Endless Conflict in West Sahara

Article excerpt


While all Western powers acknowledge that Morocco's offer of wide autonomy in Western Sahara is both daring and credible, Algeria and the Polisario guerrilla front keep on refusing it. This position perpetuates a cycle of conflict now 32 years old. The next round of negotiations between Morocco and Polisario is scheduled to begin on Jan. 7. Based on past history, the outcome is not hopeful.

Polisario has been led since 1978 by the same person, Mohamed Abdelaziz, and its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a Potemkin village. It is a party-state along the lines of traditional Leninist systems, where elections are fictive events rather than expressions of popular will.

During the violent phase of the conflict with Morocco, which started in 1975 and ended in 1991, Polisario captured numerous Moroccan soldiers, and it was only in August 2005 that it freed the last prisoners it still held. The 404 men were imprisoned for almost 20 years - the world's longest-held prisoners of war.

Their treatment while in captivity was so atrocious that it even attracted the condemnation of France Liberte, a militant human-rights organization led by Danielle Mitterrand, previously a strong supporter of Polisario's goals. This episode is not an encouraging sign of its ability to run a state responsibly or decently.

Over its 30-year history, Polisario has established firm control over the people of Tindouf, the main Algerian provincial town near the areas controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the government in exile of Western Sahara (Sahrawi is the term used for the populations from the disputed Western Sahara territory).

Indeed, the Tindouf refugee camp population is closely controlled by Polisario's forces and the nearby Algerian military, which both restrict access by outsiders, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Considering that the U.N. pays for the refugees, this means aid distribution lacks all transparency, which in turn has resulted in rampant corruption on the part of Polisario's leadership.

All these facts are confirmed by a steady stream of high-ranking defectors. They and a few outsiders also confirm that Algeria directs all Polisario operations, both in Tindouf and abroad. That raises the question of the ability, or willingness, of a Polisario-led state to act independently from Algiers and of the threat it may pose to Morocco.

Ultimately, the persistent appearance of the Western Sahara on the international agenda is a throwback to the Cold War, and is tied to Algerian geopolitical calculations. Algeria, Polisario's protector from the beginning, wants to expand its influence to the Atlantic and thus weaken its perennial Maghreb rival, Morocco.

Prior to its present military-dominated regime, Algiers' FLN governments also shared a common "socialist" ideology with exile Sahrawi elites; now, geopolitics and anti-Moroccan sentiment play the dominant role.

This region also is subject to international terrorism. Mauritania, Western Sahara's weak neighbor, has already been targeted by al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, and, as of spring 2007, by a new transnational Islamist terrorist group, "The Partisans of the Prophet in Sahara, the Land of Those Wearing the Veil." The group's goal is to defeat or overthrow, via jihad, the governments of Spain, France, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and "the corrupt Polisario regime."

Considering this increasingly dangerous environment, an independent and defenseless Western Sahara could only be seen as an ideal theater for Islamists to set up in the Sahel - the desert area between the Atlantic and the Sudan - thereby offering an additional threat to the entire region. …