Western Sahara, situated in northwest Africa and occupied by Morocco since 1975, is by far the largest of the seventeen non-self-governing territories listed by the UN in which the decolonization process has yet to be completed. Yet, of all the foreign policy issues covered in this series, the role of the United States in Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara is likely one of the lesser known. Indeed, the occupation there has long suffered from a general lack of international attention.
Previously known as Spanish Sahara, Western Sahara borders Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean. Since the late twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of the territory has been under Moroccan occupation. The Polisario Front, the independence movement of the indigenous Saharawi people, controls the remainder in the form of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The two areas are separated by a 2,700 kilometer-long sand wall surrounded by an estimated 9 million landmines. For decades, American engagement in the conflict has been consistent, helping first to shape this situation and then to maintain it.
Under pressure from Morocco, the UN and a growing independence movement, Spain ceded control of the territory it had held since 1884. The United States attempted to portray itself as neutral in the October–November 1975 crisis in which Morocco (backed by France), Mauritania, and the Polisario (backed by Algeria) competed for control of Western Sahara in the face of the impending Spanish withdrawal.
Kissinger, as US secretary of state, maintained in a meeting with Algerian foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika (later to become Algeria’s president) that the United States did not favor a particular side and had tried to stay out of the territorial dispute. However, the United States actually adopted an explicitly pro-Moroccan stance that has had significant consequences that continue to reverberate to this day.
As the Saharawi people were hoping to get rid of their colonial ruler and gain independence, the United States was helping to install Morocco as the new colonial power.
Despite repeated promises of a referendum on self-determination, the Saharawi have still not been able to exercise this right. Morocco and Mauritania, which both claimed precolonial sovereignty over the territory, invaded after the signing of an agreement on November 14, 1975, in which Spain handed control to Morocco and Mauritania, reneging on its previous promise to hold a referendum.
A bitter war, in which the Polisario was able to drive out Mauritanian forces (Mauritania withdrew its claim to the territory in 1979) but not the Moroccans, ended in a UN- brokered ceasefire in 1991. Since then, no substantive progress has been made in resolving the conflict, despite periodic attempts to find a solution. Instead, the Moroccan occupation has grown more entrenched, with the Saharawi continuing to face ongoing human rights violations, exile, and the denial of their right to self-determination.
In a sense it is correct to describe the US stance as officially neutral given that it neither recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara (no state officially does), nor does it recognize the SADR’s claim (around eighty states have recognized it at various times, and both the SADR and Morocco are members of the African Union). But this is misleading. The characterization of the US role as neutral was only really plausible prior to the start of the twenty-first century. And even in the few years following the 1975 crisis, comments from various Algerian, Spanish and US officials already pointed to a more active but covert US role in support of Morocco.
The subsequent declassification of US government records from the late 1970s and documents obtained under the United States Freedom of Information Act have shed light on internal US discussions as well as the country’s dealings with other actors in the dispute. As Colgate University professor Jacob Mundy outlined in a 2006 article for the Journal of North African Studies titled “Neutrality of Complicity? The United States and the 1975 Moroccan Takeover of the Spanish Sahara,” Kissinger and the Ford administration actively worked to support Morocco’s efforts to take control of Western Sahara. Furthermore, Mundy notes that even in the few years following the 1975 crisis, comments from various Algerian, Spanish and US officials had already pointed to a more active but covert US role in support of Morocco.
The strategic reasons for US (and French) support for Morocco’s King Hassan II in the geopolitical context of the Cold War were obvious to observers even before the backroom role of the United States became better known. As British journalist Tony Hodges wrote in his 1983 book Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Hassan
was a fervent anticommunist, a traditional ally of the NATO powers, ruling a country strategically located at the entrance to the Mediterranean. He had allowed the US to maintain military facilities on his territory, permitted French and other Western warships to call at his ports and tried over the years to moderate Arab hostility to Israel. Moreover, the US and French governments knew that the stability of his regime hinged, after the internal dissension and crises of the early seventies, on the success of his Saharan crusade.
Morocco is one of the United States’ oldest allies, and what is clear from Mundy’s examination of the official record is the overwhelming desire of the United States not to jeopardize this relationship. The right to self-determination of the Saharawi people and the actual validity of Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara mattered little to the United States and Kissinger. As Mundy notes, Kissinger consistently characterized the crisis to Ford in such a way — misrepresenting Algeria’s reasons for supporting the Polisario, ignoring Saharawi rights and exaggerating the legitimacy of Morocco’s claim — as to justify only one policy choice: support for Morocco.
According to Mundy, the United States was aware at least as early as the beginning of October 1975 that Morocco planned to invade Western Sahara in order to assert its claim over the territory. Kissinger cautioned Morocco against taking any military action and urged Hassan to stick to diplomacy, but stopped short of expressing stronger opposition to Morocco’s plans. Indeed, Mundy argues that the “US government made a kind of ‘promise’ or ‘guarantee’ to Hassan that things would turn out in his favor.” While the exact details remain unclear given that some official US records from the time are still classified, this conclusion is certainly in keeping with the available evidence and America’s pro-Moroccan policy.
