Solving 40-year Cold War conflict needs more than words

Forty years ago on November 6, 1975, 350,000 Moroccans, led by King Hassan II, peaceably walked into the Spanish-occupied Western Sahara, in defiance of thousands of Spanish soldiers, waving the Moroccan flag and the Koran, to reclaim their traditional sovereignty over the region as General Franco faded from power.

It was a different era, and the Cold War raged in unexpected places – including the Sahara. The Polisario Front, a Marxist independence movement largely sponsored at the time by the Soviet Union, Algeria, Cuba, and Libya, engaged Morocco in a war that ended in 1991 in a UN-brokered ceasefire. The UN has been trying to resolve this issue since – first through a referendum and now through a negotiated political solution.

{mosads}On the fortieth anniversary of the Green March last Friday, King Mohammed VI spoke with firm determination from the Sahara to remind the world that Morocco was legitimately in its own lands and would never be moved from its duty to the nation to reclaim all that was rightfully Morocco’s before colonial Europe’s usurpation of its sovereignty a century earlier.

In 1999, while I was U.S. ambassador to Morocco, after years of endless and inconclusive arguments about a fatally flawed referendum voter list, I participated in a formal U.S. government policy review. It concluded what Morocco had maintained from the beginning: there could not be any realistic and viable solution to the “Western Sahara” problem that did not require a fundamental political compromise among the parties and leave Morocco sovereign while granting its inhabitants a substantial autonomy.

In expressing the new U.S. position, Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of State at the time, said, “Winners and losers will only create more conflict and discord. What is required is a solution that gives to all some of what they legitimately need, and denies all unrealistic aspirations that would only aggravate the conflict.”  In other words, no referendum, which would create winners and losers, could bring peace to the region. 

Washington wisely settled on a formula that would leave Morocco sovereign in the territory but grant a substantial autonomy to the region’s people to largely govern their own daily affairs.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, then the United Nations Personal Envoy, delivered this same message to the parties in Berlin and London in 2000. His message was also clear and unambiguous – no independent Sahrawi state would be forthcoming, nor would there be full integration of the territory into Morocco. Only a political compromise was possible.  It would be up to the parties to bargain the details, insisted Secretary Baker, but the basic formula was only a sovereignty/autonomy trade-off.

Morocco got the message and in 2001 agreed to Baker’s proposal, and later, with U.S. encouragement, offered an outline of what an autonomy-sovereignty initiative could look like, which the U.S. and UN called “serious, credible and realistic.”  Algeria and the Polisario proved more recalcitrant, continuing to insist on a referendum on independence with a seriously flawed list of voters – as they do to this day.  James Baker’s successor as UN Personal Envoy, Peter van Walsum, came to the same conclusion and said so clearly in his last report to the Secretary General.

Since 1999, three consecutive U.S. administrations have supported this political compromise, and it is backed by the U.S. Congress and previous UN Personal Envoys. And still Algeria and the Polisario won’t take the hint.  A key reason for this is that neither the UN nor the U.S. has been forceful enough in their words or actions in support of Morocco’s autonomy initiative. Continuously repeating that the initiative is “serious, credible and realistic” is just not enough.

Circumstances in the Sahara/Sahel have been deteriorating at an alarming rate. Many policy experts have been raising red flags for years. Coups, uprisings, failing governments, rampant acts of terrorism, contraband smuggling, large ungoverned spaces and a plethora of jihadi groups — and the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria, filled with hopeless, angry young men and women, are the recruiting targets of those groups.  When do we get the wakeup call?

The U.S. owes it to our oldest ally and partner, Morocco, to make a firm and unequivocal public statement, admitting the U.S. position publicly and putting concrete actions into place that will encourage Algeria and the Polisario to seriously negotiate with Morocco.

It is time for the U.S. to make it clear to Algeria and the Polisario there will be no reversal of U.S. policy. And we must provide support for Morocco’s ongoing efforts to develop the territory, making life better and giving people there more control over it.

Gabriel, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, advises the Kingdom of Morocco. For more information, please visit the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

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