Into the Maghrib

Seeking stronger military ties with North African states, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated Saturday from Tunis,

'We are continuing to participate with these three countries one way or another on military—to—military relations and that is something we value and want to strengthen.' 

The three countries making up Mr. Rumsfeld's North African tour are Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco — the Maghrib, or the western Arab world.  The official reason for the Defense Secretary's trip is to continue to forge ties in the war on terror, and to praise the efforts made in that fight by the three countries so far. Rumsfeld continued by stating,

"that terrorist networks are attracted to areas that have large ungoverned spaces where governments are attitudinally more tolerant towards extremism and that would not be the case in any one of these three countries."

The "ungoverned spaces" to which Mr. Rumsfeld alludes are most likely the Sahel, the border wastelands separating North Africa from the more tropical area to the south.  According to Hamid Chabar, the Moroccan representative of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara,

"There are a lot of young people in the Sahel who are leaning towards radical Islam, with groups such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat gaining ground."

The issue of Western Sahara — Morocco claiming and controlling the area while Algeria backs the Sahrawi, the indigenous people — still remains unresolved.  The native Sahrawis make up the Polisario Front, a group fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara.  The Moroccan director of migration and border control, Khalid Zerouali, said the presence of the Polisario in area makes the Sahel even more dangerous.

"The Polisario is made up of 10,000 idle soldiers. Half of them went to Cuba to learn sabotage techniques that can be used by terror groups."

Polisario representatives deny any links to terrorism, but recent protests in Western Saharan towns demanding independence have put pressure on Morocco to develop a solution.  An unnamed Western analyst said Washingtion has asked Morocco to encourage negotiations with Western Sahara and Algeria:

"We need to put something on the table before something happens out there in the Sahel and blows up in our face," he said. "The U.S. doesn't have the forces necessary to handle a conflict in the Sahel. ... I think what's happening in Morocco is more important to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East than people realize." 

Complicating the situation even more is the promise of exploration rights made by Polisario officials to foreign oil firms if Western Sahara achieves its independence. Senior Polisario official Khadad Mhamed explains, 

"We anticipate our independence and since we have very concrete indications that Western Sahara will be a producer of oil, we've started building our own oil policy, offering licences onshore and offshore."

But, Morocco has already issued exploration rights offshore of Western Sahara to U.S. oil company Kerr—McGee.  Polisario warned of retaliation if the company starts drilling.

Eric Schwappach  2 13 06

Seeking stronger military ties with North African states, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated Saturday from Tunis,

'We are continuing to participate with these three countries one way or another on military—to—military relations and that is something we value and want to strengthen.' 

The three countries making up Mr. Rumsfeld's North African tour are Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco — the Maghrib, or the western Arab world.  The official reason for the Defense Secretary's trip is to continue to forge ties in the war on terror, and to praise the efforts made in that fight by the three countries so far. Rumsfeld continued by stating,

"that terrorist networks are attracted to areas that have large ungoverned spaces where governments are attitudinally more tolerant towards extremism and that would not be the case in any one of these three countries."

The "ungoverned spaces" to which Mr. Rumsfeld alludes are most likely the Sahel, the border wastelands separating North Africa from the more tropical area to the south.  According to Hamid Chabar, the Moroccan representative of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara,

"There are a lot of young people in the Sahel who are leaning towards radical Islam, with groups such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat gaining ground."

The issue of Western Sahara — Morocco claiming and controlling the area while Algeria backs the Sahrawi, the indigenous people — still remains unresolved.  The native Sahrawis make up the Polisario Front, a group fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara.  The Moroccan director of migration and border control, Khalid Zerouali, said the presence of the Polisario in area makes the Sahel even more dangerous.

"The Polisario is made up of 10,000 idle soldiers. Half of them went to Cuba to learn sabotage techniques that can be used by terror groups."

Polisario representatives deny any links to terrorism, but recent protests in Western Saharan towns demanding independence have put pressure on Morocco to develop a solution.  An unnamed Western analyst said Washingtion has asked Morocco to encourage negotiations with Western Sahara and Algeria:

"We need to put something on the table before something happens out there in the Sahel and blows up in our face," he said. "The U.S. doesn't have the forces necessary to handle a conflict in the Sahel. ... I think what's happening in Morocco is more important to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East than people realize." 

Complicating the situation even more is the promise of exploration rights made by Polisario officials to foreign oil firms if Western Sahara achieves its independence. Senior Polisario official Khadad Mhamed explains, 

"We anticipate our independence and since we have very concrete indications that Western Sahara will be a producer of oil, we've started building our own oil policy, offering licences onshore and offshore."

But, Morocco has already issued exploration rights offshore of Western Sahara to U.S. oil company Kerr—McGee.  Polisario warned of retaliation if the company starts drilling.

Eric Schwappach  2 13 06