Learn about the beta

116. Intelligence Report 6761

THE WESTERN SAHARA ISSUE

Summary

The Sahara continues to be the focus of deep-seated antagonism between Morocco and Algeria. While the two countries have avoided a direct military conflict, the struggle for the Western Sahara has been waged on three fronts:

—Polisario guerrillas and Moroccan regular units have engaged in a moderate level of military hostilities.

—A fierce diplomatic competition has been waged in international forums.

[Page 319]

—Morocco and Mauritania have made steady progress to consolidate their administrative hold on the area.

Despite this activity, there will probably not be any major changes in the Saharan situation over the next few months.

—The Polisario Front will continue its hit-and-run raids, but probably at a modest level that will not cause Morocco to launch a major strike into Algeria.

—Morocco and Mauritania will continue to control the main population centers and to administer their respective areas of the Sahara.

—Neither Morocco nor Algeria shows any willingness to make the compromises needed for a settlement, but neither will try to widen the conflict.

—Algeria will seek to keep the issue of self-determination alive in international forums, but the widespread perception in the Third World that Moroccan/Mauritanian control is an accomplished fact will continue to limit support for Algeria’s position largely to a number of radical and Communist states.

—The Soviets, seeking to preserve their presence in Morocco, will remain publicly neutral, despite their closer ties to Algeria.

Developments Within the Sahara

Morocco and Mauritania have made considerable progress during the last eight months in dividing up the Sahara. On April 14, in an attempt to establish formal sovereignty over the Western Sahara, Rabat and Nouakchott announced that they had agreed to partition the disputed territory: Morocco acquired the northern two-thirds of the Sahara, containing the capital of El Aaiun and the rich phosphate deposits at Bu Craa; Mauritania got the southern third, including rich marine resources, the unexploited iron ore at Agracha, and the port of Dakhla, whose harbor has an excellent potential (see map).

Moroccan Administrative Consolidation. In an effort to integrate the northern Sahara into the Moroccan “motherland,” Rabat has sent personnel from several government ministries to work in the three newly acquired provinces:

—Moroccan civilian governors and lesser functionaries are now serving in the provincial capitals of El Aaiun, Semara, and Boujador, while pashas and caids have been assigned to smaller cities and towns.

—The Ministry of Agriculture has established three regional offices and staffed them with technical personnel.

—Postal, telephone, and air links have been established.

In addition, King Hassan’s government launched a bond drive during the summer to raise $230 million for development projects in the Saharan provinces over the next two years. Priority will be given to mineral development, tourism, and infrastructure projects.

On November 12, Rabat attempted to consolidate popular support by allowing the Saharans to vote in nationwide local elections.

[Page 320]

Hassan’s Army Under Attack. The Moroccans have had only limited success in establishing military security in the northern Sahara. Aside from a few large-scale sweeping operations of marginal effectiveness, Moroccan forces have concentrated on maintaining control of the principal population centers and the major oases. As a result of this tactic, Polisario guerrillas have been able to mine roads and carry out numerous small ambushes and mortar attacks in both the northern Sahara and southern Morocco. The guerrillas are now able to move about far more freely than was the case a few months ago.

Polisario hit-and-run operations have killed 700–800 Moroccan soldiers since November 1975 and have wounded several times that number. Morale among the units in the Sahara varies according to location. Many Moroccan soldiers assigned to remote outposts do not like [Page 321]the length of time they are required to stay, the lateness of pay, bad food, and lack of water. In more inhabited areas, on the other hand, morale among regular units is fairly good because most of the casualties have been suffered by auxiliary troops and irregulars. The major complaint among Moroccan troops throughout the northern Sahara and southern Morocco centers on their inability to strike back at Polisario safe havens inside Algeria.

Morocco probably will be able to live with the present, or even a somewhat higher, level of casualties for an extended period without feeling the necessity to attack Algeria. The Moroccans are fully convinced of the justness of their claims to the Sahara, and army units generally are willing to pay a heavy price to maintain control of this area. To boost morale, the government has sent a large number of replacements to the southern zone to permit troop rotation. In addition, the Moroccans, in an attempt to improve their military security in the northern Sahara, have begun recently to abandon their strategy of stationing large numbers of troops in a few key places. Moroccan forces are now concentrating, with some success, on the use of smaller, more mobile units transported by French-supplied helicopters to seek out and destroy roving Polisario guerrillas.

