Letting another Qaeda bastion grow

Last Updated: 12:31 AM, November 2, 2010
Posted: 10:36 PM, November 1, 2010

TINDOUF, ALGERIA — With a minefield at his back, Mohammed admires the lunar flatlands of the Sahara that are claimed by both Morocco’s government and his rebel Polisario Front: « It is better to die fighting than to die sitting, » he says. Since 1975, the Polisario Front separatists have fought with detonators and diplomats to carve out a country from the southern half of Morocco, America’s oldest ally in the region. A ceasefire in effect since 1991 is breaking down now. Like Mohammed, many living in the Polisario-run camps in Algeria want war.

But will they join a war against Morocco — or al Qaeda’s war against the West? Al Qaeda’s power is surging in North Africa. In recent years it has bombed restaurants in Morocco, attacked police stations in Algeria, tried to sink US warships off Gibraltar and bomb the US embassy in Mali and kidnapped scores of Europeans in the Sahara — extracting more than $20 million in ransom, enough to finance an army here. I

t is an army on the move. European intelligence services increasingly find North African links to plots they disrupt. While the Polisario Front opposes al Qaeda, some 56 Polisario officials and soldiers have been linked to the terrorist group. The lawless wastes of the Sahara are becoming the next Afghanistan. Yet the Obama administration has left the problem to the United Nations, which has spent decades failing to find a solution. UN Special Envoy Christopher Ross is trying yet again: Tomorrow he’ll convene a summit in New York to try to mediate the conflict. Those talks will likely fail because two key players are missing: Algeria and Spain. Algeria shelters many of the Polisario’s supporters, and the rebels can’t make any concessions without Algeria’s approval. The promise of a free-trade agreement with the United States, similar to the one Morrocco enjoys, might encourage Algeria to see the bigger picture. Spain provides a financial lifeline to the Polisario via remittances, military pensions and aid. It needs to use its financial leverage to press the Polisario.

This, too, would require US diplomacy. Moral equivalency is hampering Obama officials, some of whom see the two sides as interchangeable. (Others seem to think that somehow Morocco is a colonial power.) But visiting both the Polisario camps and Morocco’s south shows that the two are as equivalent as East and West Berlin. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with 30 political parties that has spent billions creating a prosperous, stable society in its south. New ports handle the flow of increased trade. New homes have replaced shantytowns the Spanish left behind. Foreign investors are building hotels and offices. By contrast, the Polisario permits neither political parties nor independent media. Its officials promise that, once they get their own state, they’ll blossom into a multiparty democracy. Why are they waiting? Economically, the Polisario camps are dependent on the kindness of strangers: Algeria, the United Nations, European governments and nonprofits. It’s not enough. Every year, many people disappear into the desert. Some go to Morocco, others sign up with drug smugglers or al Qaeda. This is no small problem. The deputy governor of the Polisario’s Layounne camp told me that « four or five thousand people » disappear every year. His camp is only one of five. In Dakhla, Morocco, I met Bashir Rguibi, a former propaganda artist and soldier for the Polisario who spent decades living in the camps before he fled.

He told of visiting Buirtaqsit — an al Qaeda stronghold, on territory technically controlled by the Polisario, where al Qaeda operatives buy machine guns and rocket launchers. If the Polisario can’t police its relatively tiny territory now, how will it be able to patrol the 103,000-square miles of open desert it seeks to rule? There is an equitable way out. Morocco has offered an autonomy plan: Saharans could share in fishing and mining revenue while electing their own leaders and writing local laws. Obama officials called the plan « serious and credible. » Tens of thousands of Saharans agree; they’ve voted with their feet, left the camps and moved to Morocco. If the administration gets more directly involved, it could bring peace and prosperity to Africans while securing safety for Americans. Its only obstacle is the Polisario Front, which would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

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