WEST SAHARA: Conflict lingers
Jacques Roussellier

Washington, DC, August 25, 2005

The self-congratulatory statements could be heard reverberating from Washington after the August 18 release of the last 404 Moroccan prisoners-of-war held by the Algerian-backed Polisario separatist rebels fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara region. The release is a fitting tribute to the tenacious, yet discreet, bipartisan American diplomacy that spanned the Clinton and Bush administrations. Still, the release does not fundamentally shift the political dynamics of one of Africa's longest conflicts.

More than 2,100 Polisario-held POWs, captured between 1978 and 1991, were counted in 1995. Their piecemeal release started in 1996 and intensified after 1999. It was part of efforts to find a political solution to the Western Sahara dispute that for 30 years has pitted pro-annexation Morocco against pro-independence Algeria. The newest prisoners have been detained for 15 years, others for more than 20 years.

The POW release was followed by calls to seize the opportunity to restart negotiations. But it is hard to see how a new climate of confidence can overcome past failures, particularly the failed UN-brokered efforts at holding a referendum on self-determination between 1991 and 2000 and the current deadlock over a five-year autonomy plan.

Morocco's reaction did not augur well for future talks. Rabat still holds Algiers accountable for a breach of international humanitarian law on its territory and denies that the POWs release was the Polisario's gesture of goodwill. Instead, it has lavished praise on the US for bringing about the release and hailed the positive impact of international pressure.

There is concern that a political vacuum in the strategic south-western Algeria, northern Mauritania and Western Sahara triangle could play into the hands of terrorist groups operating in the Sahara's vast expanses. New US counter-terrorism efforts, such as the Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative that prepares training military units in Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger for security cooperation and support for democratic governance, have revived interest in securing a lasting solution for Western Sahara.

The recent coup d'état in Mauritania and attacks by a terrorist group based in Algeria's Saharan desert only underscore the overall fragility of US counter-terrorism engagement in the Sahara and the endless deadlock in peace negotiations on the Western Sahara conflict.

Sadly, the POW issue is not the only remaining obstacle to improving relations between Morocco and Algeria. Disagreement over the Western Sahara is only the symptom of a deeper rivalry between two competing national identities and developmental approaches. Above all, the search for a political solution should consider that both sides perceive a settlement as a draw, in terms of national security and regional ambitions.

In the age of globalization, free trade and regional integration, there is little room or understanding for an old-fashion territorial dispute over a piece of the Sahara desert that does not boast any really significant natural resources.

Successful negotiations that pave the way for a lasting solution to the Western Sahara dispute will stand as a powerful signal of a much-needed rapprochement between Rabat and Algiers. They also would boost US-backed counter-terrorism efforts, which would be weakened without regional integration of programs in North Africa and the Sahel.

Morocco and Algeria stand to gain from successful counter-terrorism exercises in the region as long as signals from Washington are not misconstrued as meaning progress on the Western Sahara dispute can take a back seat to bilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism with the US. There is an historical opportunity now to link the two issues in a long-term approach that will require simultaneously seeking a peaceful solution in Western Sahara and pursuing counter-terrorism initiatives in the Sahara desert as a whole.

The release of the Moroccan POWs is about the only progress that has been made recently toward a negotiated solution on Western Sahara. Rabat and Algiers have been playing a tiresome game of predictable statements, political liturgies and empty words that barely serve their own domestic political agenda at the expense of a mature and farsighted search for cooperative approaches.

As long as the United States and the Europeans turn a blind eye to Moroccan and Algerian prevarications in Western Sahara and allow the opportunity for peace to pass by, nations gathering for the 60th anniversary of the United Nations next month will continue to face the unresolved dilemma of Africa's last colony.

Jacques Roussellier is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. He previously was spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping operations in Western Sahara, political affairs officer for UN peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic