Last November marked the 30th anniversary of the Sahara crisis, triggered when Morocco successfully pressured Madrid out of its desert colony in autumn 1975. Despite the United States’ denials, declassified records reveal that King Hassan’s success was made possible through US intervention.
On October 1975 the International Court of Justice declared - in an opinion requested by Morocco - that “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.” Hours later King Hassan claimed the opposite. The Hague, he told his subjects, had vindicated his irredentism: 350,000 Moroccan civilians would march into the Spanish Sahara as mujahedin to “reclaim” it for the motherland.
A flurry of diplomatic activity followed. In Spain, the cabinet fell into disarray as Franco collapsed into a fatal coma. A power struggle ensued between those sympathetic to independence (colonial administrators and elements of the foreign ministry) and those worried about relations with Morocco (the ultraconservatives of the National Movement). While the latter pushed for United Nations pressure to stop Hassan’s Green March, the former initiated a contrary bilateral dialogue to arrange a mutually face-saving agreement with Rabat. But all around the leaderless Spanish cabinet feared that a messy colonial war with Morocco was at hand.
Following Hassan’s announcement of the march, the Security Council ordered Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to consult with the parties. The major stumbling block was the Western Saharans’ right to self-determination. Since the mid-1960s the United Nations had called for the decolonisation of Western Sahara through a popular vote, and later underscored the territory’s right to independence. In 1974 Spain promised that it would soon hold a plebiscite, which had triggered Hassan’s démarche to The Hague. At the time of the crisis most elements of the Spanish government were reluctant to abandon the Sahara without either holding a referendum or passing the duty off to the UN. Morocco, on the other hand, knew that the chances of winning such a referendum were slim to none. Most observers, including the UN and the CIA, had already concluded that the territory was manifestly in favour of independence. Hassan’s strategy was to intervene before such a vote could take place.
The march went off without a hitch starting on 6 November, though that same day a Security Council resolution “deplored” it. As the Moroccan magazine Tel Quel recently noted, only small number of Hassan’s mujahedin penetrated the territory - and then promptly returned barely threatening the Spanish “line of dissuasion” 10 kilometres behind the frontier. Yet unknown to most of the world, Moroccan armed forces had already stormed into the far northeast corner of the territory on 31 October, aiming to cut off any possible Algerian counter-invasion. There Hassan’s forces met with sporadic resistance from the Polisario, by then a two-year-old independence movement.
Hassan won the highly scripted game of chicken with Madrid. He recalled his marchers on 9 November claiming that things had turned out better than expected. Indeed, on 14 November, representatives of Morocco, Mauritania and Spain announced that they had reached an agreement that would install a tripartite administration until Spain’s formal exit in early 1976. Self-determination, they claimed, would take place through a simple consultation with the colonially constituted body of tribal Saharan elders, the Jama‘a. But before that could happen, the Jama‘a dissolved itself, declaring the Polisario the true representative of the Western Saharan people. Nearly half the indigenous population rallied to the exiled flag of the Polisario in Algeria, where they remain to this day in four refugee camps near Tindouf. Self-determination, denied in 1975, is still on hold even though the UN said in 1991 that it could hold a vote within months.
War and peace
Both King Hassan and the Mauritanian president, Ould Daddah, had greatly underestimated the Polisario’s abilities to wage guerrilla warfare and also the fury of the Algerian president, Houari Boumedienne. Two features of Spain’s abandonment of the Sahara disturbed Boumedienne the most: The map of North Africa had been redrawn without Algeria’s consent and western powers had worked to marginalise Algerian interests during the crisis. A champion of national liberation movements, Boumedienne could not let this affront stand unchecked. The regime of Ould Daddah soon fell to the Saharan guerrillas, and Morocco found itself almost entirely driven out of the Sahara four years after receiving it from Spain.
Saudi, French and US aid reversed this trend for King Hassan, enabling the monarch to regain much of the territory. Excluding Egypt, Morocco has received more economic and military aid from the US than any other African country. By 1988, with the UN again involved in the conflict, Morocco was in a much better position to negotiate or not negotiate. Though there was a ceasefire in 1991, Morocco’s military hold on the territory is much the same today, if not stronger.
Not only does Morocco illegally earn billions of dollars each year from the rich fishing off the coast, but top generals in the Moroccan armed forces now have controlling stakes in those key industries. The confluence of economic and military interests in the Sahara is one of the major reasons behind Morocco’s rejectionist attitude when it comes to a referendum. Though the UN owes the Western Saharans a vote, no member of the Security Council is currently willing to force Morocco to allow such a plebiscite to take place. France and the US are more comfortable with a referendum that would ratify an autonomy agreement amiable to Morocco.
The subject of speculation
The role of the US government in the October-November 1975 crisis has been the subject of much speculation and little fact. With what scant, and often circumstantial, evidence has been available, various observers have accused the US of a range of reactions from passivity to complicity.
Not that claims of complicity were totally baseless. Three years after the crisis the Spanish parliament held an inquiry into the affair. There several officials claimed that France and the US had pressured Madrid into meeting Hassan’s demands. And the then deputy director of the CIA, Lt-General Vernon Walters, insinuated that he had intervened on behalf of the US during the crisis, a claim later echoed by other sources in the New York Times in 1981. Given Walter’s close relationship with Hassan, dating from the allied landing in Casablanca, journalist Bob Woodward once described him as the monarch’s personal case officer at the CIA.
Then there are the memoirs of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US representative at the UN during the 1975 crisis. In an oft-quoted passage, Moynihan compared the once parallel histories of East Timor and Western Sahara: “China altogether backed Fretilin in Timor, and lost. In Spanish Sahara, Russia just as completely backed Algeria, and its front, known as Polisario, and lost. In both instances the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”
The US ambassador to Algeria during the crisis, Richard Parker, later wrote that it is possible that Hassan believed he had received a “green light” from the US to take the Spanish Sahara during a meeting with Henry Kissinger in the summer of 1975, though that may not have been the Secretary of State’s intention. Citing the “US’s lack of support for UN resolutions against the Green March” as kind of “circumstantial evidence” that “lends credence to the allegation” that Washington supported Hassan, Parker still felt that the “official record will never reveal the full truth.” He nevertheless concluded: “Anything was possible in that era.”
The US response to the crisis
The first sign the US government received that things were about to heat up in the Sahara was not, however, King Hassan’s 16 October announcement. Two weeks earlier the director of the CIA, William E Colby, had issued a memorandum to Kissinger that bluntly claimed: “King Hassan has decided to invade the Spanish Sahara within the next three weeks.” It claimed that Hassan feared The Hague’s opinion might not support Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara, so a military invasion was being prepared. The monarch was also confident the Spanish military would not put up much of a fight. Additionally, as the memorandum suggested, “It is possible that Hassan has concluded that armed intervention will provoke favourable international mediation.” How Hassan might have reached this dangerous conclusion is explained. A subsequent CIA analysis added: “King Hassan apparently is being egged on by his military commanders.”
Kissinger quickly sent a letter to Hassan calling for his restraint, but did not receive a reply until 14 October. He assured the US government that he would not attack Spain, though he would not make the same promise for anyone opposing his ambitions.
The morning after the release of the ICJ’s opinion and the announcement of the Green March, Kissinger briefed President Ford and the National Security Advisor, Lieutenant-General Brent Scowcroft, in the Oval Office:
Kissinger: Morocco is threatening a massive march on Spanish Sahara. The ICJ gave an opinion which said sovereignty had been decided between Morocco and Mauritania. That basically is what Hassan wanted.
The President: What is likely to happen?
Kissinger: Spain is leaning to independence. That is what Algeria would like. I will talk to the Moroccan Ambassador today.
The court, as noted above, had said something quite the opposite. Perhaps the only other person in the world who shared Kissinger’s highly partisan reading of the ICJ’s opinion was Hassan.
Following Hassan’s announcement of the Green March, Spain asked the Security Council to stop Hassan. The response, considered weak by the Spanish government, had forced Madrid to pursue a bilateral dialogue with Morocco. Visiting Hassan on a pre-scheduled trip to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Assistant Secretary of State, Alfred Atherton, reported on 22 October that Morocco and Spain had reached a mutually face-saving agreement to allow a march. They would then to use the UN to legitimate a Moroccan takeover through a controlled plebiscite, thereby allowing Spain to gracefully bow out.
In search of a formula
Even Kurt Waldheim was in on it. Speaking with Moynihan on 29 October, Waldheim said he had proposed a solution based on the “West Irian precedent.” (In 1961 Indonesia invaded Western New Guinea, now West Irian Jaya, before the Dutch colony could achieve independence. The territory was placed briefly under UN administration in 1962, and passed to Indonesia in 1963. A controversial self-determination referendum formalised Indonesian sovereignty in 1969.)
Morocco would abandon the march if Spain agreed to withdraw in early 1976; then an interim UN administration would then organise a referendum. Waldheim admitted that it would be difficult to find “some formula regarding consulting the people” agreeable to Hassan, but as a CIA brief noted at that time, “The Secretary General reportedly had earlier thought that Morocco would acquiesce to his proposal provided the UN trusteeship were ‘manipulated’ so that the territory would soon be turned over to Rabat and Nouakchott.”
On the morning of 3 November Ford, Scowcroft and Kissinger met in the Oval Office where, among other issues, the impending Green March was discussed. At this meeting it appears that Ford finalised the basic outline of US policy towards the brewing crisis based on a proposal made by Kissinger:
Kissinger: ... On the Spanish Sahara, Algerian pressure has caused the Spanish to renege. Algeria wants a port and there are rich phosphate deposits. The Algerians have threatened us on their Middle East position. We sent messages to the Moroccans yesterday. I think we should get out of it. It is another Greek-Turkey problem where we lose either way. We could tell Hassan we would entirely oppose him; that might stop it but it would make us the fall guy. Or we could force Waldheim forward.
President: I think the UN should take on more of these problems. God damn, we shouldn’t have to do it all and get a bloody nose.
