Long before the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring began to rock the political and social foundations of governments in North Africa and the Maghreb, we here at the Moroccan American Center, as well as a significant group of individual and independent academic and security experts, have been trying to raise the awareness of the Washington foreign policy community of the dangers of steadily creeping insecurity in the Sahel/Sahara region. Radical salafist terrorist and criminal groups have for the last several years been burrowing into the region in an effort to create yet another safe haven for their global jihadist ambitions akin to those they have established already in South Asia, East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The fallout from the war in Libya, with the rapid infusion of heavy weapons and fresh fighters into the region, has now spurred that effort to a gallop. But are we yet sufficiently awake to the dangers to finally begin to take some concrete steps to tackle some of the underlying structural problems of the region’s politics to help reset the area on a more stable trajectory? That remains to be seen.
There are many lessons to be learned from what has been allowed to happen in the Sahel from our lack of sufficient attention and the low level priority we have accorded the region, but one of the first that we hope will come to mind as the Washington foreign policy community considers its conundrums in Mali today, is that what is happening now in northern Mali is a very clear object lesson of what would just as surely happen in Western Sahara if we allowed the Polisario to achieve its ambition of setting up another weak state in the region.
Reports about current events on the ground in Northern Mali are confused following the April 6 announcement of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) of independence for the “Azawad people.” However, what does seem clear from reports is that the Azawad tribal councils are less in control of the situation than a collection of salafist extremists groups composed of heavily armed fighters from AQIM and Ansar Dine. These groups, with their Libyan guns, have seized control of the region’s major urban centers, including fabled Timbuktu, from the weaker Taureg tribal groups. Unless this trend is quickly reversed, Ban Ki Moon’s recently expressed fear of a developing “catastrophe” in the region may be coming to pass more quickly than some have expected. Should we expect any less from a potentially similar development of an inevitably weak Polisario state in this already far too volatile region?
In our view, it is time for urgent attention to resolving the lingering problem of Western Sahara. Thousands of restless refugees with no hope for their future continue to provide fertile recruitment opportunities for the expanding salafist groups in the region. Already the level of cooperation between some Polisario elements and AQIM is well documented. The West, and especially the United States, needs to tackle this refugee problem quickly in a way that begins to provide avenues for emptying these camps and allowing these people to go home to Morocco or settle elsewhere.
It is also time for the United States to stop simply saying that it believes the Moroccan autonomy initiative provides a “serious, credible and realistic” way to resolve the Western Sahara problem and start taking the kinds of concrete actions on the ground in the region that will demonstrate that our policy is more than mere rhetoric. Doing so might help persuade the nay-sayers that the time has finally come to bargain a compromise political solution to this issue and help move beyond it to tackle the region’s more pressing security and development problems.
Robert M. Holley is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Moroccan American Center for Policy