Kissinger and the Sahara

The former US Secretary of State was a key figure in international politics at the time and was in the midst of discussions about Western Sahara
Campamento de refugiados de Boudjdour en Tinduf

REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA  -   Boudjdour en Tinduf refugee camp

Henry Kissinger was a key man in the history and was immersed in the disputes over Western Sahara. 

Henry Kissinger may be one of the most influential figures of the second half of the 20th century. His pragmatic politics, far from any kind of idealism - which on many occasions led him to be cynical and even cruel - made him a figure admired and hated in equal measure by international public opinion. At the same time, his intelligence, his sense of humour and his brutal honesty at times made him valued and respected by diplomats from other countries.

My intention is not to evaluate his career or to judge his merits and mistakes. In this short series of articles, I will focus on the response of the highest authority in US diplomacy to the Western Sahara crisis between 1974 and 1976. Despite the stereotypes about the Cold War and the bloc game, the 1970s were full of events beyond the control of the major powers. If they became involved and took sides, it was either out of opportunism or because they had no choice.  

1974: "The world can survive without a Spanish Sahara"

According to the documents of American diplomacy, declassified and available to the interested public for a decade, the USA attempted to avoid becoming actively involved in the crisis in Western Sahara until 1974, although a modest mediation between Spain and Morocco in the last two years of Spain's presence in the Sahara made it easier for the crisis to be resolved to suit the interests of both parties. Nonetheless, American influence is much less than some authors suggest: the occupation of the Sahara was not a master plan coordinated by the USA. Rather, Kissinger merely observed and waited, and as the situation became more complicated, tried to reconcile the parties to the conflict without much enthusiasm. Once the Moroccan invasion took place, the pragmatic secretary of state limited himself to accepting the accomplished facts and attempting to prevent an escalation that threatened US investments in Morocco and Spain. 

Kissinger probably did not know much about Western Sahara until July 1974, when the US ambassador sent him a long telegram warning him of the King of Morocco's "Bismarckian long-range strategy". Shortly afterwards, the CIA and the State Department produced a surprisingly detailed and accurate joint report on the subject, which gives an idea of the capabilities of the US intelligence services during the Cold War. The report recounted the origins of the conflict and the versions and possible strategies of each of the parties, analysed the economic and military capabilities of the various players, and assessed the US's strategic and economic interests in Spain, Morocco and Algeria. For the CIA, the core of the conflict was phosphate deposits, fishing and control of the territory: Spain wished to leave the Sahara but wished to recover some of the investment made in the mines, while Hassan II not only aspired to acquire new mines but also hoped to address internal problems by fulfilling a part of its irredentist project.

En esta foto de archivo del 4 de mayo de 2017, el presidente argelino Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
PHOTO/AP - In this archive photo of 4 May 2017, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Algeria, for its part, was wary of Moroccan expansionism and hoped to gain access to an Atlantic port that would enable it to export the iron from Tindouf, whereas for Mauritania the most desirable thing was for the Sahara to gain independence or autonomy and act as a buffer against Morocco's claims. The document concluded by suggesting that the best thing for US interests would be for Spain and Morocco to reach an agreement, even at the cost of alienating Algeria. From that moment on, Kissinger would become personally involved in the matter.

Torrejón air base, 9 October 1974. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets Pedro Cortina, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs. On the agenda, diverse current issues. Some, such as the oil embargo on the Arab countries as a result of the Yom-Kippur war or the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, are relatively foreign to Spain and thus lightly discussed. Others, such as the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, affect Spain more seriously and are subject to greater discussion. At one point in the meeting Cortina brings up the issue of Western Sahara. The minister is very concerned, as he had read an article in the Washington Post stating that the USA was in favour of direct negotiations between Rabat and Madrid. Kissinger's response is forceful: the only thing worth mentioning in this newspaper is the sports section and, if US neutrality were to change, the Spanish government would be directly informed by the State Department. Cortina continues to protest, but the secretary of state interrupts in an outburst of honesty: 

"We have explained our policy to you. “We have no particular view about the future of the Spanish Sahara. I told you privately that, as a political scientist, the future of Spanish Sahara doesn’t seem particularly great. I feel the same way about Guinea-Bissau, or Upper Volta. The world can survive without a Spanish Sahara; [...] There was a period in my life when I didn't know where the Spanish Sahara was, and I was as happy as I am today".

