Security Problems with Neighboring States

Algeria Table of Contents

In his efforts to shape a more pragmatic foreign policy, Benjedid succeeded in moderating the stresses in the country's relationships with the West. Concurrently, Algeria's concerns shifted to improving regional stability, which had been disturbed by festering disputes with Morocco and Libya. Reflective of improving relationships was the formation in February 1989 of the Union of the Arab Maghrib (Union du Maghreb Arabe--UMA), with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia as members. The primary goal of the UMA was improved economic cohesion, but the treaty also contained important security clauses. The signatories affirmed that any aggression against one member would be considered as aggression against the other member states. In an apparent allusion to the Western Sahara conflict, member states pledged not to permit any activity or organization on their territory that could endanger the security or territorial integrity of another member state.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco had long been characterized by rivalry and occasional hostility. Immediately after Algerian independence, Morocco laid claim to stretches of southern and western Algeria that had been under Moroccan sovereignty before the French gained control over the area in the nineteenth century. In a series of sharp engagements in the disputed territory in October 1963, the professional Moroccan army consistently outperformed Algerian regulars and local guerrillas. Although OAU-sponsored mediation ended the fighting, the success of the Moroccans demonstrated the potential threat to Algerian security in the event of a more serious dispute.

In addition to fighting over borders, the two countries each sought primacy in the Maghrib. Their claims were rooted in part in ideology: Morocco's claim to regional leadership derived from its centuries-old national identity, whereas Algeria's stemmed from the prestige of winning its War of Independence. The ideological differences between the new socialist republic and the ancient kingdom were sharpened when, almost immediately after independence, Ben Bella began to trumpet his country's socialistrevolutionary doctrines and its opposition to conservative governments such as Morocco's. Relations improved after Boumediene came to power and as both countries concentrated on their domestic problems. In 1972 a treaty was signed defining the international border between them. The Moroccan government, however, deferred its official ratification of the treaty. Following the mending of differences over the Western Sahara question, Morocco's King Hassan II finally ratified the border treaty in May 1989.

The dispute over the Western Sahara had its origins in 1974 when Morocco began maneuvering to annex the territory, which was then under Spanish control and known as the Spanish Sahara. A series of Moroccan diplomatic initiatives--climaxed by a march of 350,000 Moroccans across the territory's northern border-- resulted in a treaty by which Spain turned over the northern twothirds of the Western Sahara to Moroccan administration and the rest to Mauritania. By mid1975 the Algerians were giving supplies, vehicles, and light arms to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y Río de Oro--Polisario). Polisario was the strongest of several indigenous national liberation movements active in the Western Sahara. Algerian authorities established refugee camps in the Tindouf area to house large numbers of Saharans, popularly known as Sahrawis, who abandoned the territory after the Moroccan takeover. Algeria thus became the principal foreign supporter of the Polisario in its long-running desert war to oppose Moroccan control of the disputed area.

Algeria gradually acquired a quantitative military superiority over Morocco with the introduction of large amounts of modern weaponry, mainly from the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the Algerians avoided direct confrontation with the more experienced Moroccan troops. In January 1976, however, the Moroccans badly defeated two battalions of Algerian troops and took prisoners in clashes inside the Western Sahara. After that time, Algerian regulars did not venture into the Western Sahara despite Moroccan claims to the contrary. For their part, the Moroccans refrained from pursuing troops onto Algerian territory.

Initially, fighting in the Western Sahara featured attacks by the Polisario's light mobile forces against isolated Moroccan outposts. By 1982, however, the struggle had shifted in Morocco's favor. Morocco adopted a strategy of constructing fortified sand walls, mined and equipped with electronic warning systems. Enclosing progressively larger areas of the Sahara, Morocco was able to undercut Polisario's ability to conduct hit-and-run attacks. The Moroccan military dominated the battlefield, effectively coordinating its modern ground and air firepower in spite of Algeria's deliveries of increasingly sophisticated arms to the Polisario guerrillas.

The success of Morocco's military strategy was one factor in the rapprochement between the two nations in 1988, following a twelve-year hiatus in diplomatic relations precipitated by Algeria's recognition of the Polisario government. Although Polisario was able to mount an offensive against the sand wall in late 1989, breaking a truce that had held for nearly a year, Algeria--preoccupied by its own internal security problems--was no longer willing to devote enough arms and support to keep the independence movement alive. Algeria still provided refuge on its territory for about 10,000 guerrillas, but by the close of 1992 Polisario's military defeats had nearly ended the insurgency.

Algeria's resumption of diplomatic relations with Morocco, accompanied by the opening of borders and a number of joint economic initiatives, eased the security situation on its western flank. Morocco's acceptance of the United Nations (UN) peace plan for the Western Sahara and the conclusion of the UMA treaty in 1989 further helped to abate remaining tensions.

Whereas Morocco had long been viewed as a potential threat, Muammar al Qadhafi's Libya was regarded as somewhat more friendly. The Algerian-Libyan security relationship was based on a common antipathy for the Western-dominated economic order and deep hostility toward Israel. This relationship, however, suffered several setbacks during the 1980s. In 1984 Morocco and Libya announced that they had secretly negotiated an alliance. Although the alliance's effect was short-lived, Algeria interpreted the agreement as upsetting the strategic balance in the Maghrib. Libya's unilateral annexation of a section of neighboring Chad and its military intervention in Chad hardened Algerian attitudes toward Libya, as did the suspicion that Libya was linked to unrest instigated by Islamist (also seen as fundamentalist) groups in Algeria. Libya's subsequent participation in the UMA, however, appeared to lay a foundation for more stable relationships with Algeria and the other states of the region.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress