June 11, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, calls for resolving the dispute over the status of the Western Sahara, adding, however, that “any workable arrangement must be based on sober reality rather than flights of fancy as illusory as the desert mirages of the region.”

The article reviews the territory’s history—including its historic links to the Moroccan crown before the colonial interlude—as well as the Polisario Front’s more than three-decade-long campaign for total independence and Morocco’s compromise proposal for autonomy (which a bipartisan majority of 229 members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently hailed as “the only feasible option”), concluding:

Given the importance to the United States and its allies of a stable and secure Maghreb, the compromise of autonomy offered by Morocco—reasonably located between complete assimilation into the Sharifian Kingdom and total independence—is the only realistic course. With no arable land to speak of and only the barest of natural resources, an independent Western Sahara would be an instantaneous failed state.  Its prospective population—that is, those that Moroccans (including Sahrawis) who didn't opt for the more promising prospects of life in Morocco and abandon the territory before any independence—of less than 200,000 would thus be among the poorest and least economically viable people in the world . Internally, its peoples are already divided among themselves…These sharp divisions would certainly be heightened in an independent state with very limited resources. Such tensions would, in turn, create circumstances that are favorable to subversion and the activities of extremist groups like AQIM and criminal organizations like drug and human trafficking cartels…which are already active in the subregion. These factors guarantee that, detached from the Moroccan state, the territory would become an even greater source of conflict between the Maghrebi countries. [A recent] Potomac Institute/SAIS report is not exaggerating by much when it speculates that an independent Western Sahara would be “another Somalia on the Atlantic coast of North Africa.”…

For the sake of regional stability and development as well as the security and interests of the larger international community, Western Sahara can no longer be a “forgotten conflict” peripheral to world affairs. The United States, which arguably has the greatest leverage with the Maghrebi states of any outside power as well as the most significant stake in countering extremism in this strategic region, should use its influence to help move the dispute to a peaceful resolution along the lines of Morocco’s proposal for autonomy, a generous solution founded on the principle of realism which alone assures its long-term sustainability.

To read the full text of the article, “ Western Sahara: Time to Move Ahead, Realistically,” click here.