Kissinger: The UN could do it like West Irian, where they fuzz the “consulting the wishes of the people”, and get out of it.
President: Let’s use the UN route.
The morning after Ford apparently set US policy, Kissinger presented a very short brief on the Sahara crisis to the same audience:
The Sahara is a mess. The Spanish Army is reluctant to appear being kicked out. Juan Carlos said Morocco could have the Sahara if they would call off the march, but they couldn’t.
On 5 November, the eve of the march, Kissinger and his staff discussed the crisis at an early morning meeting. Atherton began by summarising the latest diplomatic activity and started referring to a Spanish proposal. He was cut off before revealing the substance of the “reasonable suggestion.” Kissinger interrupted to say, “Just turn it over to the UN with a guarantee it will go to Morocco.” The Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs, Arthur Hartman, then mentioned a proposal to “escort” some of the marchers across the border, only to have Atherton jump in to give these instructions: “Let the marchers go into it ten kilometres, and let a token go all the way to [Al-‘Ayun], and having done this, turn around and go back. This has been carried back to Hassan.”
Noting that “it is coming down to the crunch,” Atherton went on to hint that this arrangement might not satisfy all Moroccans. “Hassan’s problem,” Atherton explained, “is that if he seems to cave very much, he is in difficulty at home, of course.” Kissinger then asked, “But he is going to get the territory, isn’t he?” To which Atherton replied,
Well, he wants it 100 percent guaranteed. I think he is getting less than that - but he is getting probably the most he can hope for now in the position that the Spanish have taken. He may ...
Secretary Kissinger: He is getting the most he can hope...
Atherton: In the way of a promise that it will come out in the end the way he wants, after going through the UN procedure. It isn’t a 100 percent guarantee. But I don’t see that there is any more he can hope for or will have any support from anybody else.
A highly scripted affair
Hartman then referenced a cable in which the Spanish government was “very explicit” about “what they would do in influencing” a referendum (ie, in Morocco’s favour).
That the march went forward without a snag, and that Spain never raised the issue of Morocco’s military invasion in the northeast of the territory, points towards a highly scripted affair. For Washington, however, there was some question as to whether or not things would turn out in Hassan’s favour.
The day after Hassan announced the withdrawal of his marchers from the Spanish Sahara, Kissinger, Scowcroft and Ford met in the Oval Office in the morning of 10 November. According to the notes of the meeting, Kissinger told them,
Hassan has pulled back in the Sahara. But if he doesn’t get it, he is finished. We should now work to ensure he gets it. We would work it through the UN [to] ensure a favourable vote.
The meeting notes do not register a response from either Ford or Scowcroft. Given Moynihan’s memoirs, we know what happened next.
At a similar meeting on the following day, 11 November, the following exchange took place:
President: How is the Spanish Sahara going?
Kissinger: It has quieted down, but I am afraid Hassan may be overthrown if he doesn’t get a success. The hope is for a rigged UN vote, but if it doesn’t happen...
Unfortunately for Kissinger, the UN was unable to hold a “rigged” vote during the tripartite transitional administration, which saw half the indigenous population flee into the desert before Spain’s withdrawal in February 1976. Denied ballot box, the Polisario attempted to achieve self-determination through the gun.
In 1991 the international community again promised the Western Saharans a chance at self-determination. Though this time Hassan attempted to rig the vote by flooding the polls with non-Saharans. Rather than force his successor, King Mohammed, to accept that this effort had failed, the US supported James Baker’s 2003 proposal to allow Moroccan settlers to participate in the vote. Unwilling to trust even its own citizens, Morocco rejected this proposal. Again denied their birthright, the occupied Western Sahara saw the largest pro-independence demonstrations yet, followed by a harsh crackdown. Recent secretary-general’s reports note increased cease-fire violations on both sides.
A month after the crisis, Kissinger met with Algerian foreign minister-now president-Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He explained the paradox of US foreign policy to Bouteflika, who he called an enfant terrible. “To prevent the Green March,” Kissinger explained, “would have meant hurting our relations with Morocco, in effect an embargo.” Bouteflika countered, “You could have done it. You could stop economic aid and military aid.” Kissinger offered a rejoinder: “But that would have meant ruining our relations with Morocco completely.” Bouteflika persisted, and insisted that the US government favoured one side. “I don’t think we favoured one side,” Kissinger said. “We tried to stay out of it.” But, as he added, “To take [your] position, we would have had to reverse positions completely.”
In 1976 the renowned scholar of international law, Thomas Franck, rightly described US policy during the crisis as “an act of political expediency grounded in East/West political alliances.” Much the same could be said about US’s “neutral” policy towards the Western Sahara conflict today, if not other conflicts involving suppressed national self-determination. The only difference between 1975 and 2005 is the justificatory geo-political context, from cold war to war on terror, where we are led to believe that our avowed neutrality is a luxury we cannot yet afford. But the persistence of the Western Sahara conflict demonstrates the shortcomings of US’s “neutral” Saharan policy. Not that Washington has realised this in the past 30 years.