218. Telegram From the Embassy in Algeria to the Department of State1

2959. UNCINCEUR for POLAD. Subj: The Sahara Two Years After the Green March.2

1. Summary: Although Morocco and Mauritania control most of Sahara militarily and enjoy reasonably solid diplomatic position, case is far from closed. Polisario has developed organizational and even popular base, government in exile, effective international PR effort, as well as seemingly efficient fighting force. At this juncture, Mauritania is hurting militarily, Morocco has felt sufficiently pressed to escalate intensity of conflict, and following seizure of more French hostages, France has increased its commitment to support Mauritania.

2. Despite risk of no-win Algerian-Moroccan war, we see no intention on either side of abandoning hard line positions, and therefore believe U.S. should stay out of conflict and maintain policy of neutrality. At same time, we should remain in touch with Soviets on question as well as with protagonists. End summary.

3. The setting: Events in the Sahara since mid-October have escalated the tension in the region to a level not seen since the immediate post-Green March period in early 1976. The successful Polisario attacks at Sebkhat Oum Drouss Oct 13–14 and at Zoueratt Oct 23 seem to have provoked King Hassan’s declaration of the right of hot pursuit of Polisario guerillas across the Algerian frontier. The Polisario’s Oct 23 kidnapping of two more French tenchnicians working in Mauritania, and the apparent French decision to bolster the defenses of that country, have added a new dimension to conflict and given the Algerian regime both a new cause and perhaps even pause for reflection. The latest attempts at mediation seem to have gone nowhere, and as this telegram is written it appears that the Polisario may have put the fat in the fire by launching new attacks within the Sahara, in southern Morocco, and on the Zoueratt iron ore train in Mauritania.

4. In this situation, we submit the following analysis of where the conflict seems to us to stand, the prospects for a settlement, and how the U.S. interest is affected.

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5. Politico-military balance sheet in the Sahara; the dossier remains open: At the second anniversary of King Hassan’s Green March into the Sahara, conflict over the former colony continues unabated. Major elements in the situation are:

A. Moroccan-Mauritanian position established: After two years, no amount of Algerian-Polisario propaganda can disguise the fact of Moroccan-Mauritanian control over the major strategic points within the former colony. The strength of the Moroccan Armed Forces in and near the Sahara is estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 and the Mauritanian Army has grown rapidly to meet the Polisario’s challenge. Although the Moroccans may have abandoned some remote outposts such as Bir Lahlou in the Eastern Sahara, their control over all major towns is undisputed as is their ability to retake any villages which for tactical reasons they have evacuated. We have the impression that Polisario “operations” against Saharan towns are very minor.

B. Moroccan-Mauritanian position strong: A major Algerian diplomatic campaign has made almost no progress in breaking the virtually unanimous Arab support for Moroccan-Mauritanian takeover of Sahara, and the Africans and the rest of Third World, while often championing the right of self-determination, seem unwilling to enter the fray. Thus, the special OAU summit on Sahara has yet to be held, and few countries other than the eleven that have recognized Sahraoui Republic,3 are prepared to be in the forefront of a fight for repudiation of the Madrid Agreement and condemnation of the Moroccan-Mauritanian occupation. Most Third World governments seem to recognize the complications inherent in situation and prefer to look the other way.

C. The Polisario alive and well: The two years since the Green March have seen Algeria and the Polisario transform the latter from a small, poorly armed band of several hundred into an organization possessed of a “government in exile”, a political structure with representatives around the world, a well organized “popular base” in the Tindouf refugee camps, an effective international PR effort, an apparently efficient fighting force of several thousand men. Within the military stalemate existing on the ground, the Polisario has expanded the sophistication of its armaments and consequently the size and scope of its operations to a point at which the Mauritanian Government is hurting both militarily and economically and the Moroccans are sufficiently under pressure to provoke King Hassan’s November 6 “hot pursuit” speech.4 Diplomatically the Polisario, if unsuccessful in obtaining worldwide support for its cause, has at least begun making [Page 528] its case more effectively around the world, notably in the U.S. and at the U.N. In short, the Polisario appears to be an organization that will be with us for awhile.

D. Refugees: Since the Green March, the Algerians and the Polisario have built a nucleus of people who left the Sahara into an impressive group of refugees all apparently fired with Sahraoui nationalism and a longing to return to their “homeland.” It is certain that, among these people are refugees who lived in the former Spanish Sahara, who feared or were made to fear the Moroccans and to a lesser extent the Mauritanians, and who therefore fled to Algeria. It is only slightly less certain that the camps contain a significant number of Saharans who have arrived from other areas of the desert, either to escape the Sahel drought or simply because the Algerians and Polisario induced them to come. Still, however much one questions their origins, the refugees, thanks to a major organizational effort by the Algerians and the Polisario, have become for the outside world “a people” whose rights as a group must be taken into consideration in a settlement of Sahara problem. Paradoxically, continuation of Sahara conflict is itself developing a national identity among a nomadic people who never really had much of one before.5

E. France and its hostages: Following the Polisario’s taking of two further French hostages in Mauritania last month, France has shown herself more willing to go to Mauritania’s aid even though this has meant the deterioration of Franco-Algerian relations. What effect French assistance may have on the sagging Mauritanian war effort remains to be seen. In Algeria, it has produced a new burst of Franco-phobia and has fueled the regime’s fear of a Rabat-Paris axis bent on destroying the Algerian revolution. But, so far, this Francophobia has not triggered any sort of violent reprisals against French nationals or property in Algeria.