Mauritania Asserts Control. Mauritania has encountered relatively little opposition in absorbing its portion of the Sahara. Like Rabat, Nouakchott has supplied administrative personnel to fill the vacuum left by the departing Spanish. When presidential and parliamentary elections were held in August, the electoral process extended to the Mauritanian-controlled portion of the Sahara. Eight Saharan representatives now hold seats in the National Assembly. The Ould Daddah regime views the elections as an expression of approval by the Saharan people of Mauritanian annexation.

The large, sparsely populated, and weakly defended Mauritanian homeland has experienced occasional attacks by Polisario bands, notably the deep-penetration strike against Nouakchott in June. On the other hand, the Polisario has attempted very few operations in the southern Sahara because of the following factors:

—The Mauritanian Sahara is more than 500 miles from Polisario base camps in southwestern Algeria.

—The southern Saharans, who have close ethnic and linguistic ties with the Mauritanians, had little difficulty accommodating themselves to their new rulers.

—Unlike the Moroccans, the Mauritanian Army did not alienate the local population by heavy use of force when it occupied the territory.

Mauritanian administration of the southern Sahara was aided by Moroccan technical personnel who maintained and operated such fa[Page 322]cilities as electric generator plants and airport control towers. At present, Moroccan military personnel are stationed in Bir Moghrein to provide armor and artillery support. Some Moroccans also serve as liaison officers with Mauritanian General Headquarters in Nouakchott, and a small number of Mauritanian soldiers are receiving training in Morocco.

Despite frictions at the working level and residual suspicion that the Moroccans intend eventually to absorb all of Mauritania, Nouakchott has become closely allied to Rabat. With the southern Sahara fully absorbed, Mauritania is far less likely now than it was a year ago to drop its policy coordination with Morocco in favor of a separate deal with the Polisario or Algeria.

Prospects for continued Mauritanian solidarity with Morocco look good over the next six months. Over the following year or two, however, if Polisario operations become focused against the Moroccans and Mauritania is left alone, [*At present, this scenario seems unlikely. It is more likely that the Algerians will continue to consider Mauritania as the weak link in the Saharan problem and will persist in exerting military pressure on the Ould Daddah regime (as exemplified by the raid against Nouakchott last June).] the Ould Daddah regime may be willing to accept an accommodation with the Polisario leadership and Algiers. Such a development would greatly weaken Hassan’s military and political position: it would facilitate the Polisario’s military access to the Sahara and undermine much of the political support of a number of African and other states for partition of the Sahara. Within Mauritania such a move would mollify a significant and disgruntled portion of the younger generation. These persons have openly questioned their government’s decision not to agree to the establishment of an independent Saharan state instead of dividing the Sahara with Morocco, an act that has brought about a military confrontation between Nouakchott and the Polisario.

The Polisario Keeps on Punching. Polisario units have operated during the last eight months out of safe havens in neighboring Algeria, which has long borders with Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario guerrillas continue to receive ample supplies and equipment from Algeria. Much of this support is of Soviet origin, and some of the weapons come from Libya. With 25,000–40,000 politicized and frustrated Saharans living in refugee camps in the Tindouf area of southwestern Algeria, the Polisario Front has a good source of manpower for its fighting forces.

By employing Land Rovers and hit-and-run tactics, small bands of guerrillas have been able to operate almost daily against elements of the 30,000 Moroccan troops in the northern Sahara and southern Morocco. While lacking sophisticated logistics and communications, the [Page 323]guerrillas benefit from excellent local intelligence sources and high morale. The Polisario insurgents, numbering at least 2,000–3,000 combatants, in addition to support personnel, appear to be well equipped with small arms, ammunition, and vehicles of all makes, and they are confident of their ability to move about unchallenged by the entrenched Moroccan forces. Guerrilla operations against Moroccan forces during the past few months suggest that the Polisario military capability may be improving.

Polisario guerrillas have been able to strike at and keep immobilized the line-conveyor belt complex used to transport phosphates from Bu Craa to the port at El Aaiun. Similarly, the lack of security in the northern Sahara seriously hindered Moroccan attempts in September–October 1976 to use trucks as a substitute for the transporter belt. Nevertheless, because of the excess capacity of Moroccan phosphate mines and the current reduced world demand for phosphate, the crippling of the Bu Craa operation has not hurt the Moroccans economically.

Despite their ability to operate against Moroccan targets, the guerrillas still do not control any significant portion of Saharan territory. Nor has Polisario military action by itself accomplished political ends. The effort to gain recognition for the Polisario’s self-proclaimed Saharan Democratic Arab Republic (SDAR), for example, has been notably unsuccessful thus far. Only 10 countries—nine of the more radical African states (including Algeria but not Libya) and North Korea—now recognize the SDAR.

The Diplomatic Struggle

Despite the partition agreement signed by Morocco and Mauritania in April, the legal status of the Western Sahara remains in contention. Spain, Algeria, and the UN have not accepted the assertions by Rabat and Nouakchott that adequate consultations with the Saharan population already have been held and that the Sahara question is closed.

—Spain maintains that the Tripartite Agreement (Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania) of November 1975 involved a transfer only of administrative authority and not sovereignty. Privately, however, Madrid has assured Rabat that it will be helpful on the Sahara issue, and the Spanish stand to benefit economically from cooperating with Morocco.

—Morocco and Mauritania argue that the meeting on February 26, 1976, at which the Saharan Jemaa (Territorial Assembly) voted to ratify the integration of the Western Sahara with Morocco and Mauritania satisfies the popular consultations called for by the pro-Moroccan resolution passed by the UNGA in December 1975. In addition, Rabat views the nationwide local elections held on November 12 and the parliamentary elections expected in the next three months as further consultations with the Saharan population.

[Page 324]

—Algiers, on the other hand, points to the pro-Algerian resolution also passed by the UNGA in 1975 and insists on Saharan self-determination through UN-supervised popular consultations. These have not been held and cannot be held so long as a sizable part of the Saharan population remains in refugee camps outside the territory. Boumediene rejects Morocco’s claim that the Jemaa, as a survival from the Spanish regime, represents the Saharans. Thus, for Algiers, the Sahara question remains very much open.

In addition to its material support of Polisario guerrilla activities, Algeria has sought to keep the Sahara issue alive in the international political arena. The counter-strategy of Morocco and Mauritania consists of lobbying efforts aimed at keeping the Sahara question off the agenda of international forums.

Summit Conference of the Organization of African Unity. Morocco and Mauritania narrowly avoided a diplomatic setback at the OAU summit in Mauritius in July. At the ministerial meeting preceding the summit, Algeria succeeded in gaining the sympathy of most delegations for its Sahara position through hard-sell lobbying by a 66-member delegation, an energetic performance by Foreign Minister Bouteflika, and help from Libya. When a Benin resolution backing the Polisario was passed by a 30–2 margin, Morocco threatened to withdraw from the OAU. Following an extensive lobbying effort by President Ould Daddah, however, a compromise solution was reached: the OAU agreed in principle to hold an extraordinary summit to discuss the Western Sahara.

This outcome was a diplomatic victory for Algeria, which had succeeded in reopening the Sahara issue. Furthermore, the meeting enhanced somewhat the Polisario Front’s image on the international scene. On the other hand, no date has been set for the extraordinary summit. Morocco and Mauritania are likely to try a variety of delaying tactics; even more Algerian diplomats doubt that the extraordinary summit will ever take place.

The Non-Aligned Conference. Jolted by the Algerian performance at the OAU summit, the Moroccans and the Mauritanians carefully planned and coordinated their tactics, and then sent large and influential delegations to the Non-Aligned Conference (NAC) held in Colombo in August. Their strategy at the NAC was to argue that regional organizations (like the OAU and the Arab League) are the most appropriate forums for the discussion of “bilateral” issues. The language on the Sahara issue which emerged in the NAC Political Declaration, after considerable debate, was a platitudinous compromise that simply noted with approval the action of the OAU summit in calling for an extraordinary summit to deal with the Sahara issue.

