The Reagan Administration and the Struggle for Self-Determination in Western Sahara


The struggle for self-determination and independence continues in Western Sahara under the leadership of Polisario.  King Hassan of Morocco, unable to defeat Polisario and facing increased political problems at home, has turned to the United States for help, which the Reagan administration seems more than willing to provide.




Western Sahara was colonized by Spain in the late nineteenth century, but widespread resistance prevented full control from being established until 1934.  Opposition to Spanish rule continued in the 1950’s and 60’s, and on May 10, 1973, Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguiet el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was formed to intensify the fight for independence.  Ten days late the armed struggle began.


By 1975, Spain was ready to end its formal colonial rule, but both Morocco and Mauritania were now laying formal claim to Western Sahara.  As a result of these claims, the United Nations sent a mission to the area.  It reported that the people of Western Sahara were “categorically for independence and against the territorial claims of Morocco and Mauritania” and that Polisario was the dominant political force.  Late in 1975 the International Court of Justice (World Court) found that Moroccan and Mauritanian claims to Western Sahara were without legal justification and that the people of Western Sahara were entitled to self-determination including independence.  Although the UN mission urged the holding of a referendum to determine the will of the people of Western Sahara, Spain gave into pressure from Morocco, withdrew, and divided the territory between Morocco and Mauritania.


Polisario rejected the Spanish agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, declaring it illegal because it denied the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination.  On February 27, 1976, one day after the Spanish withdrawal, Polisario declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and continued armed resistance.  Over the next three years Polisario grew in strength making the war more costly to its adversaries.  In August 1999, Mauritania sued for peace and withdrew from Western Sahara.  Morocco promptly extended its claims to include the area formerly claimed by Mauritania, and the war continued.


Morocco is determined to hold on to Western Sahara for both political and economic reasons.  The war draws attention away from political and economic problems at home and builds the nationalist and patriotic image of the monarchy.  There are also large phosphate reserves located in the Western Sahara at Bu Craa, jus 58 miles from the coast.  A by-product that can be extracted from the phosphate is a form of Uranium, U-238, which can be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors.  Exploitable oil and iron deposits are also thought to exist in the area.


US Policy


US policy toward the region has long been centered around close military tied with Morocco, but the Cater administration maintained a position of neutrality on the issue of Western Sahara.


Recent Reagan administration moves appear to signal a significant shift in policy.  In early November a 23 man military delegation visited Morocco and the battle zones in Western Sahara.  The joint Pentagon-State Department delegation was led by Francis J. (Bing) West, Jr., assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.


The visit raised speculation that the United States may become directly involved in Morocco’s military efforts in the Sahara.  The press reported that West suggested to Col. Maj. Mohammed Kabba, Moroccan airforce head, that more mobile commando style tactics be adopted and that the US would provide the necessary training.  “We can train General Dlimi’s forces” West was quoted as saying, referring to the Moroccan armed forces chief.


In addition, West said during the visit that sophisticated radar detection and jamming equipment could be made available for the F-5 airplanes which had been supplied to Morocco by the US.  Washington has delivered twenty F-5’s to Morocco this year and several have already been shot down by Polisario.   The equipment would protect the plains from radar guided missiles such as Sam 6’s.


The West mission marks a significant new public US commitment to Morocco and its territorial claims.  In the past, despite evidence to the contrary, the State Department had claimed that US supplied weapons were unrelated to the war in Western Sahara and basically not useful to Morocco in the conflict.  This new commitment also seems to run counter to the policy laid out in a statement by US representative, George Christopher to the United Nations on October 30th.  “The United States has not taken a position regarding the final status of Western Sahara,” said Christopher.  “We have, however, been convinced that a military solution to the conflict was neither possible nor desirable.  We have hoped for an early, peaceful and negotiated solution to the conflict and have contributed where possible to its achievement.  Such a solution should be based on the freely expressed wishes of the inhabitants of the territory.”


The Reagan administration’s policy of escalating support for Morocco is consistent with its overall foreign policy.  “It is the prevailing view of this administration that America’s allies and close associates should expect understanding and reliable support,” said Morris Draper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in testimony before Congress in March.  Morocco is a conservative Arab state and a long-time ally.  In the past there have been US military bases in Morocco and the US navy regularly uses Moroccan ports.  The US sees King Hassan as an ally in need and fears that if Morocco loses in the Sahara the King may lose his throne.  Draper added that Morocco needed “additional support and consideration” and the US would not withhold arms for what he termed “reasonable and legitimate purposes.


Another factor is the US government’s attitude toward Polisario stems from its cold war policies toward the Soviet Union.  Many Soviet-aligned countries have supported Polisario diplomatically and several, including Cuba, have recognized the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.  Polisario obtains arms from both Algeria and Libya, and the administration’s view of Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi as a pro-Soviet terrorist leader must inevitable affect its attitude.


Secretary of State Alexander Haig has shows a particular sympathy for Morocco.  In one of his official acts, he approved the sale of 108 M-60 tanks to Morocco.  The move cam just two days after the US hostages in Iran had been released, largely through the good offices of Algeria.  The move was widely seen as a snub to Algeria, and as if to confirm the fact, in early February an American embassy spokesman in Morocco announced the delivery of the first two of six OV-10 counter-insurgency aircraft.


To implement his policy, President Reagan has chosen Joseph Vernon Reed to be the new US ambassador to Morocco. A personal friend of King Hassan, Reed “is known to be particularly eager to increase US support for the King’s military struggle in the Sahara,” according to the Washington Post.  He formerly worked at Chase Manhattan Bank as chief if staff for David Rockefeller another friend of Hassan.  In presenting his credentials to Hassan he said, “The leadership of the Reagan administration has stated that your country’s concerns are my country’s concerns.”


President Reagan’s policy differs from President Carter’s more in degree than in approach.  Cater was restrained by members of his own party in Congress who are opposed to arms sales or at least to the use of US-supplied arms in the Sahara.  The strongest opponent was former Senator Dick Clark, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Africa.  However, Clark was defeated in his re-election bid in 1978 and congressional concern over events in Iran and Nicaragua weakened opposition to arms sales.  Carter moved ahead with significant sales of military equipment and aircraft to Morocco in 1979.  Congressional opponents of the sale did get from Carter a vague agreement that delivery of the arms would be contingent on unidentified “progress” in peace negotiations.  The Reagan administration, which does not face any of the same political problems, has eliminated this criteria.


The War


The US military mission visit to Morocco came just weeks after a major battle in Western Sahara on October 13th. Polisario won a significant victory on Morocco at the garrison town of Guelta Zemmur.  Survivors of the 2,000 strong Moroccan garrison were forced to flee to the mountains until reinforcements came.  In the fighting around Guelta Zemmur Polisario shot down five aircraft, two of which, a C-130 Hercules transport and an F-5 fighter plane, were US-supplied.


Morocco was particularly upset by the loss of the aircraft because of the importance of reconnaissance flights and air support in battle.  Claiming that the aircraft were shot down with Sam 6 or Sam 8 missiles, Morocco implied the presence of non-Saharawi in Polisario’s forces by arguing that the use of these missiles was beyond the technical expertise of Polisario.  Morocco also claimed that Polisario used Soviet-made T-54 tanks.  However, journalists who visited the area were unable to find any evidence of Morocco’s claims, despite the fact that Morocco said Polisario had been able to carry the destroyed tanks off the battlefield.


The battle at Guelta Zemmur shows Polisario’s continued military strength.  As a result of the attack Morocco has withdrawn from Guelta Zemmur and Bir Anzaran, both key outposts in the southern part of Western Sahara.  Polisario’s strength clearly upset Washington as well as Rabat.  Secretary of State Haig responded by sending his special envoy, Ambassador-at-Large Vernon Walters to Morocco and the West mission followed soon after.

Most of Morocco’s forces in Western Sahara, including those withdrawl from Guelta Zemmur and Bir Anzaran, are now behind a 400 mile wall of sand.  In the past year Morocco has built the wall around what it calls the “useful” Sahara.  Essentially the wall is designed to protect the capital of Western Sahara, El Aaiun, the city of Smara and the phosphate mines at Bu Craa.  But the wall is more than just sand.  There are forts every few miles and the wall is equipped with sophisticated electronic equipment.  Moroccan forces remain in only a few towns outside the wall.




King Hassan has not confined his struggle against the Polisario to the battlefield.  In a dramatic diplomatic move at the OAU heads of state meeting last june, the King announced that Morocco would accept a “controlled referendum” to determine the future of the area.  That move succeeded in keeping the OAU from admitting as a member the Polisario-formed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, despite the fact that it is recognized as the official government of Western Sahara by over half the organization’s member sates.


The OAU has consistently supported self-determination for Western Sahara, although the issue is a sensitive one as it involved inter-African conflict.  Morocco had previously rejected a referendum proposed by a special OAU committee set up to study the issue of Western Sahara.  But Morocco has become increasingly isolated on the issue while Polisario’s support has continued to grow.


There is some question as to whether Morocco will go through with its offer.  James M. Markham of the New York Times reported from Morocco in July, “Few well-placed Moroccan or Western diplomats here believe that the King has any intention of allowing a referendum that would challenge Morocco’s longstanding claim to the phosphate rich desert.”  It appears that Morocco is stalling for time, perhaps having taken a lesson from South Africa.  South Afric agreed to an election in Namibia in 1978 but has been able to put off implementation for more than three years.


On August 24-25 the OAU Committee established to implement the ceasefire and referendum called for at the June summit, met in Nairobi.  The Committee decided that the referendum “shall be one of self-determination which will enable the people of Western Sahara to express themselves freely and democratically on the future of the territory” and that the choice to be put to voters will be “independence, or integration into Morocco.”  King Hassan, on the other hand, had announced only a week earlier that the referendum “must only be a confirmation of the return to the mother country.”


In other decisions the committee decided that the referendum should be conducted by the OAU and the UN, and that “for a fair and impartial organization of the referendum, an impartial administration supported by civilian, military and police components shall be set up.”  Moroccan and Polisario forces would be confined to bases and a UN peacekeeping force would be present.


Morocco, while declaring itself satisfied with the plan, has refused to negotiate directly with Polisario on a ceasefire.  Polisario has declared itself ready to start negotiations at any time.  Morocco’s refusal to negotiate with Polisario has been seen as a stalling tactic and many observers wonder whether Morocco will ever allow implementation of the plan.  Lacking a ceasefire, Polisario has pushed ahead with its military activities.


Morocco – Internal Problems


Morocco has significant internal problems, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the high cost of the war.  The war leaves little or no money for development and a continuing drought has devastated the economy of the country.  To make matters worse, the price of Morocco’s main export, phosphate, has declined while its import bill, especially for oil, has risen significantly.


Because of the drought Morocco last half of its last grain crop and the outlook for the current crop is no better.  Farmers have been forced to slaughter their livestock because of lack of grazing land, causing long-term damage to the economy.  As estimated 1,000 people a day are leaving the countryside for the cities, creating a large, unemployed, disaffected, urban population.


These problems were dramatized last June when serious rioting broke out in Casablanca.  The government said that 67 people died, but opposition leaders claim over 600 were killed, many by police and army gunfire.  Major targets for the rioters included banks, post offices, tax collection offices, gas stations and private cars.  Over two thousand people were arrested.  Rioters shouted, “The government takes our bread to pay for the Sahara,” reflecting increasing popular disenchantment with the war.  However, all legal political parties continue to support Morocco’s attempts to annex Western Sahara.




The Reagan administration appears committed to support for Morocco, which it regards as a reliable friend and ally in an unstable region.  In this context US fears that King Hassan may not be able to hold on to his throne under the dual pressures of economic collapse and the loss of the Sahara seems to be moving Washington into a more active role against the Polisario-led struggle for independence.  Thus although the US continues to declare support for OAU efforts towards a peaceful solution in Western Sahara, it is in fact supporting Moroccan efforts to achieve a military victory over Polisario and crush the legitimate struggle of the population for self-determination.


Richard Knight

December 1981



This document was originally published by the American Committee on Africa.


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