Most Americans know little or nothing about the conflict over the western Sahara or the self-styled “liberation” group the Polisario Front (originally backed by the former Soviet bloc). The Obama administration and Congress are focused on other problems in the Middle East. But the conflict that has ensnared Morocco, Algeria, and tens of thousands of Sahrawi (natives of the disputed territory) refugees warehoused in camps in Algeria poses a humanitarian crisis and creates another hotbed of terrorism and the narco-smuggling that accompanies it.
Others have written extensively on the origins of the dispute. The western Sahara was ceded by Spain largely to Morocco (with the remainder going to Mauritania) in 1975. As J. Peter Pham explains, “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.” Cease-fires and international efforts over the ensuing decades failed to resolve the dispute. Then in November 2005, the king of Morocco initiated an internal dialogue in an attempt to end the conflict, and in 2007 Rabat submitted to the UN an autonomy plan “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.”
The United States, the EU, and others applauded Morocco’s move. And recently Congress added its voice when a bipartisan majority of senators wrote to Hillary Clinton urging her involvement in resolving the western Sahara conflict. “The letter by 54 senators, led by Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), cites ‘growing instability’ and ‘worrisome trends’ in North Africa that could breed terrorism. … Specifically, the senators urge Clinton to pursue a ‘serious and credible’ 2007 proposal by Morocco that would establish autonomy in the region except for symbols of Moroccan sovereignty such as currency as well as border control and foreign policy.”
So what’s standing in the way? A nefarious complex of Algeria (bent on asserting its influence in the region), the now al-Qaeda friendly Polisario, and a hodge-podge of the Polisario’s international supporters have held up what is generally regarded as the only feasible arrangement to resolve the conflict. Zahra Chagaf, the woman who is the elected representative from Tarfaya (home to thousands for whom autonomy would be welcomed), explains the dilemma: “The Moroccan autonomy plan was submitted to the UN and received a lot of support and was considered a serious and critical plan. The goal behind the submission is to end the problem but also to allow peace, prosperity and dignity for the population” while under Moroccan sovereignty. She explains, “We started a series of negotiations in good faith and openness and with willingness to accept revisions but unfortunately Algeria is always trying to be an obstacle, not even to allow the Polisario to decide for themselves. I think they would accept it if they were allowed.”
She observes that the Sahrawi people are “paying a high price through the suffering in the camps and in separation of families. This population consists of the elderly, women and children; they are deprived of freedom of movement. They are deprived of freedom of expression.” She notes that she is a legitimately elected leader of the Sahrawi people, while the unelected Polisario prevent an end to the refugees’ suffering.
What do the Moroccans want? For starters, they have asked that outside groups be allowed to enter the camps, conduct a census, determine the refugees’ needs, and provide travel documents allowing them to move and exercise freedom of choice as to where they want to live. Algeria has denied this access, however, asserting its sovereignty over the camps. (Because the actual number of refugees is unknown, the Polisario and Algeria are able to inflate the number and, as one expert told me, “solicit and receive excessive humanitarian aid.”)
What does Algeria gain by fomenting the conflict? Zahra smiles and says, “I think Algeria is suffering from a regional complex — a superiority complex. They want to be the leader of the region. They keep the refugees in camps — it’s the only card they have to play to get more aid and continue to bring in sufficient revenues to live abroad in places like France and Spain.” She hopes the U.S and other powers will pressure Algeria and finally help resolve the issue. Morocco, she explains, has an infrastructure to provide schools, hospitals, and social services for these people. “The autonomy plan could be implemented tomorrow.”
Why should the U.S. care, and what’s the danger if the dispute festers? She explains that her city in the far south is most at risk. An uncontrolled border and an influx of illegal immigration (including many HIV patients), weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, and finally al-Qaeda terrorists are glutting the area. “We are now arresting al-Qaeda members. There are attacks in Mauritania. We raised the terrorist threat ten years ago. And now the big Mafia organizations of South America are in contact with them and are circulating the drug trafficking. The security of the region is at risk.”
Mbarka Bouaida, another female member of parliament from southern Morocco, explains that although the U.S. has been supportive of the autonomy plan, “it is not a priority. We are asking for it to be a priority.” She emphasizes that it is not simply a humanitarian problem or a North African problem. “It’s a regional problem when we see an al-Qaeda branch. It is a small branch, but the future is very difficult if we don’t prevent politics [from thwarting a resolution].” She explains that “as long as we have an uncontrollable area of the border, then we are not controlling human, arms, and smuggling traffic — and we now see kidnappings in Mauritania.”
It is only in today’s odd world that a remnant of Soviet liberation groups, which still receive support from Castro’s Cuba — and have been condemned for forcibly separating children from their refugee families for indoctrination in Cuba — and which restrict the exit of camp refugees who might want to leave permanently for Morocco, could claim the world’s attention and affection, while one of the most westernized, progressive, and egalitarian Muslim nations must plead to be allowed to grant autonomy and provide social services to those who want both. It is a hard lesson for Morocco that seeking international approval and legitimacy (rather than issuing an unilateral declaration of autonomy and invitation for refugees to come to Morocco ) is not by any means the easiest route to conflict resolution.
If the Obama administration is truly interested in functioning multilateral institutions, winning the hearts and minds of the “Muslim World,” checking the influence of Communist Cuba, and slowing the creep of Islamic terrorism, a good place to start would be to focus on resolving once and for all the nagging conflict that could well inflame the rest of North Africa.