A Scofflaw State
A number of significant developments took place in mid- October. The UN had mandated a mission to Western Sahara and the neighboring countries to investigate the political situation and competing claims to the territory. It had also referred the issue of Morocco and Mauritania’s claims to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a move that had previously been requested by Morocco following Spain’s promise to hold a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.
In its October 15 report, the UN mission concluded: “the majority of the population within the Spanish Sahara was manifestly in favour of independence.” The following day, the ICJ issued its opinion. Although the court noted that some legal ties did exist between Morocco and Mauritania, respectively, and Western Sahara at the time of Spanish colonization, it maintained: “the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity.” Furthermore, it concluded that nothing it found altered the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination.
Yet Morocco, with the backing of its Western allies, was able to ignore both of these developments. This is part of an ongoing dynamic in which the support of key Western states and broader international indifference continues to enable Morocco to ignore international norms regarding decolonization and self-determination.
Despite the unequivocal decision against Morocco and Mauritania’s claims, only hours later Hassan publicly stated that the ICJ had found that Western Sahara was a part of Moroccan territory. Hassan further announced that he would lead 350,000 Moroccan civilians on a peaceful “Green March” into Western Sahara to seize the territory from Spain. According to Mundy, Kissinger supported Hassan’s misinterpretation of the ICJ opinion, telling Ford in an October 17 meeting that the court “said sovereignty had been decided between Morocco and Mauritania. That basically is what Hassan wanted.”
It is unclear from the available records if Kissinger deliberately misrepresented the ICJ opinion to Ford or just misinterpreted it. Either way, given the broader dynamic of the United States-Morocco relationship, even if Kissinger had accurately characterized the ICJ opinion to Ford, it seems unlikely to have made much difference to US policy.
It was clear that Hassan was set on taking Western Sahara regardless of what the ICJ had found and that the United States was not going to stand in its way. In the midst of ongoing diplomatic efforts to broker a peaceful solution, Kissinger said in a November 3 meeting with Ford that while the United States likely had the power and influence to alter the trajectory of the dispute if it chose to directly confront Morocco, it did not want to face the backlash. Instead, the United States wanted the UN to become more involved, with Kissinger later saying that the dispute should be turned “over to the UN with a guarantee it [Western Sahara] will go to Morocco.”
While Spain publicly opposed the Green March, and tooth- less UN Security Council resolutions (watered down thanks to the United States and France) criticized it, Morocco ignored everyone and went ahead on November 6. Spain offered no resistance. While the march was a largely symbolic affair, it was nevertheless a clear demonstration of Morocco’s intent and for the Saharawi it represented the illegal invasion and occupation of their homeland. Less than a week after Hassan called the marchers back on November 9, Spain signed the Madrid agreement ceding control to Morocco and Mauritania.
The events of October and November 1975 paved the way for Morocco’s eventual annexation of the majority of Western Sahara. However, US support for Morocco while Kissinger was in office was by no means an aberration. Following Spain’s eventual withdrawal in February 1976, the Polisario’s resistance to Moroccan and Mauritanian forces proved tougher than expected. With the military tide turning, a dramatic increase in US military aid from the Reagan administration (which had already increased under President Carter) was crucial to allowing Morocco to fight its way to an eventual stalemate and the ceasefire in 1991, leaving it in control of the majority of the territory.
Little has changed since then. Around 100,000 Saharawis, those who fled the war and their descendants are still stuck in refugee camps in southern Algeria, with a smaller diaspora living in countries like Mauritania and Spain. The referendum on self-determination promised under the auspices of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has yet to take place. Had Kissinger and the United States actively opposed Morocco’s territorial claim, or even merely adopted a neutral stance, things may have turned out very differently.
Decades after helping to enable Morocco’s annexation and occupation of Western Sahara, the geopolitical context has shifted but the dynamic underlying US support remains the same. The Cold War has been replaced by the War on Terror, and the United States continues to view Morocco as a moderate ally whose stability should not be jeopardized by seriously entertaining the prospect of an independent Western Sahara. For many, Morocco is likely seen as either a bulwark against a vague terrorist threat or an attractive tourist destination, but not as an occupying power.
Since the 1991 ceasefire, and particularly in the past decade, international media and policymakers have tended to ignore the Saharawis’ ongoing struggle for self-determination, afford- ing it only brief bursts of attention. Given his vast destructive foreign policy legacy, it is unlikely Kissinger lost any sleep over the role he and the United States played in Western Sahara. But while he may not have dwelled on it, and Western Sahara is often labeled a “forgotten” issue, the Saharawi people do not have the luxury of forgetting.