Western Sahara: An Unlikely Key to American Strategy in Africa

Do America’s counterterrorism efforts in West Africa require it to look the other way?

Moroccan flags on the outskirts of El Aaiún, the capital of Western Sahara, September 4, 2012
Moroccan flags on the outskirts of El Aaiún, the capital of Western Sahara, September 4, 2012 (Flickr/Eunheui)

Africa, once the forgotten continent in American foreign policy, has rather abruptly become important again. US Africa Command has been front and center as a result of operations in Libya, Somalia and elsewhere. Terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are active and spreading and Chinese economic expansion into the continent makes it strategically interesting almost by default. It is time, now rather than later, for Western policymakers to consider the place of Africa in the world.

The first and most important way of engaging with an entire continent is developing regional allies. In the case of Africa, these can often be identified by what they oppose. Al-Shabaab may run rampant in Somalia but neighboring Kenya is ready and willing to listen to Western advice and aid. Boko Haram, a key substate actor in Nigeria, is counterbalanced by American diplomatic and economic engagement with the Nigerian government. And AQIM, arguably the most important of Africa’s major terrorist groups, is countered in some areas by a Moroccan constitutional monarchy that has shown great willingness to cooperate with the West on matters of counterterrorism and regional strategy.

None of these regimes are entirely blameless. But they are convenient allies and a realist approach to international relations requires doing business with imperfect people whose interests nevertheless align with the United States’.

Credibility, though, has a lot of different sides. The image that the United States want to project in Africa is a simple one: speak softly, carry a big stick in one hand and carry a lot of aid money in the other. That image is somewhat complicated, in the case of American-Moroccan relations, by the issue of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is a chunk of desert roughly the size of Colorado and has a population of around half a million. Morocco, a little less than twice that size, has a population of 33 million. The territory has been called the last colony in the world; it may well have been that in 1975 when the Spanish withdrew and Morocco abruptly occupied and annexed it. Sixteen years of often brutal insurgency followed, pitting Moroccan security forces against Western Sahara’s inhabitants, the Saharawi, who do not see themselves as Moroccan and have limited interest in joining the kingdom. A ceasefire in 1991 nominally ended the violence, on the condition that a referendum be held to determine the future of the territory. More than two decades later, that referendum has yet to occur.

Occasional protests in Western Sahara are still often handled violently and a substantial portion of the population lives behind a 1,700 mile long militarized wall, complete with millions of landmines. No country in the United Nations recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara but the issue tends to attract very little attention outside Africa.

Though it does not much trouble the United States, Western Sahara has been a contentious issue for Morocco’s neighbors. The border between Morocco and Algeria remains closed, partially as a result of Algeria’s support for an independent Western Sahara. The Moroccan government has taken considerable flack for its stance on the territory and the Saharawi people have been a minor magnet for activists and journalists, although much of the territory is technically closed to reporters.

It is not hard to make the argument that no ally is perfect, of course, and maybe Moroccan cooperation on other issues is worth being, as they say, diplomatic over Western Sahara. Maybe Morocco is headed in the right direction on enough fronts that it makes no sense to be picky just now. And certainly, the cancellation of a joint American-Moroccan military exercise last April — in conjunction with an American proposal for human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara — may have made the point succinctly enough for politicians, though probably not for Saharawi activists. Or maybe not.

Nevertheless, it bears thinking about: how far does pragmatism go? If the logic underlying diplomatic alliances with unsavory regimes — of which Morocco is not really one; as far as African countries go, it is doing extremely well in all dimensions — is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, what does that mean for the Saharawi? If the Saharawi see Morocco as the enemy, and the United States as Morocco’s friend, what does that mean about Saharawi cooperation with, say, Al Qaeda? What does that mean about the relationship between Afghan villagers and the Taliban? Or postwar Iraq and newly conciliatory Iran?

The Saharawi, despite the harshness of their natural environment and the unpalatability of their political environment, are not going anywhere. They were living in the desert when Gaius Suetonius Paulinus marched a Roman army south from the Atlas Mountains to what is now Mauritania. They were still there when Islam arrived several hundred years later. They were there for the Almoravid Empire, for the Spanish protectorate and for the post-1975 insurgency. And, like all marginalized peoples, they will still be there when the geopolitical order shifts once again.

The question of what to do about them isn’t really a question about the Saharawi, or Morocco, or any particular group in any particular place. For America, it is a question of reputation. It is a question about how it wants to look to future historians — and future allies. It is a question about whether a cohesive global strategy for the world’s only superpower requires that superpower to compromise on the moral high ground. And if compromise is required, when is it required? How far need it go before the price of doing business starts becoming too high to justify the sometimes unappetizing but wholly necessary moral grey areas that have always characterized robust foreign policy?

This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.