Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War
A reviewer’s immediate reaction on receiving Western Sahara might be to wonder whether the subject really justifies a relatively thick book. As with the wayward nun who attempted to explain away her pregnancy to the Mother Superior by telling her that it had, after all, resulted from only a “very small sin,” so the struggle by the Polisario Front for political autonomy could hardly be described as anything more than a very small war. Indeed, I had to search through Mr. Hodges’s book as keenly as a French Jaguar pilot scanning for the Polisario in the vast tracts of the Sahara before I could even find out the total population of Western Sahara. According to the 1974 census, it appears to have been 95,019 (how do you count nineteen out of a largely nomadic people?), of which 20,126 were Europeans, but not taking into account the substantial numbers of Saharawis living outside the frontiers, as refugees or nomads.
That is, the problem we are talking about concerns the aspirations of a people numbering rather less than the population of Oxford, excluding undergraduates. They occupy an area about as large as the British Isles, with only one river, no oases, and an annual rainfall of less than two inches, which is one of the lowest in the world, and, until very recently, with absolutely no known resources—in fact one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Why all the fuss?
Western Sahara has, however, as mr. Hodges reminds us, “been the theatre of one of Africa’s most bitter and intractable wars since 1975.” Little has been known about it in the West, and less understood. I count myself among the profoundly ignorant, and am therefore indebted to Mr. Hodges for this informative and interesting book, which, for all its density of research, is attractively enough written to lose only occasionally the attention of the reader. For small and local as the war is that Polisario has been waging these past ten years, the wider story is bursting with historical lessons (in fact, a bit like a history of modern Europe in microcosm), and also—still—full of menace for Western interests.
At the peak of their glory, around the eleventh century, the denizens of Western Sahara—which was not always a total desert—were the Almoravids, whose empire stretched, briefly, from the Senegal River to Saragossa in Spain. Both Ghana and Morocco were in its fiefdom. Then, as “gimcrack empires, spatch-cocked together” do, this one disappeared in dust—and sand—leaving a vacuum inhabited by unruly nomadic tribes, without a focus and more or less lost to history. Then, in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards arrived from the offshore Canary Islands; again as in the familiar pattern of empire, their initial allure was the slave trade—to get over labor shortages in the Canaries. Distracted by more profitable imperial ventures in the Americas, the Spaniards withdrew again from this inhospitable coast (they never ventured far inland) until 1884. By this time the scramble for Africa had begun; Spain had lost almost everything in the Americas, and hoisted its flag at Río de Oro (the name was as illusory as “Eldorado”) chiefly to protect the Canaries from her greedy European rivals.
In 1900 France, now involved in Morocco and having already staked out the vast empty real estate of West Africa that surrounded the Spanish enclave, entered the contest. A series of Franco-Spanish conventions led to boundary demarcations along arbitrary rectangular principles—resulting in yet another carving up of Africa without regard to geographic, let alone ethnic, features. Spain, now a poor cousin of Europe, and with no bargaining power, had to accept what she could get. “The future of Spanish Sahara does not promise much success,” commented a British Foreign Office report in 1919.
In 1916 the Germans tried to run guns by submarine into Spanish Morocco to annoy the French; otherwise for years it was left unmolested. From their territories the French fought a series of Beau Geste campaigns against Saharawi guerrillas, antecedents of the Polisario, from 1909 onward, but the Spaniards made no attempt to occupy the interior of their colony until 1934, after the French had broken the back of the highly skillful Saharawis. The Spanish civil war left no mark on the colony, which slumbered until the early 1960s. In 1952 there were only twenty-four telephone subscribers in the whole territory, and until 1960 only 130 wells. By 1975 there were, so Mr. Hodges tells us, still slaves. In 1958, after Morocco had already received its independence from France, Franco’s Spain repeated the same error that the French had committed over Algeria a century previously—making Spanish Sahara an integral province of Spain. As with Algeria, this meant that—when the time came—it would be all the more difficult for Spain to cut the umbilical cord.
There were other similarities with Algérie Française; just as French textbooks in Algerian schools had taught about “our ancestors, the Gauls,” so Saharawi young people were insulted by glorifications of Spanish history. In common with Algeria as well as other third world countries, a combination of poverty in the countryside (a particularly harsh drought in 1959–1963 killed off 46 percent of the Saharawi camels, their key to survival), rising birthrates, and the allure of urban employment encouraged a large part of the population to give up being nomads and settle near towns. Between 1967 and 1974 the urban population trebled—to all of 40,660. Inevitably, living conditions deteriorated.
With 20,00 Spanish troops on the mainland, the colony was run by a dictatorial, paternalistic regime much in the image of Franco’s Spain itself. Even Spaniards were required to obtain visas. Then in 1965, five years after Macmillan’s famous “Winds of Change” speech and three years after De Gaulle gave Algeria her independence, the United Nations passed a resolution calling on Spain to liberate Spanish Sahara. Franco refused to permit the UN to hold a referendum, and for the next ten years declined to budge—although Spain was prepared to relinquish all her other Spanish territories in West Africa. Meanwhile Morocco (which, by Mr. Hodges’s account, is portrayed as one of the world’s few remaining dedicatedly “revisionist” states) had—almost immediately upon gaining its own independence fron France—embarked on a “Greater Morocco” spree that laid claim to all of Spanish Sahara, all of Mauritania, part of Mali, and a chunk of western Algeria. Rival claims by both Morocco and Mauritania to Spanish Sahara gave Franco a God-sent opportunity to keep the UN at bay by means of divide-and-rule diplomacy.
But why the sudden interest in this forsaken strip of desert? The reasons were simple economic ones. First, fisheries off the Western Sahara coast had been discovered to be among the world’s richest; between 1969 and 1974 tonnage landed nearly trebled—though less than 1 percent of the total catch was made by Western Saharan fishermen. Secondly, huge iron ore deposits containing enough vanadium to make Western Sahara one of the most important sources of this key space-age metal had been found near the big Mauritanean deposits already being exploited at Zouerate. Thirdly, but most important of all, at Bou-Craa one of the world’s largest phosphate deposits had been opened up, of a far higher grade than that mined in either the US or Morocco. The Bou-Craa phosphate workings were linked to the coast by a remarkable sixty-two-mile-long conveyor belt, built by Herr Krupp of Essen; while the iron ore was shipped out over a 400-mile-long railway from Zouerate to the coast. Both facilities were to provide irresistible—and almost indefensible—targets for guerrilla attack.
Thus although in 1966 Franco’s vice-president, the subsequently murdered Carrero Blanco, could claim that Spain was putting more into the colony than she was taking out, by 1970 Western Sahara was propelled into a spectacular industrial boom. Nevertheless, helped by the ubiquitous transistor keeping the people informed of nationalist developments elsewhere in the third world, indigenous discontent mounted. In 1973 the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Rió de Oro, shortened to Polisario, was born. Its progenitors were young militant Saharawi students at the university in Morocco—a backdrop familiar to anyone who has studied similar developments in Latin America and elsewhere. They were strongly influenced by the PLO, were essentially (like the Algerian FLN) Moslem nationalists, and claimed to have no Marxist leanings—a claim that Mr. Hodges finds convincing.
Like the post-1954 FLN in Algeria, they swiftly swept aside the moderate nationalists who bore the official stamp of Spanish approval. In May of 1973 a small group of Polisario militants staged their first guerrilla raid against an isolated Spanish army post. The same year Franco, to the world’s surprise, made a first move toward preparing Western Sahara for internal autonomy. Like De Gaulle’s declaration of “auto-determination” for Algeria in 1959, it seemed likely that this was a prelude to a full Spanish withdrawal, eventually, from the colony. The following year Polisario came up with an unambiguous demand for full independence.
Spain’s unexpected willingness to abdicate authority in Western Sahara stemmed from a mixture of difficulties at home (Basque terrorists had assassinated Carrero Blanco, and Franco at eighty was declining rapidly) and apprehension at finding itself the last colonial power in Africa. At the same time, Spain had made it plain that it was determined to prevent integration of Western Sahara into King Hassan’s Morocco. Morocco now entered the game, with Hassan riposting angrily to the Spanish government’s internal autonomy plan. Four days later the king declared at the holy city of Pez that he would not tolerate “a puppet state” in the “southern part of our country.” A “crusade” for the recovery of “Moroccan Sahara” was now launched from which, like many crusaders in the past, King Hassan would find it extremely difficult to extricate himself.
