The Role of the United States in the Moroccan-Algerian Conflict and Hidden Tensions Between Algeria and Tunisia

The Moroccan-Algerian conflict refers to the ongoing tension and sporadic clashes between the Kingdom of Morocco and the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria over the status of Western Sahara. Morocco claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, which Algeria contests on behalf of the Polisario Front. This long-running dispute has resulted in a closed border between the two countries since 1994 and continues to damage relations between the Maghreb neighbors to this day.

The role of the United States in this conflict has shifted over the decades, from initially backing Spain during its colonial rule over Western Sahara, to supporting a referendum on self-determination, to eventually siding more closely with Morocco. However, the US has generally tried to tread carefully due to its strategic interests in maintaining decent ties with both Morocco and Algeria. The US sees Morocco as a key counterterrorism partner and Algeria as an important player in regional security and energy markets.

In contrast, while Algeria and Tunisia have had tensions and rivalries historically, their relationship has been relatively cooperative in recent decades. However, some analysts argue there are hidden strains beneath the surface due to ideological differences, economic competition, and the post-Arab Spring political environment. The US has aimed to maintain positive ties with both Algeria and Tunisia since their independence. Going forward, managing relations between all three Maghreb states will remain important for US foreign policy in North Africa.

This article will provide an in-depth overview of the Moroccan-Algerian conflict, a history of US involvement in Western Sahara, an analysis of current US positions, a look at the obscured tensions between Algeria and Tunisia, and implications for the future.

History of Western Sahara Dispute

Western Sahara is a territory on the northwest coast of Africa, bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Atlantic Ocean. With an area of 102,703 square miles, it is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, containing rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters along its coast.

Spain colonized Western Sahara in 1884 and ruled it as Spanish Sahara for nearly a century until 1975. Upon Spain’s withdrawal, both Morocco and Mauritania made claims to the territory, based on historical links. Algeria backed the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist movement that declared independence for the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” in 1976. This set off a 16-year war between Morocco/Mauritania and the Polisario, with Algeria providing support to the Polisario.

In 1979, Mauritania withdrew its claim and Morocco annexed the southern two-thirds of Western Sahara. Morocco then built a series of fortifications known as the Moroccan Wall, spanning much of the border. By 1991, the fighting was largely over, with Morocco controlling the main populated areas along the coast and the Polisario controlling the sparsely populated Free Zone in the desert interior.

Numerous attempts at resolving the dispute have failed. A 1988 UN settlement plan calling for a referendum on independence was accepted by the Polisario but rejected by Morocco. Morocco has offered autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty but rejected any referendum with independence as an option. Meanwhile, the Polisario maintains its demand for a referendum including independence, which Algeria backs. This impasse has kept Western Sahara in limbo for decades.

Early US Policy on Western Sahara

The United States’ initial involvement in Western Sahara focused on supporting Spain, a key Western ally, in its colonial claims. In 1957-58, the US provided military and economic assistance to help Spain retain control over the territory against insurgent attacks backed by Morocco.

However, by the 1960s, US policy shifted toward neutrality on Western Sahara amid a wave of anti-colonial sentiment in Africa and the UN. The US endorsed efforts by the UN committee on decolonization to negotiate Spain’s potential withdrawal and did not back Spanish control or Moroccan claims. Instead, the US called for self-determination via a referendum to let the Sahrawi people choose their fate.

As Morocco and the Polisario mobilized for war in 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sought a speedy Spanish withdrawal and proposed an interim tripartite administration of Western Sahara with Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario. This plan failed, leading to the 16-year conflict. The US largely disengaged diplomatically on the issue during the 1970s under the Ford and Carter administrations.

Reagan Administration Supports Morocco

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1981 brought a new approach, as the US adopted a more pro-Moroccan policy. Seeking allies against communism, the Reagan administration strongly backed King Hassan II as a key strategic partner in Africa and the Middle East.

Morocco had sent hundreds of thousands of civilians to claim Western Sahara in the 1975 Green March. In 1983, Reagan endorsed Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, encouraging Morocco to build settlements and bypassing the idea of a referendum. The US also increased military aid and launched joint military exercises with Morocco to counter Algeria’s support for the Polisario.

This aligning with Morocco damaged relations with Algeria, but Reagan was skeptical of Algeria’s socialist military government and considered Morocco of greater strategic significance. The Reagan administration’s backing aided Morocco in its military campaigns and annexation of Western Sahara through the 1980s. However, the US continued to pay lip service to self-determination, still recognizing the UN as the forum for a ultimate solution.

Shift Under GHW Bush

The US stance shifted again under President George H.W. Bush, who sought more neutrality on the Western Sahara dispute. Bush hoped to improve ties with Algeria and did not share Reagan’s automatic support for Morocco.

In 1989, Bush endorsed a UN transition plan that would allow a referendum on independence within two years. Morocco initially rejected the plan but eventually accepted under international pressure. However, disputes over voter eligibility stalled the referendum process during the 1990s.

The Bush administration also reduced arms transfers to Morocco and sent humanitarian aid to Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. This more balanced approach alienated Morocco but did not fully satisfy the Polisario or Algeria. The outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990 also distracted US attention from the issue.

Clinton Administration Pursues Wider North Africa Policy

Western Sahara became a lower priority for the US during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Clinton saw Morocco and Algeria as important not just in their own right, but as key players in a broader US strategy toward the Maghreb region of North Africa.

The Clinton administration focused on supporting economic liberalization and free trade initiatives like the proposed Maghreb Arab Union and the Middle East/North Africa Economic Summits. Clinton hoped growing economic interdependence would gradually ease regional tensions like the Sahara dispute.

In 1997, Clinton appointed former Secretary of State James Baker as the UN Envoy for Western Sahara to restart the stalled referendum process. Baker conducted shuttle diplomacy between Morocco and the Polisario, but made little headway as Morocco continued rejecting any vote on independence. Still, Clinton avoided taking sides, viewing Morocco and Algeria as equal partners in an overall North Africa policy.

Resumption of Military Support Under GW Bush

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought another shift back toward stronger US alignment with Morocco. After 9/11, the Bush administration considered Morocco a key ally against radical Islamist terrorism and bolstered military aid to the kingdom.

In 2004, the US designated Morocco as a major non-NATO ally, allowing expanded arms exports and joint exercises. These moves strengthened Morocco’s position militarily and diplomatically, even as the Western Sahara issue remained unresolved.

In 2007, the Bush administration openly called for integrating Western Sahara into Morocco, breaking with previous nominal US support for self-determination. This dismayed Algeria and drew criticism from the UN, but the US argued a compromise solution was needed to resolve the conflict. However, the Bush policy failed to achieve that compromise.

Obama Administration Returns to Balanced Approach

The Obama administration initially hoped to achieve a long-elusive breakthrough on Western Sahara. In 2009, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the dispute an impediment to regional stability that Al-Qaeda could exploit. They endorsed Morocco’s proposal for limited autonomy under Moroccan rule, calling it “serious, realistic, and credible”, while reaffirming US support for the UN process.

However, these efforts made little progress, as Algeria and the Polisario rejected autonomy without an independence option. By its second term, the Obama administration shifted back to a more hands-off policy, working with the UN but avoiding forceful engagement. Obama focused more on counterterrorism partnerships in the region.

Some analysts say Obama missed a chance to press Morocco to offer fuller autonomy or accept a negotiated compromise, while avoiding overtly siding with Morocco. But with many other Mideast crises, Western Sahara did not become a top priority for Obama. The issue was left unresolved as a low-level dispute.

Trump Administration Strongly Backs Moroccan Claims

The Trump administration resumed the close alignment with Morocco seen under Reagan and GW Bush, based on common security and economic interests. Trump saw Morocco as a bulwark against Iran and radical groups in North Africa.

In 2020, the US broke with past policy by explicitly affirming Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, with Trump declaring “Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution.”

This dramatic policy shift, partly in exchange for Morocco normalizing ties with Israel, drew praise from Morocco but harsh criticism from Algeria, the AU, and even some US lawmakers. However, it did not lead to recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by any other countries. The Biden administration has not yet revealed if it will maintain Trump’s stance.

Implications for the Future

The Western Sahara dispute has proven intractable for decades, with the US shifting between positions rather than forcing a decisive breakthrough. Current prospects for resolution remain poor. Morocco still firmly controls the territory and opposes any referendum it could lose. Algeria shows no intention of abandoning Polisario demands for self-determination under the UN plan.

The US faces a difficult balancing act. A long-term settlement is still in US interests, as the dispute fuels regional instability and harms Maghreb economic integration. But the US has many other priorities in the region besides Western Sahara. Strong ties with Morocco and Algeria are both strategically important on security, economic and geopolitical grounds.

Thus, the US will likely continue treading cautiously, offering support to the UN process but avoiding forceful action. However, any future moves perceived as tilting too far toward one party will alienate the other side. With latent hostilities still simmering, the Western Sahara issue remains a delicate diplomatic challenge likely to persist for years to come.

Algerian-Tunisian Relations: Complex History and Contemporary Tensions

While the Western Sahara conflict has openly pitted Morocco against Algeria for decades, tensions between Algeria and Tunisia have been more obscured. On the surface, Algeria and Tunisia have had largely cooperative relations both before and after Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956. But beneath the surface, strains have lingered between the Maghreb neighbors based on ideological rivalries, economic frictions, and unresolved legacies from colonial rule.

In recent years, analysts argue these hidden tensions have sharpened due to political instability in the region after the 2011 Arab Spring, along with new economic and demographic pressures. Yet both Algiers and Tunis have incentive to manage differences pragmatically to avoid an open rift. Going forward, handling Algerian-Tunisian relations will require delicate diplomacy to balance regional stability and national interests.

Colonial Roots of Complex Ties

Contemporary tensions between Algeria and Tunisia originate in part from the complex colonial history of French rule. France occupied Algeria starting in 1830, while establishing Tunisia as a protectorate in 1881. These divergent models impacted how France governed each territory under its divide and rule strategy.

Algeria suffered harsh military occupation and racist exploitation, triggering early nationalist resistance. Tunisia was ruled more as an imperial satellite dependent on France but with more autonomy for Tunisian elites. Post-WWII, Tunisia gained internal self-government while Algeria suffered brutal conflict during its 1954-62 war of independence against France.

These different experiences created asymmetries after independence. Algerian nationalism was staunchly anti-imperialist with a socialist orientation, while Tunisia maintained closer ties to France. The Algerian government used revolutionary rhetoric that interfered in Tunisia to promote leftist dissidents against Tunisia’s pro-western leaders, causing tensions.

At times, the rivalry verged on conflict. Tunisia harbored Algerian exile groups that conducted cross-border attacks during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s. Algeria accused Tunisia of abetting rebels while Tunisia faced pressure from Algerian-backed Islamists. But both governments saw interest in preventing a major breach.

Economic Asymmetries and Rivalries

Economic tensions have also long simmered between Algeria and Tunisia. French colonialism left the two countries with contrasting economic structures that continued after independence.

Algeria possessed vast oil and gas reserves that enabled a state-centered economy and generous social welfare programs, but also high youth unemployment and uneven development outside the energy sector. Tunisia lacked Algeria’s hydrocarbons but developed a more advanced private sector, manufacturing exports, and tourism, making it one of the more diversified economies in the region.

Nonetheless, asymmetry persists, with Algeria’s GDP per capita exceeding Tunisia’s by three-fold. Algerian leaders see Tunisia as exploited by French and EU investors, while Tunisia relies on remittances from migrant laborers in Algeria and access to the Algerian market. But Algeria also accuses Tunisia of benefiting from smuggling networks siphoning off Algerian energy subsidies.

These economic grievances contribute to tensions, with Algerian officials complaining of bearing the burdens of Maghreb integration plans while Tunisia draws the benefits. Resolving these perceived inequalities and barriers will be key for the two economies to advance cooperation.

Post-2011 Pressures: Borders, Regional Crisis, and Migration

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, several new pressure points have emerged or intensified between Algeria and Tunisia. These revolve around border security, spillover from regional conflicts, terrorism, and migration issues.

One flashpoint is the chaos in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi. Algeria sees threats from militant groups and criminal networks exploiting Libya’s disorder to spread into the Sahel. Tunisia also faces economic harm from Libya’s instability. But differences persist over preferred approaches, as Algeria prefers securing borders while Tunisia supports political solutions.

The In Amenas hostage crisis in 2013, when Algerian forces raided a gas facility seized by jihadists crossing from Libya, highlighted Algeria’s assertive strategy. Tunisia relies more on allied support, hosting a US drone base near the Libyan border that Algeria eyes warily.

Algeria and Tunisia also see the Syria conflict creating blowback, as thousands of Maghreb citizens went to fight for ISIS and other extremist groups, some returning home radicalized. Both countries suffered major terrorist attacks in 2015-16 claimed by ISIS. They have increased security cooperation but disagreements exist on how to balance security, rights, and political inclusion.

Additionally, as Libya and Syria collapse, waves of migrants and refugees have exited toward Europe via Tunisia. But Tunisia lacks resources to manage the flow or provide economic opportunities, instead allowing migration onward, destabilizing its own interior. Algeria meanwhile faces refugees entering from Mali, Niger and Sudan.

All these pressures risk inflaming societal tensions. Tunisia has made democratic reforms, but Algeria remains authoritarian with a restive youth population. Algeria accuses Tunisia of mismanaging its border regions while Tunis relies on Algeria to limit regional chaos from spreading.

Ideological Differences Post-Arab Spring

Finally, on the ideological level, Tunisia and Algeria represent competing futures for the region post-Arab Spring. Tunisia is the sole success story, undertaking a cautious democratic transition. Algeria avoided mass unrest by using oil wealth to placate its population.

Tunisia’s openness to pluralism contrasts with Algeria’s state-dominated system and elite patronage networks. Tunisian civil society leads calls for human rights and democracy across the region. But Algeria resists such activism at home and has hampered efforts to unify Maghreb human rights groups.

Algerian leaders are wary of regional protest movements that could threaten the regime’s stability. During Tunisia’s crisis in 2021 between President Saied and the Islamist Ennahda party, Algeria supported Saied’s consolidation of power, seeing Ennahda as backed by Turkey and Qatar. This drew accusations it was interfering against Tunisian democracy.

In general, Algeria favors the status quo and state sovereignty while Tunisia’s uprising inspired regional pro-democracy movements. For Algeria’s regime, Tunisia represents an ideological threat. Going forward, the two countries face rivalry over the future political order, not just bilateral disputes.

Managing Tensions through Pragmatic Cooperation

Despite these latent tensions, Algeria and Tunisia share incentives to maintain working relations. As small states, they gain little from outright confrontation between themselves compared to fostering Maghreb unity.

Tunisia relies economically on ties with Algeria and Libya that provide markets, energy, remittances and tourism. Algeria depends on stability in Tunisia as a buffer against militancy and migration. Both Rabat and Algiers see benefit in preventing unrest that radical groups could exploit.

Their common language, cultural overlaps and familial ties also foster pragmatism. Leaders in Tunis and Algiers have tended to cooperate on shared interests like counterterrorism and containing Libya’s chaos through UN mediation efforts. Their security services maintain behind-the-scenes coordination.

Bilateral forums like the Tunisia-Algeria High Joint Commission for economic agreements and regular presidential-level contacts help manage periodic disputes. However, lingering tensions could deepen without sustained diplomacy and progress easing differences over regional order, borders, and economic asymmetries.

Implications for the United States

The US maintains decent ties with both Algiers and Tunis which serves its interests in North Africa. Cooperative Algerian-Tunisian relations facilitate US counterterrorism objectives and access to energy markets. Preventing regional conflicts enables US diplomacy to focus on other Mideast challenges.

The US also views Tunisia’s democratic progress as a model for the region. But America must avoid actions that seem to undermine Algerian stability

US Policy Balancing Interests in Algeria and Tunisia

The United States has aimed to maintain constructive relations with both Algeria and Tunisia since their independence. During the Cold War, the US valued Algeria and Tunisia as bulwarks against Soviet influence in Africa despite their socialist orientations.

In the 1990s, the US mediated the Tunisia-Algeria border closure during Algeria’s civil war. The US has also provided counterterrorism aid and training to security forces in both countries. Tunisia is a non-NATO ally while Algeria has been a strategic partner in counterterrorism.

However, the US faced challenges balancing these ties. Algeria remains suspicious of US intentions due to its backing for Morocco on Western Sahara. Tunisia’s role as a moderate, pro-western state in the region has aligned it more closely with US interests.

Since 2011, counterterrorism and security partnerships have deepened with both nations. But the US has clearer shared values and democracy promotion aims with Tunisia. The US praised Tunisia’s democratic transition as a model for the region.

In contrast, US officials have often tolerated Algeria’s more authoritarian system while encouraging gradual reforms. The US has limited leverage due to Algeria’s oil and gas reserves. Still, the US seeks to maintain counterterrorism cooperation and military-to-military ties with Algeria.

Overall, the US approach has been driven by security imperatives, counterterrorism cooperation, and stabilizing the region. But US diplomats must carefully manage relations between Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to balance American strategic interests in North Africa.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Moroccan-Algerian conflict and tensions between Algeria and Tunisia demonstrate the intricacies of geopolitics in North Africa for US foreign policy. Resolving Western Sahara’s disputed status remains a complex challenge even after decades of failed diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Algeria and Tunisia’s historically ambiguous relationship requires careful management to avoid destabilizing a fragile region. Both sets of tensions reveal how colonial legacies, economic asymmetries and clashing national identities can complicate regional security and cooperation long after independence.

Going forward, the US will likely need sustained, nuanced diplomacy accounting for both Moroccan and Algerian perspectives to make progress on Western Sahara. And encouraging reconciliation and mutual understanding between Algeria and Tunisia can aid wider US interests in Maghreb stability.

The region’s conflicts pose no direct military threat to the US homeland. But their persistence hampers economic development, fuels radicalization, and diverts diplomatic resources from America’s other Mideast challenges. Hence creative, multilateral policy solutions backed by US leadership will remain important – even if North Africa’s disputes seem intractable.

References

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Pargeter, Alison. “Reform and Reconstruction in Algeria.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 16, no. 4, Dec 2011, pp. 637-650.

Abadi, Jacob. “Tunisia’s Fragile Democracy.” The National Interest, no. 123, Jan/Feb 2013, pp. 29-38.

Tlemcani, Rachid. “Algeria Under Bouteflika: Civil Strife and National Reconciliation.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Report, Feb 2008.

Zoubir, Yahia and Gregory White. “North African Immigrants in Europe: Between Integration and Transnationalism.” Review of Middle East Studies, vol. 47, no. 2, Winter 2013, pp. 154-169.

Shelley, Toby. “Breaking the Stalemate in Western Sahara.” International Peace Institute Report, Dec 2018.

Stein, Ewan and Nicholas Westcott. “US Policy in the Maghreb: The Need for a Revised Approach.” Strategic Studies Institute Report, Jan 2019.

Dalacoura, Katerina. “The 2011 Uprisings in the Middle East: Political Change and Geopolitical Implications.” International Affairs, vol. 88, no. 1, Jan 2012, pp. 63–79.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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