawi Republic in 1984xxiv. Thanks to the activities of Algeria that Mauritania lost the southern region of the Moroccan Sahara which were returned to the rightful owners within the kingdom of Morocco; a third mistake of the miscalculation the Algerian regime will never forget as they were outmanoeuvred by the Moroccan takeoverxxv. The Algerian lost in their tactics since they disguised themselves as Polisario Front, and engaged in war against Morocco when they first attacked Smara, before even the Spaniards left the territory. The Moroccan army captured 100 Algerians at Amgala, thus discredited Algerian claims to neutrality, and raised doubts on whether any Polisario Front military-wing really ever existedxxvi. Then the Front targeted Mauritania forcing it to withdraw from Tiris el Gharbia and redirected their attacks once again on the Moroccan army. During the early years of the conflict, Morocco had some serious drawbacks, especially between 1978 and 1980 when the Polisario, with the help of Algiers, proved its capacity to fight and was better equipped and better trained for guerrilla warfare than before to counter a conventional army. The Polisario was able to give stiff resistance to the three newly created special crack divisions by Morocco. The divisions had 7,000 men each: Ohood was created in November 1979, Zellaga came into operation in 1980 and Al Arak was activated in June 1980. They were involved in one of the fiercest battles for the control of Guelta Zemour from 24 to 27 of March extending to 13 October 1981 before they secured the town. As these special units continued clearing the south, work on the first section of this huge defence ‘sand wall’ or ‘sand berm’ made of sand, soil and stones started to take shape starting in August 1980.


The Moroccan army can be analysed in its relevance to the views accorded to it in the UN, by the Arabs, Africans, Americans, the Spaniards and the French conception of the geopolitics of the region and the principles of the balance of power. Morocco proved its efforts to peace and stability throughout the world, hence its election in October 2011 to represent the African Continent at the Permanent General Assembly of the UN, for two years, starting from January 2012. Morocco also sees itself, not only concerned with the security of North Africa as a priority against AQMI and Baghdadi Group , but also Mediterranean security together with that of the Atlantic shores, the Sahel region and sub-Saharan continent, forming part of its geo-political obligations and these require a particular attention in its political and diplomatic agenda. The army, in fact, remains the main component of the realist theory to maintain parity in the balance of power and in the case of Morocco, if Mauritania in the south is too weak to consider, it has to work with Spain and not as wrongly assumed, only Algeria is concerned with security issues in the Sahel, if not only for its vanity to claim superiority and hegemony in the region, when international security cooperation is imperative.