Against the backdrop of North Korea and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, it is understandable that within the United States, the Western Sahara is largely forgotten. It should not be. Across North Africa and the Sahel, political chaos reigns and stability is in short supply. Nature abhors a vacuum, but terrorists love them. Fueled by loose weapons from Libya, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other offshoot terrorist groups have destabilized wide swaths of the Sahel.
Freedom House once categorized Mali as the most free Muslim majority country in the world, but now it teeters on the brink of state failure, victim of weapons smuggling, terrorism, and its own porous borders. Across North Africa and the Sahel, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, the only truly stable country is Morocco, a country whose sovereignty over the Western Sahara remains at the center of a decades-long diplomatic dispute.
It has now been almost 40 years since Spain left what was then called the Spanish Sahara, a territory that it had administered for almost a century. Conflict erupted quickly after Spain left. Morocco occupied nearly the entire territory. But Algeria, a reliable Soviet ally in the context of the Cold War, had other plans. It supported the Polisario Front, a group that claimed independence for the former Spanish territory and declared itself the rightful government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The subsequent guerilla conflict continued until 1991, when Morocco and the Polisario Front reached a ceasefire. The two sides initially agreed that a referendum would determine the Western Sahara’s future, but that vote was never held because they could reach no consensus about who qualified to vote. Today, the Sahrwi Arab Democratic Republic exists on paper only although thanks to Algerian largesse, which sees the Polisario as a useful wedge against rival Morocco and so bankrolls its diplomatic missions.
In reality, the Polisario controls little more than a series of small refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria’s Western-most province along the border of Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. While the Polisario Front claims more than 100,000 Sahwari refugees live in the camps and some journalists and short-term visitors parrot that figure, diplomats with long experience in the camps and in the region, as well as former refugees, estimate that no more than 40,000 reside in the camps. Only half of these are actual refugees from the portion of the Western Sahara that Morocco controls; the remainder has roots in Algeria, Mauritania, or Mali. Indeed, there is a reason why Algeria refuses to allow an independent census.
The danger is not that war is going to re-erupt between Algeria and Morocco, or that the Polisario will be able to renew its insurgency inside Morocco. Rather, the problem is smuggling. By inflating camp population and then pocketing the difference in aid allocations, the Polisario bolsters its militia and its leaders’ profits. Polisario smuggling is evident in markets around Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania, where merchants sell aid supplies delivered to Tindouf.
Siphoned aid is only the tip of the iceberg: Polisario smugglers also transport African migrants northward toward Europe, and jihadis and weaponry southward from Libya, through Algeria, and across the increasingly unstable Sahel. Counterterror analysts say that AQIM now recruits in Polisario camps.
The simple fact is that the camps need not exist. Many residents of the Tindouf camps seek to return to Morocco, which welcomes them with open arms. Whereas from the 1970s through the 1990s, Morocco kept the Western Sahara as a poor backwater, the strategy of Mohammed IV of Morocco, who assumed the throne in 1999, has been to focus on economic development in the Western Sahara, and he has put the Kingdom’s money to work to show that his rhetoric is not empty. Standards of living are higher in the Western Sahara now than they are in the rest of Morocco, and rather than simply exploit the region’s mineral wealth or its fisheries, the government now focuses on sustainable development, the tourism sector, other businesses, and education. More importantly, at U.S. insistence, the Moroccan government has agreed to grant the Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. Not only does such a solution make historical sense – most recent Moroccan dynasties have roots in what is now the Western Sahara – but the Moroccans have followed through. Former Polisario members and refugees occupy the highest positions and set policy. Many returnees, meanwhile, suggest that thousands more would follow if the Polisario allowed them to leave. Far from being refugees, the autocratic Polisario now treats Sahrawi camp residents not as constituents but as hostages.
Diplomats naturally seek compromise, but win-win situations only work when both sides sincerely seek a settlement. Alas, Algeria and its Polisario proxies do not. The Algerian government opposes autonomy in the Western Sahara, likely because it fears a precedent which could unravel Algerian control over its own restive Berber provinces. It effectively views the Polisario in the same way that Iran does Hezbollah: as a useful proxy to wield against enemies.
But with AQIM wreaking havoc in the region, and smuggling pouring fuel on the fire, the United States and its European and African allies should no longer sit idle and let the problem fester. Morocco, the first country to extend the United States diplomatic recognition in 1777, has been a steadfast ally to the United States ever since; Washington should repay the favor. It should side unequivocally with Rabat; make aid to the Tindouf camps contingent on an independent census; and demand that Algeria allow Tindouf residents to travel with their families freely, by bus, to Morocco. No longer should the Polisario be allowed to keep family members hostage to encourage the return of the few camp residents who can get seats on U.N.-sponsored flights.
As the United States should have learned from Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Timor Leste, and Syria, state failure is hard to reverse. The key is to prevent collapse in the first place. As the only stable state in the region, it behooves the United States to support Morocco and work through it to rebuild the economies of the region, and train forces to restore stability to countries like Mali, the Central African Republic, Tunisia, and Libya. It should formally recognize Moroccan suzerainty over the Western Sahara, dismiss Algerian claims, allow the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), a decades-long failure, to expire and let the Polisario fade into the dustbin of history, a Cold War relic like the Baader-Meinhof gang, Shining Path or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
By doing so, the United States can not only do what is right, but it can also reduce opportunities for al Qaeda to arm and thrive, support an ally, resolve uncertainty that undercuts regional investment, bolster its own national security, and achieve a clear foreign policy success with bipartisan and State Department support.
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently returned from Morocco and the Western Sahara where he interviewed former Polisario Front members and Sahrawi officials. Follow him @mrubin1971. The views expressed are his own.