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A Long-Dormant African Conflict Draws Unusual White House Spotlight

A Long-Dormant African Conflict Draws Unusual White House Spotlight

To the U.N., this tiny peacekeeping mission is a success. But to the White House, it’s a failure, one that President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has zeroed in on as Exhibit A of the shortfalls of the U.N. and the international order it represents. Fighters for the Polisario Front in 1977. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire between the Sahrawi nationalists and Morocco in 1991. Photo: Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA PRESS Mr. Bolton is putting the weight of the White House behind a contentious plan to resolve the Western Sahara conflict by turning the screws on the U.N. and trying to force the rival parties to cut a deal. “This administration has been clear about its desire to effectively manage finite resources at home and abroad,” said one senior Trump administration official. “Neither we nor our international partners should be mired in…frozen conflicts.” The U.N. spends more than $6.6 billion every year on peacekeeping operations. The mission in Western Sahara costs about $50 million a year, and the 250 U.N. soldiers deployed there are stretched thin. White House efforts to resolve this small African problem come with risks. Failure could stoke discontent in one of the few remaining pockets of stability in North Africa, creating new opportunities for Islamic State or al Qaeda to expand. Western Sahara, an area the size of Colorado with about a half-million residents, isn’t known for much besides an annual multiday marathon. But it’s home to the oldest of the U.N.’s seven active peacekeeping operations in Africa. Share Your Thoughts How do you weigh the value of a peacekeeping mission that has been going on for nearly 30 years? Is it worth it? Join the conversation below. In 1991, the U.N. brokered a deal to end a fight between Morocco and the Polisario Front over Western Sahara, which had been a Spanish colony until 1975. That year, the Polisario, representing the region’s Sahrawi nationalists, refused to accept Moroccan control and quickly declared a new Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. For the next 16 years, fighting gripped the region, killing thousands. When the U.N. brokered the 1991 peace deal, Morocco held about two-thirds of Western Sahara. The Polisario secured a swath of the area running along the border of Algeria and Mauritania. Morocco built a 1,700-mile berm with barbed wire, fences and upward of 120,000 troops. It has remained largely quiet ever since. Why does Mr. Bolton care so much about a relatively calm corner of the world when he’s wrestling with problems in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Libya? While Mr. Bolton declined to comment, those close to him say it is personal. As a State Department official, he helped write the original 1991 U.N. deal that ended the fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front. A few years later, he teamed up with former Secretary of State James Baker in a fruitless, four-year effort to reach a deal for a vote on whether Western Sahara should be part of Morocco. In 2005, when Mr. Bolton was named U.N. ambassador by President George W. Bush, he again sought a deal. He threatened for the first time to eliminate the U.N. peacekeeping mission—known as Minurso, its initials—by using U.S. power to veto the mandate, releasing the Polisario Front from the cease-fire with Morocco. Mr. Bolton was given a new chance to address the dispute last year, when President Trump named him White House national security adviser. After taking the West Wing job, Mr. Bolton tasked the National Security Council with shifting its strategy and threatened again to veto the peacekeeping mission without progress on talks. “We need to see effective progress on resolving the underlying causes of the conflict so we do not continue to expend finite resources on endless peacekeeping missions,” the senior Trump administration official said. Independence activists, including some carrying the flag they are banned from displaying publicly, gather at a home in Laayoune, Western Sahara in May. Photo: Dion Nissenbaum/The Wall Street Journal Laayoune serves as an administrative center for the region controlled by Morocco. Photo: Dion Nissenbaum/The Wall Street Journal Last December, Mr. Bolton singled out the U.N. mission in Western Sahara as his “favorite” example of U.N. failings. “All we want to do is hold a referendum for 70,000 voters,” he said when he unveiled a new Trump administration strategy for Africa. “It’s 27 years later. Twenty-seven years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?” So far, the U.S. pressure has had an effect. As a State Department official in 1991 John Bolton, now President Trump’s national security adviser, helped write the original U.N. deal that ended fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Photo: Martin Mejia/Associated Press For the first time since 2012, Morocco sat down with insurgent Polisario Front leaders last December as the U.N. launched a new round of talks. Independence activists in Western Sahara were elated, seeing in Mr. Bolton a potential savior. Moroccan officials worry he is too sympathetic to those hoping to create Africa’s newest country. “Please give Mr. Bolton a big hug from the Sahrawi people,” said Hmad Hommad, an independence activist in Laayoune. “We’re depending on him, we appreciate what he is doing for the people of Western Sahara, and we will be good friends of the U.S.” But those hoping to raise their flag over an independent Western Sahara are likely to be disappointed by the Trump administration. It has made clear in private talks that the U.S. backs Morocco in its opposition to the creation of an independent nation, according to Moroccan and Western officials involved in negotiations. Those assurances helped bring Morocco back to the talks. Moroccan leaders still worry that Mr. Bolton’s sympathies are with independence activists who want a vote on the area’s future and expressed concern that ending the U.N. mission could create a dangerous vacuum. “Is the danger to the U.S. from 230 people from Minurso or…in the fact that the Islamic State and al Qaeda are able to attract people from Indonesia, from Casablanca, and elsewhere?” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal at his office in Rabat. Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita speaking to reporters in Geneva after two days of talks in March on Western Sahara. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images But officials involved in the talks said the U.S. has made it clear that Washington won’t support a plan that leads to a new African nation. That tacit agreement might not go over well with the Sahrawi independence activists. Morocco has spent millions transforming Laayoune, the former Spanish capital of Western Sahara, into a functioning desert town of about 200,000. The Moroccans who moved to Western Sahara now outnumber the local Sahrawi population, officials say, complicating a possible referendum. However, talks are on hold for now, with neighboring Algeria roiled by protests that forced the president’s resignation in April. In May, Horst Kohler, the former German president overseeing the new talks as the U.N.’s special envoy on Western Sahara, unexpectedly stepped aside for personal reasons. Serious talks on Western Sahara amid the uncertainty appear unlikely, and a U.S. plan to end the U.N. mission could create more turmoil. U.N. officials privately praised Mr. Bolton for prodding the warring parties to talks. “I think he can take a lot of credit for what’s happened so far,” said one U.N. official. “He should enjoy those laurels a little bit before pushing to the next crisis.” The situation could come to a head in October, when the peacekeeping mandate expires. The U.S. backed a renewal of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in April but is threatening a veto in October if the U.N. can’t make progress on the political track. Officials on all sides worry that the Trump administration pressure could backfire. “Minurso is $52 million to keep stability, to keep a cease-fire in a region which is very difficult,” said Mr. Bourita. “No one has died since the cease-fire, which means this is the most cost-effective peacekeeping mission in the world.” Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

A Long-Dormant African Conflict Draws Unusual White House Spotlight

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