Five days after his meeting with the Spanish minister, Kissinger visits Algerian President Bumedian. The latter asks the secretary of state for his opinion on the "problem" of Western Sahara. Kissinger replies frankly: "I can't get excited about 40,000 people who probably don't know they're living in the Spanish Sahara. I hope you don't think I'm too cynical. We have no interest in Spain being there; it is not logical for Spain to be in Africa". Kissinger then takes an interest in Algerian interests in the area. Bumedian assures they have no territorial claims-although they are concerned that Morocco would prevent Algerian products from reaching the Atlantic-and ventures that the most likely outcome would be a division of the Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. 

Houari Búmedian y Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Hassan II and Houari Búmedian

The following day, October 15th, Kissinger travelled to Rabat and met Hassan II in private. The Moroccan king was particularly assertive and suggested that the USA already had many problems in Cyprus and an escalation of tension in the Sahara was contrary to its interests. Both the king and the secretary of state praised the former Spanish foreign minister, López-Bravo, and criticised Pedro Cortina, who, according to Kissinger, displays the mentality of a secretary-the US diplomat's antipathy towards the Spanish minister can be sensed in some sarcastic replies contained in the transcripts of their meetings.

Subsequently, Hassan attempted to convince Kissinger of the legitimacy of Morocco's claims and the danger posed by an independent Sahara in the Soviet orbit-nevertheless, the Moroccan king knew from his contacts in Algeria that the USSR had no interest in the area. Kissinger assures him that he understands his position, but that he must be patient. Hassan replies that he cannot accept a referendum on self-determination, that he knows the colonialists and their tactics, and assures that if Spain grants independence to the Sahara, Moroccan troops will attack immediately, so that USA can stop selling weapons to them if a negotiated solution is not achieved. 

The conversation between the Moroccan king and the US representative is fascinating, and perhaps one of the key moments in the Western Sahara crisis. Kissinger seems to admire the king's determination and, in several outbursts of calculated sincerity, he is particularly critical of the US diplomatic service. Hassan II is ambitious but also realistic, something that no doubt pleases Kissinger:

"I don't want to embarrass any of our friends, we won't ask anyone to choose between Spain or Morocco. We are aware of the enormous American interests in Spain, but once Franco dies you should review this strategy and perhaps transfer some of those interests to Morocco".

The Moroccan king seemed to understand perfectly the way Kissinger saw the world. Although he referred in his meetings and diplomatic messages to Morocco's supposedly inalienable rights over the Sahara, the arguments that probably convinced the secretary of state not to oppose the Moroccan plans were expressed in a "realistic" manner: a new state was not viable in the region and represented a risk of becoming an area of Soviet influence, whereas a Moroccan occupation agreed with the Spanish would ensure stability and the US's commercial and strategic interests in the region.   

AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Members of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army parade with the flags of the Polisario Front during a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Members of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army parade with the flags of the Polisario Front during a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
1975: "It's no longer a question of choosing between Morocco and Spain" 

In 1975, the United States continued to sell arms to Morocco. To appease the Spanish, Kissinger gives them specific and detailed information on the material sold. Throughout the year the documents of US diplomacy show their confusion about Spain's strategy. The US ambassador in Madrid informs Kissinger of the intentions of one section of the Spanish government to promote an independence movement in the Sahara, although other contacts assure that Spain wishes to negotiate a solution with Morocco. Hassan II, for his part, begins to grow impatient and makes insistent contact with American diplomacy. He finds the Spanish position illogical, particularly when accepting the right to self-determination could cause problems in Catalonia and the Basque country. American intelligence reports in September that a significant sector of the Spanish army is in favour of an understanding with Morocco that has not yet materialised. 

Events accelerated from October onwards. On October 4th Kissinger met Cortina again in Washington. He informed the Spanish minister that his intelligence services had detected preparations for a possible attack. Cortina replied they were aware of this and were prepared for any aggression; he also suggested that the Moroccan attack would be against both Spanish and Algerian positions-a somewhat crazy theory given Morocco's military capabilities. The discussion on the Sahara ends with a sardonic comment by Kissinger: "If Hassan II has to negotiate with you he will be lucky to keep Morocco". 

Zona de Al-Mahbes, donde los soldados marroquíes custodian el muro que separa el Sáhara Occidental controlado por el Polisario de Marruecos.
Houari Búmedian and Abdelaziz Bouteflika

The decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of 16 October 1975, which did not recognise Morocco's claims to the Sahara, convinced Hassan II to adopt a more aggressive stance and publicly announced a "peaceful" march of volunteers that had been prepared for months. Morocco also stepped up its diplomatic offensive and began to seek international support. Most of the Arab countries remain neutral-although they express their discomfort at the idea of a new independent state-but Hassan II wins three unexpected allies for an eventual conflict: Syria's Háfez al-Asad, who offers troops; King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who promises to cut off oil supplies to Spain in the event of war; and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who is oblivious to the irony of supporting the illegal occupation of another Arab territory. Morocco's greatest diplomatic success, however, was to secure the neutrality of the USSR, at that time one of Morocco's main suppliers of weapons and a major customer in the phosphate market, in addition to having fishing interests on the Moroccan coast. American intelligence knew that the Soviets did not wish to become involved in the Sahara, but even so the Moroccans managed to persuade them that the Polisario front was a Russian "proxy"-or at least they offered them a good story that Kissinger would use a year and a half later to justify his support for Morocco.

On 17 October Kissinger receives Abdelhadi Butaleb, the Moroccan ambassador in Washington. Butaleb tries to reassure the secretary of state that Morocco is not seeking an armed confrontation with Spain. He also tries to persuade him that the ICJ's decision in fact recognises Morocco's historical rights over the territory and that the Spanish have always admitted that the territory belonged to Morocco. Kissinger replies by saying that he understands his position, but that he does not understand why the Moroccans are in such a hurry. Butaleb replies that Spain is allowing Algeria to arm Polisario, that the Spanish do not control the territory and that the region is going to be filled with foreign destabilising agents. A year after the king assured that they would not demand the United States to position themselves, the Moroccan ambassador stated: "It is no longer a question of choosing between Morocco and Spain, but of choosing between Morocco and outside elements that wish to usurp what is rightfully Morocco’s".

Two days later, Kissinger informs his ambassador to Morocco of the need to calm the king and make sure there is no armed conflict. Diplomatic activity during the last weeks of October and November 1975 is intense: the Americans try to persuade Spain and Morocco to reach an agreement within the framework of the United Nations, while the Algerians are outraged at the idea of a bilateral agreement between Madrid and Rabat and express their outright opposition to the Green March. On October 30 President Bumedian summoned the US ambassador to Algiers. The Algerian leader is convinced that the USA is behind the Green March; the US ambassador seeks to reassure him that Kissinger's influence on Hassan II is minimal. The situation is complicated: although the possibility of Algeria facing Morocco militarily is limited, the Algerians have plenty of capacity to support the Polisario guerrilla and destabilise the region. The following day Kissinger sent a telegram to Hassan II asking for patience and recommending that he act under the auspices of the UN. UN Secretary General Waldheim had devised a plan that envisaged Spain's withdrawal in 1976, the temporary UN administration of the territory and its incorporation into Morocco after some kind of popular consultation.  

AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Smara refugee camp in the Algerian province of Tindouf
AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Smara refugee camp in the Algerian province of Tindouf

However, Hassan II did not want to give up on his plan. Meanwhile, independence demonstrations were taking place in El Aaiun and other towns in Western Sahara, while the guerrilla actions of Polisario were intensifying. On 31 October several units of the Moroccan army entered the still Spanish territory of the Sahara and occupied border posts abandoned shortly afterwards by the Spanish army, which withdrew to more favourable positions. According to the analyses of Spanish and American intelligence, the Moroccans had no chance in a conventional war against the Spanish army, which could easily reach Rabat, though this was not the aim. During those days part of the Spanish civilian population began to evacuate the cities of the Sahara towards the Canary Islands and the Peninsula. This situation is well reflected in the work of Mariano Fernández-Aceytuno, an officer in the Spanish army's nomadic groups in the Sahara.  

On October 29, Waldheim and Kissinger phoned each other to discuss the crisis in the Sahara. In the very cordial conversation, the UN secretary general expressed his concern to Kissinger about how heated the spirits of Bumedian and Hassan II were. Mr Waldheim stressed on several occasions how "emotional" the Algerian president was, and warned of the high risk of a conflict in the area, not on the part of the Spaniards-who were keen to leave and, according to Mr Waldheim, had no intention of fighting-but between Moroccans and Algerians. The solution, in his opinion, was to convince Hassan II to call off the march, as he had already managed to reach a compromise with the Spaniards: the latter would withdraw within two or three months and then set up an interim transition government with the participation of Moroccans, Mauritanians and Saharawis who would prepare a referendum. However, the UN secretary general does not mention the possibility of self-determination or independence.  

On 2 November the US ambassador in Madrid sent a telegram to Kissinger. The Spanish government is very concerned about the Green March, which was announced for November 4. According to the minister Cortina, Hassan II refused to negotiate and had camouflaged members of the elite units of the Moroccan army among the supposedly unarmed civilians who were to take part in the march. Morocco was planning a military invasion, and though Spain did not wish to fight, it would defend itself if necessary. That same day Kissinger wrote again to Hassan II asking for patience: Franco was ill and Spain was in a delicate internal situation, but if they waited a little the Spaniards would be more than willing to agree on a negotiated solution, provided it was within the framework of the UN. The Moroccan king's response came the following day, but was not what he had expected: his invasion plans would go ahead, and he was furthermore waiting for US support in view of what he described as a Soviet-Algerian attempt to destabilise the Maghreb. That same day, Franco slipped into a coma. 

Campamento de refugiados de Smara en la provincia argelina de Tinduf.
PHOTO/AFP - Al-Mahbes area, where Moroccan soldiers guard the wall separating Polisario-controlled Western Sahara from Morocco
November 1975- February 1976: The outcome

The Green March crossed the border into the Sahara on November 6, although the Moroccan army had already been in another area of Spanish territory for over a week. US public sources do not go into detail on this, but we know that the CIA was aware of Moroccan military activity at least since the first week of November, when William Colby, head of the CIA, sent Kissinger a memorandum analysing the situation: the Moroccan forces are much weaker than the Spanish ones, and in the event of a confrontation they have the chance to lose. This would place Hassan II in a very vulnerable situation, and there would be a risk of serious destabilisation in Morocco. The report concluded: "Regardless the outcome, all three countries [Morocco, Algeria and Spain] will end up blaming the US for not exerting enough pressure to prevent the crisis". 

And indeed, they did. US mediation proved practically non-existent during November 1975, the month in which the future of the Sahara was decided. Hassan II's strategy was a success, as he managed to divide the government and Spanish diplomacy-confused by Franco's convalescence-and force them to negotiate on their own terms and behind the UN's back, as Tomás Bárbulo details in "The Forbidden History of the Spanish Sahara". The agreements between Spaniards and Moroccans-which I will not go into at length, as the subject has been dealt with in depth by other Spanish authors-were reached bilaterally and without US mediation. The result was undoubtedly satisfactory to the Americans, as Madrid and Rabat had reached an understanding without a military crisis. Nonetheless, Kissinger had to face criticism from Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria's foreign minister at the time.  

The conversation between the two that took place on December 17 in Paris is extremely interesting and shows a dimension of the Cold War we do not usually take into account: not only was the bloc policy not as strict as we often think, but many international conflicts escalated or were defused by the personal relationship between the diplomats. Kissinger and Bouteflika, in particular, seemed to maintain a cordial relationship based on mutual respect, and Algerians and Americans were in constant communication during those years given the international prestige of Algerians among the non-aligned movement and the Organization of African Unity. However, the crisis in the Sahara deeply affected relations between the two countries. 

This conversation also revealed two different ways of understanding international relations. For a realist like Kissinger, the aim was for the parties to the conflict to reach an agreement. His priority was to maintain stability in the area and avoid a war that could trigger a crisis of legitimacy in the Moroccan regime or complicate Franco's succession in Spain; he was indifferent to the wishes of the Saharawi population. Bouteflika and the Algerian government, by contrast, did not renounce their anti-colonial and democratic ideals. For Algeria, the holding of a referendum was essential. The question of independence was not necessarily on the table-although Bouteflika believed that an independent Sahara was feasible and predicted its natural resources could make it the Kuwait of the Maghreb-but it was at least necessary to ask the population whether they preferred to be part of Morocco or Mauritania. Of course, Algeria had material and strategic interests in the Sahara, but judging by the declassified documents, the Americans thought that Bumedian and Bouteflika's opposition to Morocco's unilateral annexation was based on their idealism, their revolutionary and anti-colonial ideology and their confidence in international institutions such as the UN and ICJ. Although Bouteflika managed to persuade Kissinger to guarantee that pressure would be brought to bear on Morocco to hold a UN-sponsored referendum, this never took place.  

REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Polisario Front soldiers are at the entrance of the fifth sector of the Bir Lahlou base, Western Sahara
REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Polisario Front soldiers are at the entrance of the fifth sector of the Bir Lahlou base, Western Sahara

The Saharan drama had just begun. Following the agreement reached between Morocco and Spain on 14 November, the Spanish officials and military present in the Sahara gradually withdrew, setting a deadline on February 28, 1976. At the beginning of the year there were scarcely any Spaniards left in the area and more and more Saharawis were leaving the cities in view of the arrival of tens of thousands of Moroccans, both civilian and military. Many of these refugees settled in camps on the other side of the border with Algeria, the seed of today's Sahrawi refugee camps. Over the next fifteen years, the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, would wage a guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania.  

Despite the escalation of the war and the bloodshed, Kissinger was very satisfied with the outcome of the crisis between Morocco and Spain. He was no longer forced to position himself or choose between either of the two US-friendly countries. The Spanish government, in a very intense period marked by Franco's death, was also moderately pleased, as witnessed by the memorandum of the 25 January 1976 conversation between Kissinger, José María de Areilza-the first foreign minister of King Juan Carlos-and Manuel Fraga, who was then interior minister. The conversation focused on Spain's domestic policy and provided many of the keys to what would be the Transition. The question of the Sahara only appears marginally when Kissinger asked Fraga about the army's state of mind and he replied that "the exit from the Sahara was very good because it did not lead to demoralisation". Along these lines, Areilza attempted to pressure Kissinger into supporting a hypothetical entry of Spain into NATO: according to the minister, once the Spanish colonies in Africa were abandoned, the army needed a target so that "boredom" would not tempt them to intervene in politics.  

Following Spain's withdrawal, the US began to actively support Morocco with intelligence and arms sales. The Sahara War was an important source of income for the Americans, and the State Department justified its support for Morocco by presenting the Sahara War as a typical Cold War conflict, with an old ally-Morocco was the first country in the world to recognise independence from the US in 1776-being harassed by a pro-Soviet revolutionary guerrilla. The fact is that the USSR did not wish to become involved in the conflict at first; the US intelligence services knew that the Soviets had stopped selling weapons to Algeria in December 1975 so that they would not hand them over to Polisario, and the diplomats of the Communist regime had always argued that the Sahara conflict was a matter to be settled between the Arab states. Even so, Moroccan diplomats always sought support for the occupation by arguing that Polisario was a Soviet "proxy", a strategy they are still using forty years later, even though international communism has been replaced by Salafist Jihadism.