Friday, July 09, 2004

The Importance Of Morocco

Yesterday, King Mohammed VI of Morocco visited the White House for a meeting with US President Bush. The importance the Bush administration gives to Morocco is shown by the recent Free Trade Agreement the US government signed with Morocco, the inclusion of the Moroccan armed forces in the upcoming NATO excercises MEDSHARK-Majestic Eagle '04 off the coast of Cap Draa, and finally but probably most importantly, the diplomatic support the US is lending Morocco in its dispute with Algeria over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony until 1975, located between Morocco and Mauretania.

The Algerian-backed separation movement called Polisario calls for an independent state, and Algeria supports them, perhaps as 'change' for the resolvement of other standing conflicts with Morocco, perhaps out of fear of a bigger neighbor, even though since a cease fire between Polisario and Morocco in 1991, Western Sahara has been administered by Morocco. Since 1991 several attempts have been made to resolve the dispute, but conferences and decisions have been postponed throughout the nineties, until recently the region has been the focus of diplomacy again.

The reason for this of course is the War on Terror. Western Sahara counts about a quarter of a million inhabitants, mostly nomad farmers. An independent Western Sahara would be an ideal candidate for 'failed state' status, and would almost inmediately attract the attention of terrorist networks like Al Qaeda or their regional affiliate the GSPC. Morocco themselves have a big fight on their hands with the Al Qaeda-linked Moroccan Combatant Islamic Group, responsible for the 2003 Casablanca bombings, and suspected of involvement in the March 11 Madrid attacks, and these groups too could benefit from a new hiding place right under Morocco's nose.

Recently, former Secretary of State James Baker resigned as the United Nation's mediator in the Western Sahara dispute. I believe his stepping aside, perhaps under pressure of the Bush administration -but that's just me thinking out loud, favors the Moroccans in their stance that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. Baker's plans were continuously opposed by Rabat. It may also be possible that with the US' renewed interest in Morocco, Baker felt he had to step aside to avoid a possible future conflict of interest, being a loyal Bush supporter. In any case, he cited health reasons.

In any case, this seems very solvable to me. Times have changed, and both Algeria and Morocco find themselves in hard fights with domestic and international terrorism. Both nations should be explained that like it or not, they're on the same side of the fence, and need to accept the fact that an independent Western Sahara will bring the prospect of terrorist bases on either country's borders. Of course, Morocco will have to accept that the indigenous people need their worries met too, so a federalist state seems the best solution, with local government ensuring own rule, but within the confines of a greater Morocco.

Viewing all this from Spain, one cannot but note the slightly bitter aftertaste all this is causing. Though officially the socialist government seems pleased with Morocco's FTA-status with the US, it was mainly responding to opposition party PP's comments that this was yet another sign that Spain was more and more being isolated by the US. But then again, the socialists seem happy to tag along France and Germany. As to Western Sahara, inmediately after Franco's death in 1975, the new government of Spain pulled out of then-called Spanish Sahara, and left it to Mauretania and Morocco to occupy (does this sound familiar?) Its stance seems neutral as to the future of the territory, and it hasn't shown the same involvement in its ex-colony as say Portugal with Timor. To me, it is more seen as an opportunity though to play the part of mediator, adding to its 'special relationship' with Northern Africa, which is useful within the EU.

One final piece of the puzzle will be the US naval station at Rota, in Southern Spain. As we will see in the coming years of the Zapatero government, indeed, we have seen it already with Spain's refusal to send NATO's newly formed rapid reaction force to Afghanistan, aping France's position, his socialist government may become more and more anti-NATO, even though for now this is on hold because Zapatero feels compelled to support it because it is one of those 'international institutions' he so very much likes to prop up.

My suggestion to the Pentagon would be to make it easy on him, and move the Rota Naval station to Morocco, but in Western Sahara. Not only will this provide security to the local Saharians under Moroccan rule, it will also prove to the world that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. I'd hate to see them leave, but they're a lot closer over there to the front in the War on Terror and states like Sudan, Congo and Ivory Coast. At the same time, Donald Rumsfeld can use the transfer as part of his ongoing efforts to restructure the military, building instead a new base more fit to confront the challenges ahead.