Africa: America’s Secret African War in the Western Sahara

Africa: America’s Secret African War in the Western Sahara

by Major Carlos Wilson

To date, U.S. arms sales and military aid to Morocco have amounted to just under $2 billion. This has been one of Washington’s best kept secrets.

While vacationers are concerned with what daily play activities will be offered by the seven Club Med facilities located in Morocco, an entirely different set of concerns exists but a short distance away: those of living under an occupation where disappearances are common, secret prisons are a reality and a war is entering its 13th year.

In 1975, Spain withdrew from its former colony of the Spanish Sahara, the present day Western Sahara. Spain assured the local peoples, the Sahrawis, total independence and self-determination in their homeland but soon gave in to pressure from Mauritania and, especially, Morocco and divided the land, rich with uranium-grade phosphates, oil, gas, platinum, vanadium, iron ore, shale oil and titanium, between the two. When the division was announced, Morocco immediately followed with a savage, armed occupation which continues today.

Major Carlos Wilson, author and Journalist, has been writing about liberation movements for over 20 years. Within the past year, he Journeyed twice to the Sahara Desert to write of the plight of the Sahrawi people. Major Wilson has also written many articles on Africa, specifically Angola, and Is author of the book, The Tumpamaros: The Unmentionables, detailing how the oppressed people of Uruguay utilized guerrilla warfare against dictatorial rule.

The invasion triggered an exodus out of the Western Sahara by hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis, a journey undertaken by foot, across the Sahara Desert into Algeria. Moroccan jets repeatedly bombed, napalmed and strafed the fleeing Sahrawis from the beginning of their escape until they were able to find safety in a desolate patch of desert located just inside the Algerian border, a moderate distance from Tindouf. Thousands of Sahrawis fell victim to the bombings along the way, including very large numbers of women and children. In many cases, entire families perished.

It is a wonder that any of the fleeing Sahrawis survived the flight across the desert. Besides the fact that there was nowhere to hide from fighter jets, the Sahrawis were a nomadic people whose culture at the time was unversed in even the definitions of words such as “napalm” and “genocide.” Simply stated, the Sahrawis were too innocent for the 20th century, much less the horrors of 20th century warfare.

The Moroccans took full advantage of this fact, as was reflected in their early bombing tactics. After their reconnaissance planes had spotted fleeing Sahrawis, Morocco would dispatch three jet fighters to the area where the Sahrawi tents had been seen. Once over the area, one jet would fly clockwise and the second counterclockwise until all the Sahrawi women had gathered up their children and fled into what they considered to be the safety of their tents. The Sahrawi women believed there must be safety in the tents which had always protected them from the harsh sun and desert winds, so surely would afford protection from jet fighters. When all the women and their children were gathered in the tents, the third Moroccan jet would begin a slow, low flight directly over the camp, methodically dropping a payload of napalm at the beginning, the center and the end of the camp for maximum killing efficiency.

Surprisingly, there were survivors although the death toll was immense. Unfortunately, it might have been better for some if they had been killed outright, sparing them a slow, agonizing death in the middle of the Sahara Desert without medical care. A survivor told of witnessing a mother struggling to pick up, hold and comfort her dying napalmed baby. It was an impossibility as that mother had lost both her arms in the bombing raids.

When the fleeing Sahrawis reached safety just across the Algerian border, they discovered that even safety had a price. They erected four refugee camps in an area of the Sahara Desert so barren that one can turn a full circle and see nothing but totally flat land; a part of the world that is so inhospitable to life that not even an insect or a weed can be seen. Temperatures push thermometer readings beyond 50° C (over 120°F) in the heat of summer and the toes of barefoot Sahrawi children turn blue from freezing temperatures in the winter. The Sahrawis began their refugee existence in a territory where the Algerians were never able to discover water. The Sahrawis did, although the water often looks and tastes like gasoline.

Living in marginal safety, the Sahrawis were exposed to diseases previously unknown to them. During the first year alone, a third of the children died from diseases such as measles. Despite all hardships, the Sahrawif preferred, and still prefer, living under these conditions to living under Moroccan occupation.

The Sahrawis began an armed response to the invasions and occupation through their military arm known as the Polisario Front, which was founded in May, 1973, with the original intention of liberating the Sahrawis from Spanish colonialism. At that time, the organization was both small in number and had no weapons of any significance, much less any external support. In early 1975, the Polisario Front membership still numbered less than a couple of hundred and the group thus far lacked weapons. As for external support, only Libya was sympathetic. Later however, Libya was to sign a “Treaty of Merger” with Morocco, which was in existence from 1984 through 1986.

While the Polisario Front may have been lacking numbers, weapons and external support, the organization was certainly not lacking in spirit or ideas for bringing the Sahrawis together as one in full equality for all its peoples. At their second congress in August, 1974, the Polisario Front called for “full independence from all forms of colonialism and the creation of a republican, national regime, with the full participation of all its peoples”. The congress also stated that “the Sahrawi people have no alternative but to struggle until achieving their independence, control of their wealth and the obtainment of full sovereignty over their land.”

The congress adopted a program which called for national unity, eliminating tribal affiliation and caste status entirely. The national action program actually called for the end of every form of exploitation, including an especially strong commitment to the principle of women’s emancipation. The program was to guarantee the political and social rights of women and to open all opportunities to them. With the invasion by Morocco, the Polisario front was to receive its baptism under fire, having each of its founding principles tested to the limits.

When the Polisario Front launched its armed response to the invasion and occupation, Moroccan military officials declared that the conflict would be over in a single week. Today, nearly 13 years later, the U.S. Pentagon now declares the war to be unwinnable.

The Polisario Front actually has had a measure of success other than just surviving in a 13-year war. There have been military victories for them as well. For example, in 1979 they won a peace treaty with Mauritania. This joy was short-lived however, as Morocco seized the opportunity to declare the entire region of the Western Sahara as its own. Such a ridiculous territorial claim surprised no one; as Rabat has long entertained the expansionist dream of a greater Morocco—one which would include not only the whole of the Western Sahara but all of Mauritania, Mali and a large section of Algeria as well. Though greatly outnumbered and very poorly equipped militarily, Polisario Front forces have been able to stop the Moroccan greater empire dream dead in its tracks.

An exact number of troops is difficult to obtain due to the nature of the conflict and because neither side wishes to have its exact strength known by the other combatant. However, a fairly good account reveals that Morocco maintains nearly 150,000 of its troops at the war front and in the occupied areas, which is indeed nearly its entire army. Estimates for the Polisario Front range from two to 15 thousand. Without question, the Polisario Front soldiers are greatly outnumbered, perhaps as much as 10-75 to 1.

Morocco also maintains the advantage of a never-ending supply of modern, state-of-the-art weapons, as well as economic support from a host of strange bedfellows. South Africa, for example, has sold a large number of highly sophisticated desert tanks to Morocco, many of which have been captured by the Polisario Front.

The Soviet Union has supplied Morocco with some weapons, including numerous machine guns, of which, again, a large part have been taken from Moroccan forces by Polisario Front soldiers. However, the Soviets have supplied Morocco with more economic than military support. The military support has in fact, been conducted in secret and exactly how and from where the Soviets are supplying the Moroccans remains a mystery.

While supplying Morocco with military weapons may have been kept secret by both the Soviets and the Moroccans, that is not true of their economic dealings. The Moroccans are still boasting about a multi-billion dollar deal which they signed with the Soviets in March, 1978, terming it the “deal of the century”, the largest economic agreement ever made by the Soviets with a third world nation.

The “contract of the century” called for the Soviet Union to export chemicals, oil, timber, and ore-carrier ships to Morocco in exchange for phosphates and phosphoric acid over a period of 30 years. The Soviets were to also provide a $2 billion investment for the development of a new phosphate mine located at Meskala, Morocco.

France joined the list of strange bedfellows with sales to Morocco of two of the very latest in high performance fighter jets, both known as highly developed machines of destruction. Yet another participant in this unusual assortment of weapon suppliers was Brazil, which is becoming one of the world’s major players in weapon sales. According to Polisario Front sources, Morocco has purchased enormous amounts of land mines directly from Brazil. Spain too sold military weapons to Morocco beginning in 1976, and, even though Spain did announce a stoppage of arm sales to Morocco in December, 1977, weapons sales have continued.

