Because of the Polisario’s intransigence and refusal to negotiate seriously with Morocco under UN auspices, the Western Sahara conflict has dragged on for more than 30 years. This impasse has created hardship for thousands of refugees trapped in Polisario-run camps and fueled uncertainty and instability across the Maghreb.

The fall of Qaddafi changes that, as Libya’s new leadership has declared its support for Morocco’s compromise solution of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the people of the Sahara region. Morocco was a key Arab supporter of the UN-NATO intervention against Qaddafi and has strengthened ties with the new Libyan leaders. In addition, Morocco’s new Constitution, approved in a national referendum on July 1, sets a strong example for peaceful democratic reform, and was strongly supported by voters in Morocco’s Western Sahara.

On the other hand, it was reported that hundreds of Polisario militia were recruited as mercenaries for Qaddafi, fighting against NATO and Libyan rebel forces.  Polisario members have been linked with al-Qaeda operatives and armed drug-traffickers in Africa’s Sahel, the desolate no-man’s land stretching from Yemen and Somalia on the Red Sea through Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and up to the Western Sahara on the Atlantic.

Just weeks ago, Mali officials reported four dead on the Mali-Algeria border from a battle between drug-trafficking gangs, one of which was identified as aligned with the Polisario.

Six months of conflict and chaos in Libya has made the Sahel even more dangerous: intelligence reports confirm that large amounts of Qaddafi’s arms are swamping the area, including surface-to-air missiles that Mauritania’s President says have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

A September security conference in Algiers called the region a “powder keg.” AFRICOM’s head, U.S. General Carter Ham, recently said al-Qaeda’s growing presence in the Sahel was a “threat to the United States” and other Western nations.

Although Algeria has suffered more attacks from AQIM than anyone in the region and enjoys U.S. support for its counterterrorism efforts, its relations with the new U.S.-backed Libyan regime have been frosty, stifling greater regional security cooperation. This year’s State Department Counterterrorism Report describes Algeria’s ongoing disagreement with Morocco over the Western Sahara as an “impediment to deeper counter-terrorism cooperation” and a “weakness for terrorist groups such as AQIM to exploit.”

Turning a blind eye to this dangerous situation is not an option. Growing numbers of AQIM operatives and well-armed mercenaries are the new mujahedeen, transforming the Sahel into a trans-African superhighway of terrorism and trafficking.

For the U.S., the imperative is clear: use America’s leverage more forcefully to broker a responsible Western Sahara solution. This will enable the increased Maghreb cooperation needed to support continued democratic transitions in Libya and Tunisia, and promote the regional unity necessary to more effectively stem the encroaching tide of terrorism.

Edward M. Gabriel served as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco from 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco.