For the sake of international peace and security, the time is ripe to resolve a longstanding conflict over territory in North Africa that has become a major breeding ground for terrorists. The western Sahara, a 101,000 square mile strip held by Morocco, has been subject to guerrilla raids by a paramilitary organization known as the Polisario during a war that lasted 30 years and isn't entirely over. Backed by the junta that rules Algeria, Polisario militia police a network of refugee camps in the south Algerian desert where abject poverty and corruption cause thousands of deserters to leave each year. Many have joined Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a deadly organization that exploits the lawlessness of a no-man's land between the Arab Maghreb and the horn of Africa known as the Sahel.
To try and end this deadly cold war-style standoff, UN diplomats have been shuttling between Algeria, Morocco, and the Polisario camps for years, but without success. Cynics even suggest they are vested in the perpetuation of the conflict because they want to keep their jobs. In any event, there is a new and rare opportunity that won't last forever for a diplomatic solution, and it behooves the UN, the United States, the local players, and the international donor community to take advantage of it.
Morocco, for starters, wants to reach a compromise settlement because of the exorbitant toll the conflict has taken on its economy. The western Sahara offers few natural resources beyond a modest phosphate industry and some fishing grounds. Moroccans are tired of subsidizing the region. International donors, for their part, are weary of propping up the Polisario camps with endless funds: less money is available, and more demanding humanitarian disasters elsewhere are more compelling. So both sides face economic pressure to accept change.
Meanwhile, there's nothing like the threat of mega-terrorism to focus erstwhile enemies on a shared solution. Algeria and Morocco are acutely aware that they, even more than the Europeans and Americans, are targets for Al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates. Combating such groups has become an interest shared by the United States, the EU, and the Maghreb – bringing together Washington and revolutionary Algeria, for example, in a way that would have been unimaginable back when the Polisario was created. A corollary of the terrorist threat is that no one wants a new failed state in North Africa. The Polisario's fantasy of a desert dictatorship, coupled with its poor governance which inspires thousands to flee each year, discredit the organization's pretenses to become a state.
Finally, the Europeans and the Maghreb states are far more aware — and wary — today of the consequences of a failure to develop their economic potential. For the European side of the Mediterranean, a growing Maghreb economy and freer political institutions relieves immigration pressure. Similarly, all the Maghreb states need the benefit of trade to deal with a young and too often idle work force. Yet regional trade remains minuscule. The Algeria-Morocco border is closed pending resolution of the Sahara issue. That needs to change.
Viewed together, these factors bolster the case for Morocco's offer of autonomy for the western Sahara, which was placed on the table back in 2007 but ignored by Algeria and the Polisario ever since. The plan would give Saharans meaningful self-rule under Moroccan sovereignty. It's a valuable chip for Chris Ross, America's latest UN envoy to the region, to play – if the United States, EU, and international donors apply sufficient financial and political pressure on the parties to take it seriously. These global players have the option of withholding aid to the Polisario and forcing Algeria to pay for its militia an desert camps.
If negotiations fail, these causes for optimism will tumble like dominos as Morocco weighs imposing autonomy on the Sahara unilaterally, effectively giving up hopes for a negotiated settlement. This move would have the effect of hastening the outflow of deserters from the Polisario camps to Morocco, though many would continue to enter the no-man's land that is dominated by Al-Qaeda. Morocco's unilateral option would sponge up some refugees but by no means all of them – an answer to the problem of terrorism in the Sahara, but far from an ideal one.