By Robert M. Holley (Washington, DC, Jan. 9, 2012) — This is a headline that those seeking a reasonable compromise solution to the 35 year-old Western Sahara conflict hope to see in coming months – if not sooner. The rest of this “anticipatory news report” follows:
In December’s Omnibus Appropriations action, Congress included a ground-breaking provision urging the Obama Administration to move beyond statements of support and take concrete actions, backed by existing US aid dollars, to create an environment favoring a compromise political solution to the decades-long Western Sahara conflict.
Bi-partisan majorities in both House and Senate are on record calling for the Administration to more actively engage in resolving this lingering Cold War dispute, which has taken on new urgency as an obstacle to stability and security in a region rocked by Arab Spring turmoil and further Polisario implication in expanding al-Qaeda-linked terrorist activity. A solution to the Sahara conflict is clear and attainable, and supported by the international community. It is based on a compromise proposed to the UN Security Council by Morocco in 2007, granting substantial autonomy and self-government under Moroccan sovereignty. Backing the plan has been US policy for the last three Administrations—Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed it in 2009 and again in 2011, when she called the autonomy initiative “serious, credible, and realistic.”
The need for political compromise between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front has long been recognized. First by former Secretary of State James Baker, who served as UN personal envoy, as early as 2000. Then by UN mediator Peter Van Walsum, who told the Security Council autonomy was the only way to resolve the problem and provide relief for thousands of refugees confined in hostile desert camps in Algeria. For the Polisario, however, willingness to negotiate such a compromise has not been forthcoming.
December’s action by Congress urging more concrete Administration steps comes at a time of mounting frustration with the failing UN mediation process, and increasing concerns over AQIM’s expanding terrorist network in the Sahel, which has been linked to Polisario cadres trafficking drugs, arms, people, and humanitarian assistance. Last November, three foreign aid workers were kidnapped from the Polisario’s tightly-guarded headquarters camp in Algeria by an AQIM splinter group, assisted by Polisario insiders. Security analysts and many in Congress worry that as unrest preoccupies the region, terrorist groups like AQIM, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and others are extending ties across the largely ungoverned Sahel, turning it into a base for terrorist and criminal activity threatening the region and beyond. New evidence connecting AQIM with Polisario members is ominous and highlights the vulnerability of refugees in the camps, which think-tank experts warn have become a recruiting ground for AQIM, exploiting restless young adults denied a future by the festering Sahara dispute.
In the 2012 Omnibus Spending Report, Congress directs that US program assistance to Morocco may, for the first time, be used in all “regions and territories administered by Morocco,” including Western Sahara. It is pointed encouragement for the State Department to actively engage in development projects that improve prospects of Western Saharans, extend Morocco’s peaceful reforms to this key Sahel outpost, and give concrete US backing to Morocco’s autonomy plan. Congressional backers hope the action will give confidence to refugees in the camps that the US firmly backs this compromise and will assist those who back this solution.
In Western Sahara, support for autonomy with Morocco already runs high. Analysts note in the last three elections, turnout in the Sahara provinces has consistently topped other parts of Morocco, as local voters ignore Polisario calls for boycotts and cast their ballots for a future of local governance tied to Morocco.
A Congressional staff delegation is reportedly scheduled to visit Morocco in coming weeks on a fact-finding mission to assess how US aid can best support these goals. Senior State Department officials are also reportedly starting to explore these options with senior officials in Morocco’s new government.