Well fancy that…

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.

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9 Responses to Well fancy that…

  1. alle says:

    Thanks for the mention. Actually, Morocco could also have a role in an arrangement of that sort, but of course neither Polisario nor Morocco nor Algeria would be happy with working across the berm. Even so, they should, because it seems a hell of a lot of that smuggling goes across the berm, courtesy of corrupt border officials who have made it their personal source of extra income to control breaches in the wall. There were a bunch of army reshuffles and even a few arrests in Morocco a month or so back, after someone was caught sneaking explosives across the berm up northeast…

    Hey, by the way. You’ve been working mostly in the southern chunk of Polisario-controlled WS, right? Ever had any security issues there, or heard of them? Or perhaps the question should be, do you meet anyone else there, or is it too far into the wilderness?

  2. alle says:

    …and by “border officials” I mean “military officers responsible for sensitive sectors of the WS ceasefire-line” of course. Heartfelt apologies to the Moroccan border police.

  3. nickbrooks says:

    Hi alle, and welcome.

    Indeed, Morocco could also play a role in regional security cooperation. For such cooperation to work, there would have to be some modicum of trust between all the various parties. I think the only way this would happen would be with major concessions on the part of Morocco.

    If Polisario were to be included they would have to be happy working with the Moroccans, and this is only going to happen if Morocco makes real concessions on Western Sahara. The only way Polisario could not be included would be with their physical removal from the equation, which would take either a war to wipe them out or a brutal crackdown on them by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania acting together, and possibly a genocide. Ethics aside, I guess Algeria and Mauritania are unlikely to cooperate with each other to facilitate Moroccan expansion and territorial consolidation.

    Even if Polisario were to be relegated to passive observers, Algeria is unlikely to cooperate with Morocco unless it also feels that Morocco has made concessions that mean it no longer has to keep an eye on Rabat’s perceived expansionist tendencies. Let’s assume that Polisario and the Sahrawi magically disappear – someone would have to police the Free Zone in the context of this regional security cooperation. Algeria would see Moroccan moves into the Free Zone as further expansion, while Morocco would see Algerian activity in the Free Zone as a violation of its territory. Mauritania would presumably be uneasy about either Algeria or Morocco formally extending its control into the Free Zone. Maybe the Free Zone could be ceded to Mauritania, and the three states could then police their mutual border. But remember we’re doing this as an Einsteinian thought experiment in which all the Sahrawi and the Polisario have emigrated to Canada or some such. In reality I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

    So I can’t see it happening, and I think Morocco’s occupation is what would prevent it. The only way security could be extended through regional cooperation would be through a genuine settlement to the dispute that satisfied all the parties, and I think that the only way this can be achieved is with Moroccan withdrawal from Western Sahara, or perhaps with the partition of the territory in something like a “2-state solution”, to borrow a phrase, which neither side seems to want to contemplate.

    As for security bother, I don’t want to tempt fate, but we’ve never had any trouble so far (lots of ordnance to avoid, but we try to be careful and take advice). By comparison to certain other parts of North Africa the Free Zone is paradise to work in, even with the hassle of having to travel via Tindouf or Atar/Zouerate. We work closely with the Polisario and stay in their military bases, and they are always extremely helpful and hospitable. But generally we don’t travel with an armed escort or military personnel. The Polisario military seem have a pretty good handle on what’s moving about in the landscape, and we always check in with the local military immediately when we arrive in a new area so as not to raise suspicion, but I guess you can’t see everything in such a large, mostly desolate, in places extremely rugged, and almost unpopulated area.

  4. Sky says:

    Hi Nick:)
    I’m a college student who is interested in possibly writing about Morrocco for my international relations class. Although I’ve tried to follow some of your blogs, I’m am still not quite sure I understand all of the complications. If you can help me in any way I would appreciate it so much.
    Thank you.

  5. wpm1955 says:

    What is the “berm?”

  6. alle says:

    A Moroccan defensive system made up of sand walls, trenches, landmines and bunkers that stretch through the entire Western Sahara.

  7. Tim says:

    Enjoyed reading all your info & exchanges.
    We’ve been passing through from Morocco to Mali for the past few years and would like to know if ayone can give us current information about situation on the border Morocco-Mauritania. Is it open as usual. Can Mauritanian visas still be obtained as usual.
    Thanks in advance.

  8. nickbrooks says:

    Well, strictly speaking Morocco has no border with Mauritania. The Moroccan-occupied areas of Western Sahara do border Mauritania in the south, but I’m not sure what the situation is here (I hear that quite a few people use this route so I guess it’s open). Of course there is the long border between Western Sahara and Mauritania in the east and southeast, but to get here from Morocco you have to cross the berm with its alleged 1000s of troops and minefields (which is impossible).

    Cheers

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