In Mr. Hodges’s view, the king was motivated less by covetousness for those fabulous, newly discovered resources than by internal needs for an external success. And here one begins to encounter, in microcosm, some of the ingredients that made post-1970 Europe suddenly so dangerous a place: “bread and circuses” (except that Morocco was short on bread), the pursuit of la gloire abroad to divert fevered minds at home, followed by the embroilment of neighbor states, followed by the more remote great powers coming to the aid of their client states.
Since coming to the throne in 1961, Hassan had experienced a number of coups against him, culminating in July 1971 in an extremely narrow escape, when rebel cadets had burst into the palace and shot up a royal garden party. On top of this the economy was in a shaky state, cities like Casablanca were suffering from appalling overcrowding and poverty, and by 1974 the king’s popularity was at an all-time low. To secure his throne, he desperately needed a political success. At a stroke, he dramatically restored his position by launching the “Moroccan Sahara” crusade, with all its appeal to the emotions of Greater Moroccan chauvinism. (Shades of Louis Napoleon seeking, in 1870, to distract domestic opposition by a foreign gambit to humble Bismarck.)
With some adroitness the king got around the UN’S call for a Saharawi referendum, while playing for time by referring the whole dispute to the International Court at The Hague. When, however, on October 15, 1975 the court pronounced against Moroccan claims, concluding that “the majority of the population within the Spanish Sahara was manifestly in favour of independence,” the king was ready to move, regardless—and move he did.
In an amazing triumph of logistics he recruited 350,000 people from all over Morocco (most presumably from the unemployed) and transported them to the southern desert, where they set forth on an unarmed “Green March” into Spanish territory. By now retreat had become impossible for King Hassan. Mr. Hodges quotes him as confiding, as early as that June, “if we do not recover our Sahara, I will be pessimistic about the future of Morocco as a community and state.” The challenge could not have come at a worse time for Spain; Franco had fallen mortally ill, and although the Spanish armed forces outnumbered the Moroccans they were not prepared to risk confrontation. What followed immediately was something of a farce. The Spaniards set up a “dissuasion line” twelve kilometers inside the frontier. Chanting specially composed pop songs like “El Ayoun, My Eyes,” the Green Marchers marched up to the dissuasion line—and then marched back again. In the meantime neighboring Mauritania had also entered the act, reckoning that with an impending Spanish withdrawal it would be better to get some slice of the pie rather than none at all, and laying claim to the less rich southern part of Western Sahara.
In November 1975, Spain suddenly announced that—regardless of the wishes of the Saharawi and without the holding of any referendum as called for by the UN—the colony would be partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania. (If there were any equity in these matters, which there is not, one might feel it would perhaps have been fairer if Mauritania—as one of the world’s poorest countries and therefore in greater need of all those raw material assets than Morocco, as well as being more ethnically akin to the Saharawi—had got the lot.) The Western Saharans, as Mr. Hodges puts it, thus saw their country “decolonized out of existence.”
The “Desert War” now began in earnest. By the beginning of 1975, Polisario had (like the FLN in 1954) practically no weapons and no external support—except for Qaddhafi’s Libya. Yet they pulled off some amazing strikes, proving themselves to be—in Mr. Hodges’s words—“one of the world’s most resilient and effective guerrilla armies.” They cut both the economic lifelines of the Krupp phosphate conveyor belt and the iron ore railway through Mauritania. In a remarkable raid in Land Rovers across 900 miles of enemy desert, the Polisario even bombarded the palace of the Mauritanian leader (who bore the droll name of Ould Daddah), although it cost the life of their own inspired young chief, El-Ouali. With considerable strategic insight, Polisario concentrated their attacks on Mauritania as being the weak link in the chain. Within three years the country had been bankrupted and Ould Daddah deposed by the army, and in 1979 Mauritania quit the war and handed over its slice of the pie to Polisario.