This statement represented a Moroccan and Mauritanian diplomatic victory because it did not refer to self-determination or the Saharan people. The Tunisians, for example, considered the language a [Page 325]face-saving device for Boumediene, who had to accept at Colombo far less on the Saharan question than Algiers had won at the OAU summit the previous month.

The UNGA. The UN’s consideration of the Western Sahara issue this year culminated on November 12 when the Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) adopted by consensus a resolution which:

—noted the decision of the OAU to hold an extraordinary summit to consider the Sahara matter;

—noted the decision of the Non-Aligned Conference to refer the problem to the OAU; and

—postponed consideration of the Western Sahara question until the next UNGA in the fall of 1977.

The UNGA then adopted this resolution by consensus on December 2.

The UNGA resolution, like the NAC statement, was a success for the Moroccan and Mauritanian diplomatic strategy of deferring consideration of the substance of the Sahara question. Preoccupied with other pressing issues (especially southern Africa), a majority of Third World states were content at the UN to reaffirm the course of action taken on the Sahara issue at the NAC. The Algerians, unable to garner enough support for passage of a resolution favorable to their position, apparently are resigned to making their big push diplomatically at the next OAU summit in mid-1977.

Morocco and Mauritania have sent a number of high-level political emissaries to various Third World countries during the last eight months to explain their position on the Sahara. Some of these states, such as Yugoslavia, are now persuaded that the Moroccan takeover is a fait accompli and have no intention of becoming involved in efforts to revive the issue or of recognizing the SDAR. It is significant that, at Colombo, Algeria had to rely increasingly for support on a number of the smaller, more radical, and/or Communist states like Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. That these states are non-African and non-Arab helped Morocco and Mauritania at the UNGA to gain support for their position.

Prospects for a Settlement

The potential for a settlement has scarcely improved during the past year. Neither Morocco nor Algeria has yet shown a willingness to back away from its basic position. While there are some indications that Boumediene has become more interested in a face-saving way out of the Sahara problem, he most probably will still insist on some form of self-determination—which the Moroccans and Mauritanians oppose. Although Boumediene’s approach to the Sahara issue does not enjoy widespread support in Algeria, where many think it is an unnecessary diversion of Algerian resources, his personal commitment, both public [Page 326]and ideological, is likely to preclude abandonment of the Polisario cause. At the same time, however, widespread dissatisfaction with the regime’s handling of the Sahara problem, extending in some cases to the top level of the government, means that an Algerian reversal on this issue cannot be excluded.

In the absence of a settlement, it is unlikely that there will be major hostilities between Algeria and Morocco during the next several months. Algeria is unlikely to take the initiative.

—The Algerian Armed Forces are not prepared to launch a major attack. The army, which has been used primarily in civic action programs for many years, will require considerable time to assimilate newly acquired Soviet weaponry.

—The leadership is preoccupied with national assembly elections aimed at legitimizing the regime.

—An unpopular war with Morocco could create problems for Boumediene at home.

Boumediene’s strategy, therefore, probably is to wait for the Moroccans to attack, in order to brand them as the aggressors in international forums. Boumediene greatly prefers to fight a war by proxy through the Polisario Front. The Algerians can probably sustain such a war for a considerable time to come.

Morocco, for its part, is also unlikely to initiate major hostilities.

—The Moroccan military establishment, emasculated by Hassan following coup attempts in 1970 and 1971, is still in the process of rebuilding itself and assimilating French and American weaponry. The military feels that it will not be ready to fight a war with Algeria for another year or two.

—Hassan realizes that a humiliating military defeat could cost him his throne.

—Both the King and the army recognize that any overt military move into Algeria would undercut the increasing support and understanding that Morocco has laboriously gained in international forums from the more moderate nations.

Although the casualties inflicted by Polisario operations continue to cause considerable frustration in the Moroccan Army, we believe that Hassan is more likely to respond by sending infiltrators into Algerian territory than by launching a major attack. The Moroccans have been training and equipping their own guerrilla units to give the Algerians “a taste of their own medicine,” and some guerrilla activities by Saharan soldiers led by Moroccans already may have begun.