While Israel has not supplied weapons to Morocco, it has provided military advisors. Saudi Arabia, too, has membership in the “strange bedfellows association,” providing Morocco with large sums of aid, while realizing that parts of this aid package are for weapons purchases.

However, unquestionably the largest supplier of military arms is the United States. From 1974 to date, U.S. arms sales and military aid to Morocco have amounted to just under $2 billion. This has been one of Washington’s best kept secrets as very few Americans have even heard of the Western Sahara, much less have any knowledge of the plight of the Sahrawis and the role of the United States in the conflict. Such a lack of information on the part of most Americans is certainly understandable, as the Executive Body of this country has remained silent on this issue.

It also must be pointed out that most members of Congress have failed in their obligation to have Congressional debate on this matter and, by neglecting this obligation, such members of Congress have denied their constituencies information on policy matters in this region of the world. The Reagan Administration took full advantage of such a lax Congressional attitude and was able to continue America’s secret African war without hindrance from Congress or opposition from the American people. For example, 10 days before Congress began its recess in August, 1987, the Reagan Administration notified legislators of its planned sale of 100 tanks to Morocco. As Congress did not receive the required 30 day notification for sales of military weapons, Morocco received 100 high-tech M48A5 tanks without full Congressional debate.

The Reagan Administration thus was able to double Morocco’s inventory of U.S. manufactured tanks from this sale without the foreign policy implications being debated by Congress or the American people being advised and afforded the opportunity to express their opinions.

Like Israel, the United States also has furnished military advisors to Morocco. In December, 1981, 30 U.S. military advisors arrived in Morocco to provide tactical instructions for Moroccan pilots, many of whom had received flight training at air force bases in the United States.

Another group of 25 U.S. military advisors arrived in Morocco in Spring, 1982. At that time Moroccan forces were committed to fixed positions which gave the Polisario Front soldiers the opportunity to utilize guerrilla tactics through taking the initiative. The mission of these U.S. military advisors was to instruct elite Moroccan units on taking the initiative away from the Polisario Front guerrillas by leaving their defense perimeters and launching mobile commando-type attacks on the Polisario Front forces.

The plan failed and U.S. military advice was for Moroccan forces to once again become committed to fixed positions, this time behind a series of sand-and-stone walls erected in the barren Saharan Desert, at the cost of over a billion dollars. A large part of that money was provided from the nearly $150 million per year military package provided by the United States. The 2,500 kilometer length of walls are affixed with U.S. and South African tanks, fixed and mobile cannons, and machine gun nests.

The walls are guarded by U.S.-built radar and, to utilize Pentagon jargon, the latest in “electronic integrated intrusion detection systems.” Barbed wire and land mines lie directly in front. The United States also provides Moroccan military intelligence with spy satellite reports of Polisario Front activity along the walls. The information reaches the Moroccan frontline positions within three hours of being picked up. This new Pentagon plan was presented to the Moroccans as the “final solution”.

This “final solution” became no solution at all. Moroccan fixed positions meant that the Polisario Front forces had knowledge of Moroccan troop locations and activities at all times, which granted the Polisario Front the initiative of attack and once again placed Moroccan troops into a constant defensive posture.

The wall strategy has, in fact, turned the conflict from one of a possible military victory on the field by either force into a war of containment. The Polisario Front forces have seized upon this containment philosophy and made the war one of attrition. According to the Sahrawis’ leader, President Mohammed Abdelaziz, the war costs Morocco between $2$8 million per day. Morocco, with military aid and advice from the United States, has found its Vietnam in the Saharan Desert.

