After a nineteen year UN presence in the Western Sahara, the Security Council is about to follow Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's recommendation and vote to extend the mandate of the United Nations mission in the country (MINURSO) for another year. While outside world has largely forgotten the war over the sparsely populated desert territory, greater consciousness of both the humanitarian crisis posed by tens of thousands of refugees detained by their self-proclaimed "liberators"-and the security challenges posed by the growing nexus between the latter and al-Qaeda's local franchise-suggest that the international community cannot afford to continue putting off a definitive settlement.
Western Sahara has never been a country of its own. Historically, the nomadic tribes of the region owed allegiance to the rulers of Morocco, who, in turn, appointed civil governors of the territory, authorized to collect taxes in his name. In the colonial scramble for Africa, Spain claimed a protectorate over the area, although it was only able to make good on its pretensions in the early twentieth century.
Following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, after barely half a century of colonial occupation, Madrid abandoned the Spanish Sahara in early 1976. Morocco claimed the territory and moved to assume control, which an agreement with Spain had relinquished to it. But Rabat met armed opposition from a self-styled "national liberation" movement, the Polisario Front, which was supported by the communist bloc (even now, Castro's Cuba continues to provide training and other assistance to Polisario cadres), and cheered on by the same leftist crowd that embraced "revolutionary chic" during the period. The result was a bitter guerrilla war which Morocco largely won by the time the international community managed to achieve a ceasefire in 1991. More than 85 percent of the former Spanish Sahara is thus behind the "sand berm," the defensive shield of sand and stone barriers erected by Moroccan forces in the 1980s that the UN peacekeepers currently patrol along.
With Morocco in control of most of the territory it claims, the Polisario Front is largely confined to several squalid camps in southwestern Algeria where its leadership carries on the charade of being the self-proclaimed "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic." This diplomatic theater could be ignored for the farce that it is, except that, in violation of international law, thousands of Sahrawis are forcibly kept in the camps in order to create a constituency for the Polisario cause. Moreover, no one even knows how many of these unfortunate people there are; as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants reported last year: "Algeria and the Polisario both refuse to allow a census to count and register the refugee population, furthering suspicion that its agents are diverting, smuggling, and reselling substantial amounts of international humanitarian aid." The truth of this allegation has been confirmed by many Sahrawis who have escaped from the camps, including a founding member of the Polisario leadership, Ahmedou Ould Souilem, whom I interviewed earlier this year, as well as the fact that goods clearly marked as medical and other relief supplies for the refugee camps are regularly seen for sale in regional markets from Mauritania to Niger.
Beyond the tragedy of once free Sahrawi tribesmen being warehoused in appalling conditions, there is now added the specter of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose growing links to drug and human smuggling cartels-especially when coupled with its extremist ideology and terrorist violence-have emerged as a significant challenge to regional and global security. A report by the French Institute of International Relations has documented that "Sahrawis are involved in a vast network of smuggling . . . using various routes, passing through the Western Sahara to Algeria via Tifariti and Bir Lahlou, oases controlled by the Polisario Front." This network, along with the tactical knowledge and weapons training of the Polisario forces, have made the movement especially attractive to AQIM even as the desperate conditions of life in the refugee camps facilitate recruitment into precisely such radical groups. In fact, several (presumably former) Polisario fighters were detained by Mauritanian officials for their involvement in the late-November 2009 kidnapping by AQIM of three Spanish aid workers from the Catalan nongovernmental organization Barcelona Acció Solidària.
Concern for security is the reason why, even if Morocco somehow withdrew from the Saharan territory, a Polisario state there is unthinkable. About the last thing that the world needs is another failed state, much less one in as geopolitically important a subregion as the Maghreb. But massive instability there is exactly what an independent Western Sahara would produce. Not only is the territory bereft of natural resources-aside from the modest mining of low-quality phosphates and few fisheries, there are barely twenty square miles of arable land-but the Polisario Front's record since its founding has shown it to have managed the remarkable feat of acquiring all the characteristics of a failed state without even having achieved sovereignty first.
For its part, Morocco has shown considerable flexibility, especially since King Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan II in 1999. Two years ago, after an extensive internal national dialogue about how to settle the conflict, Morocco unveiled an "Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region." The proposal's provisions include not only an elected local administration for the region consisting of executive, legislative and judicial branches, but also ideas about education and justice, and the promise that the additional financial resources needed to develop the region and its institutions would be made available to supplement whatever revenues can be raised locally. The only matters that would remain in the control of Rabat would be defense, foreign affairs and currency, as well as the religious prerogatives of the king as "Commander of the Faithful."
Recognition of these realities as well as of the considerable promise of the plan which Morocco submitted to the UN is what recently prompted a rare bipartisan majority of fifty-four senators-including Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein and ranking member Kit Bond, and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin and ranking member John McCain-to send a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to "make the resolution of the Western Sahara stalemate a U.S. foreign policy priority." The senators reminded Clinton that, in an interview last year, she herself had reaffirmed that support for the "serious and credible" Moroccan proposal is firmly rooted in American policy as something "that originated in the Clinton administration . . . was reaffirmed in the Bush administration and it remains the policy of the United States in the Obama administration."
While peacekeeping and the diplomatic shuttle have made for a relatively decent living for whole series of UN functionaries over the course of the last twenty years-MINURSO has one international civilian bureaucrat for every 2.5 uniformed personnel, the maintenance of whole lot costing about $150,000 per head annually-it has also not led anywhere. And Ban's report to the Security Council last month that the status quo is likely to endure "for the foreseeable future" is hardly encouraging. In fact, the UN is right where it was when it started, which ought not to be surprising. Indeed, the secretary-general who launched MINURSO, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, subsequently admitted in his memoirs:
I was never convinced that independence promised the best future for the inhabitants of the Western Sahara. Their number, however counted, is less than 150,000, and aside from its phosphate deposits the land is poor, offering meager prospects of viability as a separate country. Such political leadership as exists is not impressive and in some cases is not Sahrawi in origin. A reasonable solution under which the Western Sahara would be integrated as an autonomous region in the Moroccan state would have spared many lives and a great deal of money.
Unfortunately, left to its own devices, the UN system is unlikely to want any change in the status quo. The African Union is likely to be equally unhelpful since the Polisario's phantom state is grandfathered in as a member of the predecessor Organization of African Unity, while Morocco is not a part of the club. Consequently it falls to America and its European allies-France and Spain have also endorsed the autonomy plan-who, aside from the peoples of the Maghreb, have the most to lose by the creation of a failed state in the Western Sahara. Thus the United States and the European Union would do well to coordinate their efforts, using the time bought by the upcoming mandate extension to push for what is ultimately the only realistic resolution to a dispute that has gone on far too long.
J. Peter Pham is senior fellow and Africa Project director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.