Robert M. Holley
March 9, 2017
Where tensions are running high and opposing armed forces are facing off with one another, separated by only a couple of hundred meters, the risk of an accident with unpredictable and potentially terrible consequences also runs equally high.
Such has been the case for the last several months in Western Sahara, where, until very recently, substantial deployments of the armed forces of Morocco and the Polisario Front nervously eyed one another across only a couple of hundred meters of no man’s land.
Despite many years of the Polisario’s bombastic threats of a return to war, no one seriously believes that Algeria would green-light its Polisario client to pull the trigger on a new war with Morocco.
Nevertheless, when excitable soldiers are facing off with live ammunition in their weapons, the risk of an accident is a dangerous possibility. And once someone fires that first round, you never really know what happens next. If you doubt that, just review the consequences of that first single shot fired in Sarajevo, Concord or Fort Sumpter to refresh your memory of just how quickly things can get totally out of hand.
Fortunately, after a phone call from King Mohamad VI to the new UN Secretary General, Morocco did the responsible thing and withdrew its forces from the area. The Polisario, however, remains in place, locked and loaded and refusing to budge, despite the repeated urgings of the international community to withdraw its forces and reduce the tensions in this volatile dispute.
This four-decade-old problem has been ripe for resolution since the United States changed its policy in early 1999 and called for a mutually acceptable political solution based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. Most of the international community followed suit, and the UN Security Council has since repeatedly urged a fundamental political compromise. The United States has repeatedly called Morocco’s compromise plan to offer the region a generous autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty serious, credible and realistic. Indeed, in a letter to King Mohamad VI, former President George W. Bush made clear that he viewed Morocco’s initiative as the only viable solution and reiterated longstanding US policy to support such an outcome.
That policy has not changed, despite vigorous efforts to resist its implementation in the bowels of the State Department and from former senior members of the National Security Council during the last four years of the Obama Administration.
Much has changed on the ground in the Moroccan Sahara over the last 15 years to lay the groundwork for granting the local population both a better quality of life and preparation for the autonomy that Morocco has offered under a negotiated political solution. The US Congress has applauded those efforts and, through bipartisan legislation, has obliged a reluctant State Department to provide material assistance to support Morocco’s efforts in the Sahara.
Unfortunately, for reasons that are almost impossibly difficult to credit, or even understand, the State Department continues to refuse permission for the US Ambassador in Morocco to visit the region to see, listen and report on those developments from a personal perspective. It’s as though the State Department simply doesn’t care to have the personal views of the President’s own personal representative. This makes no sense at all.
The US Ambassador in Algiers has recently visited the Polisario enclaves in southern Algeria and presumably provides her personal views on the local circumstances in her reports back to Washington. This despite the fact that the United States does not recognize the Polisario’s fictional Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or its claim to Western Sahara.
Washington should also have the views of its most senior diplomat in Morocco on developments on the other side of the military berm separating Moroccan and Polisario armed forces.
It is absurd that the State Department continues to hide behind some bogus argument that allowing the US Ambassador to visit Moroccan Sahara might signal US recognition of their claim to the territory, when our Ambassador in Algeria meets directly with the senior-most “officials” of a fictive state that we most certainly do not recognize.
Tensions in the region are growing. Military forces from both sides have recently faced off. One side, the Polisario, continues to threaten war and remains deployed for it. The President and senior US policy makers deserve the views and counsel of the US Ambassador in Morocco. It’s time to bring this charade to an end. Hopefully, new leadership at State will do just that.