Morocco has not fared any better on the diplomatic front. The Sahrawis have formed a government-in-exile, the Sahrawis Arab Democratic Republic (S.A.D.R.), although the Sahrawis will argue that the S.A.D.R. is really not a government-in-exile as their offices are actually located in areas of the Western Sahara which are free from Moroccan occupation. The S.A.D.R. has an elected president and recognition by 71 nations. By contrast, not a single nation, including the United States, recognizes Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. In 1983, the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U.) granted membership to the S.A.D.R. and presented a peace plan based on a popular referendum. The plan had the blessing of the United Nations General Assembly which had previously called for a settlement based on a similar initiative. Morocco, however, fearing the outcome, has steadfastly refused such diplomatic actions.

This was not the first time that Morocco ignored diplomatic actions with respect to sovereignty issues in the Western Sahara. The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, which was rendered in October, 1975, rejected both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims to pre-colonial territorial sovereignty rights over the Western Sahara, and stated clearly that it upheld the Western Saharans’ right to self-determination. Morocco rejected these findings within a few hours of their publication when that nation’s ruler, King Hassan II, announced his own plans for the disputed territory.

Still, diplomatic actions continued full force. The Sahrawi refugee camps were visited in 1986, by both the Secretary General of the UN. and the O.A.U. Chairman. As a result, the U.N. Secretary General dispatched a technical mission to the disputed region in November, 1987, to determine the best method of conducting a cease fire, followed by a referendum. In April, 1988, the disputed territory was visited by the O.A.U. Chairman who was seeking the same goals. The following month, the U.N. Secretary General met with King Hassan II to discuss the November findings, but the meeting was cut short as the Kind once again turned his back on events which he could not orchestrate.

Although in September, 1988 the Polisario forces and Morocco were reported to have accepted a U.N. and O.A.U. referendum to end the war (the contents of which remain secret), at least two major battles were fought immediately after.

For Morocco to reject a true cease fire can be described as a self-defeating position. The Banque de Maroc has confirmed reports that over half of Morocco’s gross domestic production is funneled directly into the occupation and war effort. All of this at the cost of food riots in Morocco itself, a nation which for years had a food surplus; which has a foreign debt of over $15 billion and continues to spend $2-$8 million per day on an unwinnable war and for funding occupational claims of a sovereignty which no one recognizes.

Several questions beg to be asked: Why does the United State continue economic, military, and moral support for a war effort which it has deemed unwinnable? Why has the United States divorced itself from traditional backing for colonized peoples in matters of self-determination and instead chosen to stand behind a Moroccan sovereignty claim which not a single nation in the world recognizes, which in fact the World Court has ruled against?

There are strategic reasons why the United States backs Morocco: Morocco’s geographical location and that U.S. naval vessels dock regularly at Moroccan ports cannot be overlooked. In the event of a stepped-up conflict anywhere in the Persian Gulf, U.S. rapid deployment forces would have full access to military bases throughout Morocco. Finally, the fact that the King has aided U.S. efforts to obtain peace in the Middle East must, in the eyes of Washington, have its reward, even if that reward is making war somewhere else.

The amount of ongoing aid, particularly in the form of military weapons, and moral support which the U.S. has given to Morocco, especially during the years of the Reagan Administration, makes it impossible for Washington to ignore what the end effect is for the Sahrawi people. For the Sahrawis living under Moroccan occupation, the daily threat of joining the ranks of the disappeared or being sent to a secret prison is a real possibility which occurs frequently.

As for the Sahrawi refugees, they have surprised even nature by surviving for over 13 years in a place which previously was uninhabitable. Full credit for this truly amazing feat must be given to the Sahrawi women who play much more than just a casual role in the camps—they are the camps. The Sahrawi men are, for the most part, all at the front, returning only for a two-week stay in the camps twice yearly. The full burden of refugee camp survival therefore has fallen upon the Sahrawi women who have set an incredible example on how to create and organize something out of nothing.

For example, the Sahrawi refugee population has been divided into four refugee camps, referred to as wilayas, each bearing the name of a Western Saharan city presently under Moroccan occupation. Each of the four wilayas is comprised of several tent camps which are called dairas. Each daira has representatives which are elected yearly, and these elected officials, almost exclusively women, are in charge of education, health, food distribution, and security for their respective daira. The Sahrawi women also participate in national government by holding a number of political offices.

