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US Should Reassess Policy in Western Sahara

By Stephen ZunesStephen Zunes is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y. / January 10, 1989



THE incoming Bush administration has an opportunity to score an early diplomatic victory should it choose to actively throw its support behind United Nations sponsored negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the war in Western Sahara. To do so would be a departure from the Reagan administration which, despite diplomatic successes in Namibia and elsewhere, has chosen not to play a similarly constructive role in northwest Africa. Indeed, few Americans were even aware of this 14-year conflict until it was suddenly brought home in the tragic downing last month of an American aircraft that had been participating in locust spraying efforts in neighboring countries.

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Just prior to Western Sahara's scheduled independence from Spain in 1976, Moroccan forces invaded the territory, forcing the majority of the inhabitants into exile. The Polisario Front, which until then had been fighting Spanish colonial forces, declared an independent state and launched a war against the Moroccan occupation. Moroccan troops currently control approximately 80 percent of Western Sahara, thanks in large part to US-designed defenses that limit the range of the Polisario guerrillas.

The International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly categorically oppose Morocco's takeover and occupation. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) voted to admit the Polisario in 1982 as the government of Western Sahara as a full member state, and more than 70 nations on five continents - none of which are in the Soviet bloc - formally recognize the Western Saharan government. In contrast, few countries accept Morocco's claim to the territory, which presents a dangerous and potentially destabilizing precedent by violating African nations' traditional respect for the old colonial boundaries.

Though remaining officially neutral in the conflict, the US has become Morocco's primary supplier of military hardware. The use of American equipment against the Polisario - which the State Department admits is a violation of a 1960 agreement with Morocco - gives a clear signal that the Reagan administration wants to see the independence movement crushed. The Polisario are understandably perplexed as to why the US refers to the Afghans - who, like themselves, are a Muslim people engaged in a struggle against a foreign invader - as ``freedom fighters'' while their own acts of resistance are labeled ``terrorism.''

The Polisario are not Marxists: They are an Islamic nationalist movement with a decentralized and democratic organizational structure based on traditional tribal modes of self-governance. They have never received any direct military aid from the Soviets, Chinese, or Cubans, and only briefly received support from Libya. Their closest diplomatic ties are with the Western European socialist parties and nonaligned third-world governments. Having visited Polisario-controlled zones of Western Sahara and Polisario-administered refugee camps in Algeria, I can attest to their dedication to democratic institutions and rejection of foreign ideologies.

US military aid to the Moroccan war effort has topped more than $1 billion since the Moroccan takeover, and includes sophisticated electronic equipment and counterinsurgency aircraft. Over 130 Americans are working under military contracts with the Moroccan government, some within the Western Saharan battle zone. Such intervention in what many view as a colonial war has damaged relations with some African countries, already strained by the Reagan administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' with South Africa.

In addition, US policy has hurt relations with Algeria, the chief supporter of the Polisario, delaying that country's efforts to separate itself from dependency on the Soviet Union. The Algerians have stated explicitly that US support for Morocco's war is the only real obstacle to closer relations. Since Algeria could be an important source for oil and natural gas, it is folly to jeopardize this opportunity for rapprochement.

Unlike the Carter administration, which linked military aid to Morocco to progress toward a negotiated settlement, the Reagan administration has refused to encourage peace initiatives by the UN and the OAU. Most observers believe the bloodshed would have ended long ago were it not for US support of the Moroccan war effort. Morocco's King Hassan has thus remained intransigent and has vowed to continue fighting.

The missile attack that downed the American aircraft could have been avoided had US officials informed the Agency for International Development that Western Sahara was still a war zone and that their aircraft could easily be mistaken for US-supplied Moroccan reconnaissance planes. Unfortunately, State Department officials have largely supported the erroneous Moroccan position that the war is essentially over. Last year, for example, I personally witnessed two battles in the vicinity of the downing of the AID plane at a time when the Moroccans were officially reporting the front was quiet.

The Polisario immediately apologized for the attack and have reiterated their desire for good relations with the incoming Bush administration. However, the US still seems determined to seek a military solution to the conflict, recently increasing assistance to the Moroccan war effort while offering only lukewarm support for ongoing UN mediation efforts.

Despite an overwhelming advantage in firepower, the Moroccans have been unable to contain the mobile Polisario guerrillas, who know the territory well and have been resisting foreign invaders for centuries. The Bush administration must realize that involvement in yet another fruitless counterinsurgency war is not in our best interests. Hopefully, we will not have to wait for another tragedy before the US recognizes the need for a serious reevaluation of its policies in northwest Africa.