Western Sahara: An Unlikely Key to American Strategy in Africa

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.

Escalating Sectarian Divide Threatens Post-American Iraq

The fragile political power-sharing arrangement imposed by American forces during the Iraqi occupation is at a renewed risk of collapse. Recent moves by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite backers have considerably threatened the state’s sensative coalition structure, which couples a Shia prime minister with Sunni and Kurdish deputies, a Sunni parliamentary speaker with Shia and Kurdish deputies, and a Kurdish president with Shia and Sunni vice presidents.

When American troops left Iraq less than a week ago, the long disgruntled Sunni establishment was on the defensive almost immediately, as deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was issued a stop work order Monday by Maliki’s office. Citing only “administrative irregularities” and the ambiguous charge of traveling without informing the government, Mutlaq is now effectively barred from entering the cabinet.

More recently, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a former general secretary of the country’s largest Sunni Islamist bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish north after being issued an arrest warrant for allegedly running a hit squad targeting government officials. Hashimi has called the allegations “absurd” and describes them as a smear campaign led by Maliki and his Shia backers who control the state’s Interior Ministry.

While Prime Minister Maliki called Wednesday for Kurdish authorities to hand over Hashimi for trial, the Sunni leader thanked Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani on Tuesday for a promise of security as he weighs leaving the country.

The move puts Talabani in the middle of a renewed sectarian divide that has already seen the powerful Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which controls nine ministerial posts and 82 parliamentary seats, suspend its participation in national unity cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya members have claimed for months that government security forces are arresting hundreds of their members, accusing them of being members of Saddam Hussein’s now outlawed Ba’ath Party.

Despite winning national elections in 2010, Iraqiya leaders have been unable to take the post of prime minister from Maliki and his State of Law party and last week called him a “dictator” who is undermining the sensitive the power-sharing agreement that keeps Iraq from plundering into full blow sectarian war.

A lesser known contributing factor to the current crisis are the increasing claims for semi-autonomous status from regions across the country. Most recently, councilors from Diyala, citing “unjust measures” including exclusion and disregard from Maliki’s government in Baghdad, submitted to the cabinet a request for the Iraqi High Electoral Commission to declare the province an independent administrative and economic region.

Turkmen in the Shia-dominated Iraqi National Alliance have likewise called for the establishment of regional status for Tuz Khormato in Salah ad Din Province and Tal Afar in Ninawa, as hysteria over regional power dynamics grows.

Added recently to the list of disgruntled Sunni opponents of Maliki is the emir of Iraq’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Dulaimi. Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, whose influence spans much of Anbar Province, once a bulwark of the insurgency, has called for a massive tribal conference to discuss the replacement of Maliki, who he has publicly threatened with setting on fire.

Meanwhile, sectarian violence in Anbar is on the rise. Last month, a convoy of security forces sent by Maliki from the Shia holy city of Karbala to investigate the murder of Shia pilgrims were killed execution style after begin taken hostage. Officials have blamed their deaths on the tactics of Al Qaeda linked Sunni militants.

A spokeswoman for the United States Department of State has expressed concern over these developments, urging rival political groups “to work out their differences peacefully, politically, through dialogue, and certainly in a manner that is consistent with democratic political process and international standards of rule of law.” However, many of the country’s most important Sunni leaders are now exiled, and observers fear the Sunni establishment could react by withdrawing further from parliamentary functions.

Such a move could not only bring down the government but would likely lead to increased Shia control of the state as new appointments would be made by Maliki directly. In this scenario, with the country’s northern population firmly supporting the Sunni-led uprisings in neighboring Syria, the potential for a populist revolt will be increasingly dependent on the outcome of this renewed political stalemate.