6. Current attitudes: At this stage of conflict, the attitudes of principal players appear to us as follows:

A. Algeria: Algerian Sahara policy would appear to have had some short-term success even if that policy’s mid to long-term benefits to Algeria are questionable. The difficulties facing Mauritania as a result of Polisario activity are clear proof of guerrillas’ effectiveness, and King Hassan’s hot pursuit announcement suggests that Moroccan casualties have become sufficiently serious to force him to react with increased intensity. That this Algerian “success” has brought Algeria and Morocco closer to a war neither side wants is a point that we feel is [Page 529] not lost on the Algerian leadership. For the moment, however, the Algerian regime is obsessed with the diplomatic defeat represented by Madrid Agreement and seems totally preoccupied with making the Moroccans pay for that setback.6 The leadership here has good reason to believe it is scoring points in this department, and despite the apparent disinterest of the Algerian people to the struggle, its overriding interest at the moment seems to be in keeping up the pressure.

B. Polisario: The Polisario’s interest in the conflict differs from the Algerians’ only in that it would not appear bound by fear of an Algerian-Moroccan war. Such a conflict would serve only to dramatize its cause, and could produce a new situation from which it could conceivably profit.

C. Morocco: It appears from our vantage point that King Hassan’s commitment to his present Sahara policy remains total and that of his people only slightly less so. Moroccans talk from time to time of “face saving” solutions for Boumediene, but are understandably unwilling to make any of the sort of concessions the Algerians are looking for. Morocco’s continued talk of giving Algeria economic concessions in a Moroccan Sahara misses the essential point that the Algerian interest in conflict is geopolitical, not economic.

D. Mauritania: While more directly threatened by the current state of affairs in Sahara than King Hassan, our impression from Algiers is that the Mauritanian Government’s commitment to staying with the Sahara war remains high. This impression is supported by a general preception here that the current state of affairs involves Ould Daddah in a struggle for his political life.

7. U.S. interest: To sum up, the protagonists in the Sahara conflict seem for the present committed to their present policies, and no political or military solution is in sight. In this situation, we see the following U.S. interests:

A. To stay out: The Sahara conflict is not one which we can reasonably expect to influence nor one in which we have a vital stake.7 A war between Algeria and Morocco would touch a major American interest only if the LNG facilities at Arzew were attacked, and a military victory by either Algeria or Morocco would not be of crucial importance to us. We would therefore do better to limit our efforts, as we have been doing, to counseling moderation. Both sides have asked, and will probably continue to ask, that we play a mediatory role; at the moment, [Page 530] however, each is committed to a policy diametrically opposed to that of the other and appears interested in our “mediation” largely as a means of encouraging us to exert pressure on the other and of presenting statesmanlike image to the world.

B. To continue our present policies: With no political solution to problem evident, our present policy of neutrality on the substance of issue seems most logical. The administration seems to have succeeded in convincing the Algerian regime of its neutrality in the conflict, and we should strive to maintain this stance by avoiding taking positions on the issue in forums such as U.N. Our present level of military assistance to Morocco is accepted as a fact of life of the region. We believe it best to continue it at its current contemplated level.8

C. To keep in touch with Soviets: A major threat to our interest would be an escalation of some future Algerian-Moroccan conflict in which we and the Soviets would find ouselves resupplying our respective clients. We have the impression that the Soviets, perhaps because of their interest in Moroccan phosphates, are more genuinely neutral on the Sahara question now (see Algiers 2954)9 than they were in 1975 and 1976. It is obviously in US interest that they remain so. We believe it would be well to discuss issue regularly with the Soviets and to urge their continued neutrality.

D. To continue high-level contact with the protagonists: To keep up with possible shifts in the attitudes of the protagonists, we should continue the practice of discussing the Sahara issue often with regime spokesmen from both sides. The Boumediene and Hassan visits to Washington will be useful in this regard.

8. We would welcome comments on foregoing particularly from Embassies Nouakchott and Rabat as well as other addressees.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 87, Spanish Sahara: 5–12/77. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to Dakar, Madrid, Nouakchott, Paris, Rabat, Tripoli, Geneva, USUN, Moscow, and USCINCEUR. Printed from a copy that was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See footnote 6, Document 37.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 45.
  4. See footnote 7, Document 217.
  5. An unknown hand placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  6. An unknown hand placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  7. An unknown hand placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  8. An unknown hand placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  9. Telegram 2954 from Algiers, November 23, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770436–0711.