What happened after the Madrid accords of 1975, and Polisario’s ensuing declaration of war, again strikes a chord, reminding us of the escalation of commitments in Europe preliminary to 1914. Boumedienne’s Algeria, on whom King Hassan had staged a land-grab following the French pullout in 1962—an episode described in a somewhat confused chapter by Mr. Hodges—engaged itself whole-heartedly as Polisario’s principal ally. With extensive interests in the threatened iron ore fields, France committed itself—unsuccessfully—to propping up Ould Daddah’s Mauritania. (Giscard then cut his losses, dumping Mauritania in hopes of repairing fences with Algeria.)
As the war went progressively worse for Hassan, the US—fearful of what might happen to a key anti-Soviet ally and its vital bases in Morocco—found itself drawn into pouring more and more arms and money into helping Hassan’s war, and at the cost of relations with Algeria. Inside Africa the war “lifted the lid off a Pandora’s box of submerged social tensions,” notably between Moslem Moors and black Africans. The OAU was split apart. Only the Soviet Union stayed conspicuously aloof (as indeed it did throughout most of the Algerian war), no doubt waiting for the big plum—a Khomeinistyle overthrow of Hassan in Morocco—to fall into its lap.
According to Mr. Hodges, the cost of the “Desert War” to Morocco has been appalling—certainly in relation to the number of men and arms committed by Polisario. Between 1974 and 1982 the Moroccan armed forces tripled in size. Nevertheless, the Western Sahara’s coveted phosphate industry was brought to the brink of collapse, and after six years of war the Moroccans were forced to abandon five-sixths of the territory they had occupied, digging themselves in behind a sandbank wall not unlike the “Morice Line” which the French built in Algeria in an attempt to keep the FLN raiders from Tunisia at bay. Morale in the army sank, and the king’s prestige hit bottom by the early 1980s. The dire dilemma that faced him was: give up the war, and risk overthrow; or go on, and risk overthrow anyway because of mounting economic misery. The dilemma was, of course, transferred to the king’s US backers; succeeding President Carter, Reagan boosted military support for Morocco, while (as quoted by Mr. Hodges) the view of the US liberal establishment was that “the real threat to the King is not from without but from within.”
Mr. Hodges possibly takes his anti-Moroccan sentiments to excess, and there are doubtless State Department experts who would consider that he exaggerates the weakness of King Hassan’s Morocco. Since Western Sahara was written, there have been hopeful signs of a rapprochement between post-Boumedienne Algeria and Morocco, coupled with serious efforts (underscored by the economic plights of both countries) to set up a “Maghreb Common Market.” Algeria seems disenchanted with its Polisario client, which has shown itself no more able—after ten years of struggle—to win the war than Morocco. Alliances and realignments within the Arab community have a way of moving with wondrous and bewildering speed. In August Qaddhafi and Hassan amazed the world by announcing an “act of union.” Whatever this may mean, or whether it will last beyond the drying of the ink (none of Libya’s previous marriages have), is anyone’s guess. But the appearance is that Libya has made some undertaking to a fairly desperate Morocco to dump Polisario, possibly as part of a general endeavor to mend fences in the West, where an outraged Britain severed relations following the murder of a British policewoman in London.
Meanwhile, through the OAU, other African states have been applying strong pressure in pursuit of compromise. Nevertheless, if the “Desert War” does continue to drag on, the violence of this year’s Marrakesh riots over bread prices cannot help but evoke fears of its leading to an internal destabilization of a country where one-third of the population live below the poverty line, followed by anarchy on the Iranian model. Whatever anyone might think of Hassan’s regime or the Greater Moroccan “crusade,” this would be a grave disaster for the West—as indeed it would be for the Arab world.
Inevitably, much of the responsibility for what happens must lie in Washington. In the opinion of this reviewer, one of the most disappointing features of the Reagan Arab policy has been the apparent dropping of the “Algerian card.” This was a card placed in the hands of the administration at the time of the transition when Algerian “good offices” (and they were excellent “good offices”) helped to achieve the release of the Iranian hostages. At that time better diplomatic relations were forged between this key Arab country and the US than ever before, and much could have been built on this—in the Middle East as in West Africa. But, in its wisdom, the Reagan administration has preferred to play the Moroccan card at the expense of the Algerian. One may hope it is not too late to pursue a rather more balanced game and play both. This certainly seems to be one of the lessons, too, of Mr. Hodges’s highly instructive book.