The House Committee on Foreign Affairs met June 7 to hear testimony on U.S. policy challenges in North Africa. North Africa can directly affect United States interests. Its leaders offer practical voices that recognize the importance of stability, security, and peace in the Middle East, but the region also is a potential breeding ground for terrorists, given the recently proven reach of Al Qaeda into Algeria and Morocco.
Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) strongly backed Morocco’s April peace initiative for Western Sahara at the hearing. Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs C. David Welch also emphasized that U.S. support for the seriousness of the Morocco initiative and U.S. commitment to U.N.-led efforts under which parties to the Western Sahara conflict would engage to take steps to resolve it.
The decades-long dispute over Western Sahara contributes to regional instability. If the United States and other countries invest international political capital to develop a workable resolution, it would serve not only the Sahwari people, the Moroccans, and others in the region, but also the United States, the United Nations, and all those who share our interests and values, according to Chairman Lantos and Assistant Secretary Welch.
Welch said that “the goal of U.S. policy is a secure, moderate, and more unified Maghreb,” which can be achieved by the United States’ promotion of political and social reform, economic growth, and a counterterrorism partnership.
Terrorism has become a major concern in the region. Chairman Lantos argued in his opening statement that “Al Qaeda and other terror groups are expanding rapidly their presence in the region,” and asserted that the Western Sahara issue must be settled to prevent the region from developing into a “major terrorism breeding ground.” Welch cited the September 2006 merger between Al Qaeda and an Algerian terrorist group, the GSPC, as marking “the beginning of a troubling trend” in North Africa. Since then, the number of terrorist attacks in the region has increased, terrorist groups are using new tactics and going after new types of targets, and there is evidence that North African terrorist groups are working to build internal ties and with the global jihadist network.
“These groups pose a threat to the governments of the countries in which they are operating, but they also pose a strong threat to foreign—and particularly U.S.—interests,” Welch said. “Since December, we have seen attacks launched at American interests in both Algeria and Morocco, and a plot to attack U.S. interests foiled in Tunisia.”
Chairman Lantos clearly viewed Morocco’s initiative on Western Sahara as the best chance seen in years for the parties to finally negotiate a resolution, stating, “[f]or a generation, a frustrating stalemate has stymied peace between Morocco and the Sahrawi population of Western Sahara. … But the next generation … will grow up mercifully free of an armed conflict that stains their daily existence and limits their future. This will happen if the Polisario is wise enough to accept the reasonable and realistic offer currently on the table.”
These developments make it all the more important that the Western powers pursue a savvy tack in their approach to the recent Moroccan initiative, given the fuel the Western Sahara dispute has provided for North African instability.
“Unresolved,” Welch said, “the crisis leaves approximately 90,000 Sahrawi people languishing in refugee camps … and the territory a potentially attractive safe haven for terrorist planning or activity.” Efforts at negotiation have been stalled since 2004 when James Baker resigned as the United Nations’ Special Envoy.
As the Sahrawi nationalist Polisario Front considers the proposal, the biggest challenge for the United States and the other Western powers may be to urge direct negotiation between the parties while trying to gauge the most effective route for engagement.
Experts appearing at a recent Center for American Progress event on the Western Sahara dispute discussed ways for the United States, United Nations, and other Western powers to aid in resolving the dispute.
Rob Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group, suggested that the U.S. and the U.N. should signal support for three-party talks among Morocco, the Polisario Front, and Algeria—which also has long played a role in the conflict—without a chair at the negotiating table, to and encourage the parties to “talk with one another rather than try to impress a third party” like the United Nations. The United Nations could tell the parties that it will help facilitate the negotiations as much as possible but not impose any conditions, essentially telling the parties, “you negotiate—but we’re not telling you how to do it.”
Assistant Secretary Welch seemed to strike a more assertive position for U.S. engagement at the hearing, suggesting that the United States had put considerable time and energy into urging all parties to the negotiating table, had worked “to ensure that the content of autonomy [in the Morocco initiative] is significant and credible and does not take away from the negotiations.” Welch said of the United States, “[w]e are not disinterested observers… The U.N.-guided negotiations will take place on June 18-19 and the U.S. will participate.”
In expressing his approval of the Moroccan plan, Lantos citing the decision of 173 members of the House of Representatives to send a letter to President Bush urging him to support the proposal, and to a letter sent by a bipartisan group of former foreign policy leaders with experience in region. The Moroccans have proposed far-reaching autonomy for the people of the Western Sahara region,” Lantos said. “They would elect their own leaders, run their own affairs, levy taxes and establish budgets, maintain their own police forces, and control the education of their children. Only external security and foreign affairs will be controlled by the central Moroccan government.”
Sahrawi reception of the proposal is not likely to be nearly as warm. At the CAP event, Claude Salhani, UPI international editor and a senior political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, raised reactions he anticipated likely by Sahwari groups. “It comes down to two words: ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy,’” Salhani said. “Sahrawis don’t want to hear about autonomy.” He indicated that they want only to talk about independence, while Moroccans want to avoid that term.
“Direct talks between Morocco and the Polisario will not be easy,” Welch acknowledged. “The parties will need the support of the international community and Congress to find common ground and look at new ideas. While we understand that initial disagreement between the Polisario and Morocco is likely, we expect both parties to engage constructively and work through differences.”
The force of expectations and steady and sustained engagement may be the best tools the United Nations and the Western powers have in bringing about a resolution to this 30-year dispute.