Those of you who follow the news from north-west Africa will have heard about the alleged al-Qa’ida attack in northern Mauritania, in which twelve Mauritanian soldiers died. The attack occurred just east of Zouerate, close to the border with Western Sahara.
Alle, on the always excellent Western Sahara Info blog, has a more meaty analysis of this incident than you’re likely to find on the mainstream news sources (as usual, AFP are confusing the Moroccan and Western Saharan borders). Alle makes the following observation about how these sort of things might be prevented and security in this rather large and desolate border region improved:
“What could help a lot is a formal framework for Algeria-Mauritania-Polisario-Mali policing, since these parties are already on friendly terms with each other, while Morocco is somewhat disconnected from the whole thing (by the berm). But, for political reasons, that wouldn’t sit at all well with Rabat…”
Certainly more security cooperation between the these four governments would help to reduce the risk of such attacks. Polisario is currently the only game in town when it comes to policing the Mauritania-Western Sahara border, at least in the direction from the former to the latter (they also manage the border crossing from Algeria into the Free Zone of Western Sahara), and their role would be crucial.
Alle is spot on when he points out that Morocco would become jittery if these governments, with whom relations range from difficult to hostile, started cooperating on security issues along what Morocco insists is its own border (despite its lack of presence in most of the areas concerned). Any such cooperation would also rub up against the section of the Berm that extends into Mauritania. We can be fairly sure that, despite its initiative to stop the “empty spaces” of the Sahara becoming a haven for the likes of al-Qa’ida, the US isn’t likely to be promoting a major role for Polisario in Maghrebian regional security. This would send the government in Rabat into fits of apoplexy, and Washington has been an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of Morocco’s occupation, at least under the latest Bush administration.
So, what do we have here? Apparently, a situation in which the potential for security cooperation to combat terrorism exists, but is unlikely to be realised, at least in part because Morocco wouldn’t stand for it and Morocco’s friends would therefore not support such an initiative (Morocco and its supporters would presumably do everything they could to prevent such cooperation).
Morocco often claims that its presence in Western Sahara is necessary to prevent terrorism, whereas in reality its occupation simply makes preventing terrorism more difficult by making regional security cooperation less likely. Let’s remember that one of the main reasons the Western Sahara-Mauritania border remains open is that Morocco’s slicing in half of Western Sahara means that it is impossible to travel from the Northern Sector to the Southern Sector of the Free Zone without transiting through Mauritania, in order to avoid the section of the Berm that extends into the far north-west of Mauritania. The Mauritanian government can’t police its borders unilaterally without making life difficult for the Sahrawi and the Polisario or increasing regional tension, which it has no desire to do (neither does it have much in the way of resources with which to do so). The Polisario polices the Free Zone pretty effectively (try getting in without their permission and chances are you’ll soon come up against a patrol), but is denied a greater role in regional security because this would upset Rabat.
Once again, we see that Morocco’s belligerence in Western Sahara only serves to exacerabate regional insecurity and destabilise the Maghreb.