The system works and works well. Day care centers are provided for pre-school children. In addition, primary and secondary schools have been established, so everyone is afforded an opportunity for an education, including women with children. In fact, a large educational facility known as the 27th February School was started in 1979, to assist women with children. Today, the literacy rate of the Sahrawis is over 80 percent, the highest of any African nation.

Each wilaya has a makeshift hospital, and there is a national hospital for the more serious cases. The hospitals are, of course, extremely limited in the medical services provided as both medical supplies and equipment are scarce. Several Sahrawi women have studied medicine abroad and have returned to these hospitals as fully qualified nurses and physicians. Women from the Sahrawi Red Crescent recently have begun a nursing school in the camps.

The wilayas also have makeshift work shops where Sahrawi women weave rugs and create handicrafts out of brass artillery shells and bomb fragments. In addition, wood carving is practiced when wood becomes available. The supply of wood is very limited—the only place where wood can be found in the barren desert is at the wall. The Moroccans utilize large wooden stakes to secure the barbed wire in place. When the Polisario Front forces cut through the barbed wire to breach the wall, the precious wooden stakes are pulled up and sent to the camps. In an area where there is nothing, the Sahrawi women have learned not to overlook anything potentially usable.

Probably one of the greatest accomplishments and surprises found in the camps is that each wilaya now has a small vegetable farm. While the fare produced from these farms will not meet the Sahrawi food demands, the carrots, corn, dates, onions, tomatoes, and mint for the tea grown at these tiny farms are an important contribution to the limited food supply. Recently, three warehouse-like buildings, located near one of the wilayas, were put into full operation, providing a controlled environment for several thousand chickens. The resulting eggs have introduced a much needed supply of protein into the Sahrawi diet.

The Sahrawis are concerned not only about feeding themselves but, in addition, they also have the responsibility for feeding several thousand Moroccan prisoners-of-war. The Polisario Front takes great pride in the fact that this obligation is met, although it is a strain on the short food supply. The Polisario Front is equally proud of the fact that each and every Moroccan prisoner-of-war can be accounted for, receives appropriate and timely medical attention, is allowed visits from the Red Crescent, receives mail and is permitted to write home—is, in short, very well looked after. The same cannot be said for Polisario Front forces when they are taken prisoner by the Moroccans. It is not clearly known what happens to captured Sahrawi soldiers, and Morocco refuses to comment on this subject. Morocco will not account for a single captured Polisario Front soldier and has refused to discuss the Sahrawi offer of exchanging 10 Moroccan soldiers for each Polisario Front prisoner.

But the Sahrawis are accustomed to living with unknowns and uncertainties under the harshest of conditions, while never losing hope or giving in to despair. They remain hopeful in fact, that the incoming administration in Washington will do what is right for all nations of the Maghreb by ending America’s secret African war and assisting the Sahrawi people in reclaiming their homeland.

On December 8, 1988, two planes which had been operating under a contract with the United States Agency for International Development came under missile attack over the Western Sahara. One was shot down, killing the crew of five; the other, though damaged, managed to land in Morocco. The planes were presumably to be used for spraying against locusts, but were not spraying or conducting any other operations under contract as they moved across the contested desert. Therefore, the United States Government had no direct responsibility for the planes’ route. Officials said the pilots could have chosen a different route.

The Polisarios took responsibility for the shooting, expressed their “deep sorrow” and said that the attack was “neither premeditated nor intentional.” The statement from Polisario headquarters said that the planes—DC- 7s— were mistaken for Moroccan military C130s. It also said Polisario would return the five bodies to their families without delay.

Perhaps most interesting, although news of the attack initially made the front pages of all New York’s major newspapers, subsequent developments were relegated to three inches or less of space and buried inside the newspapers’ pages.

Major Carlos Wilson, author and Journalist, has been writing about liberation movements for over 20 years. Within the past year, he Journeyed twice to the Sahara Desert to write of the plight of the Sahrawi people. Major Wilson has also written many articles on Africa, specifically Angola, and Is author of the book, The Tumpamaros: The Unmentionables, detailing how the oppressed people of Uruguay utilized guerrilla warfare against dictatorial rule.