Soviet Policy on the Sahara

There was some concern in early 1976 that the conflict over the Sahara could become “internationalized,” that a polarization of forces could occur in what is essentially a regional dispute, and that a proxy [Page 327]confrontation between the US and the USSR might be in the offing. It is now very doubtful that the dispute over the Sahara will follow this course, unless major hostilities broke out between the antagonists—an unlikely possibility at present.

Soviet policy toward the Sahara issue continues to be one of public neutrality. Moscow considers the problem a regional dispute whose resolution is best left to Arab and African nations, without superpower involvement. While the Soviets will continue to support Algeria militarily because of its usefulness as a cooperative, prominent Third World leader, it is doubtful that they are interested in fueling or provoking a conflict. In addition, the desire of the Soviets to preserve their presence in Morocco probably will cause them to limit their involvement in support of any Algerian military operations.

Prospects

The longer the Moroccans can tolerate Polisario guerrilla operations without attacking Algerian territory, the stronger their claim to the Sahara becomes. Each passing month makes the de facto annexation of the disputed territory harder for Algeria and its Third World supporters in the UN to reverse. If Hassan can continue to avoid an escalation from guerrilla to conventional warfare, the protagonists are not likely to increase their pressures on the US to take sides.

The present moderate level of Polisario operations affords Hassan and Ould Daddah time in which to finesse a negotiated solution of the Sahara problem. One possible Moroccan tactic would be a sizable public relations campaign to lure back to the Sahara a substantial number of refugees in Polisario-run camps in southwest Algeria. Conditions in these camps are poor, and the Moroccans have already begun to beam radio broadcasts at the refugees urging them to come home. The return of most of the refugees would cause the Polisario manpower problems because some of the guerrillas could be expected to leave their base camps in Algeria and follow their families back to the Sahara. In addition, such “voting with their feet” could be construed by the Moroccans (and Mauritanians) as a form of self-determination.

Luring the refugees back home, however, will not be easy for Morocco. The Reguibat tribesmen, who provide the dominant military and political force in the Polisario, are strongly opposed to Moroccan domination. In addition to a long history of Reguibat-Moroccan hostility, the Reguibat are deeply embittered over the mistreatment of tribal members during Morocco’s takeover of the northern Sahara in late 1975-early 1976.

The attitude of Algeria remains crucial to prospects for an early settlement. Boumediene has shown a willingness, in private, to moderate somewhat his position in recent months and now appears more [Page 328]willing to reach an accommodation with Hassan than he was a year ago. At the same time, however, Boumediene will not agree to a settlement whose terms do not give him an honorable way out of the Saharan conflict. Moreover, Algeria has recently reiterated a hard line in public statements on the dispute, suggesting that Boumediene does not believe that this is an appropriate time to compromise.

If an accommodation over the Sahara issue is to be achieved in the next six months, it will probably require assistance from outside parties, possibly including financial inducements. In this regard, the Saudis have been heavily engaged since mid-November in an effort to mediate the dispute, including visits to the Maghreb by Crown Prince Fahd and Foreign Minister Saud. There is unconfirmed reporting that Algerian Foreign Minister Bouteflika and Moroccan Foreign Minister Laraki met secretly in Paris in early December. They failed, however, to reach a preliminary agreement on the Western Sahara.

Optimism concerning an early solution of the problem and reports of a possible Boumediene-Hassan meeting in early 1977 appear to have been premature. Bouteflika’s tough end-of-the-year message to UN Secretary-General Waldheim and other recent Algerian statements have downplayed the Saudi initiatives for a compromise. The depth of emotional commitment on both sides, despite the high cost of continued confrontation, undermines the prospects for early settlement.

  1. Summary: The report examined the prospect for continued conflict between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara.

    Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Middle East and South Asian Affairs Staff Files, Box 22, Spanish Sahara (3). Secret; Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals; Not Releasable to Contractors or Contractor Consultants. Prepared by John J. Damis in INR; and approved by P. H. Stoddard. Bracket was printed as a footnote in the original.