Sunday, June 17, 2012

Anouar Boukhars, More Trash Talk on the Western Sahara, and the Rise of the Moroccan Americans

Anouar Boukhars, a young Moroccan-American political scientist, Maghreb expert, and professor at McDaniel College in Maryland has recently become the darling of the Morocco lobby in its attempt to get US government support for Rabat’s illegal annexation of the Western Sahara. A prolific researcher, journalist, and commentator on subjects North African, he has over the last couple years served on several panels and has authored a number of articles on the Western Sahara issue. In particular, a long piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in March 2012, “Simmering Discontent in the Western Sahara,” is being referenced with some regularity for its fear-mongering on alleged collusion between the Polisario and terrorist groups in the region and for its strong support for Rabat’s autonomy proposal for the territory.
I have read Boukhars’ article several times and it seems that with each rereading I find more things wrong with this horrendously biased analysis.
Boukhars on International Law
For starters, he completely ignores the international law of the Western Sahara. The only time “international law” even appears in the article is in the introduction when he states, “The Polisario claims that under international law, as a former colony, the Western Sahara should have been granted independence.” Of course, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and customary international law also make this claim. Similarly, in his long discussion of the friction between the indigenous Sahrawis and the Moroccan settlers in the occupied territory, it never occurs to him to mention that under Geneva Convention IV it is illegal for the settlers to be there in the first place given that Morocco is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions. I strongly urge anyone with an interest in the legal aspects of this issue to take a look at the recent study by the New York City Bar Association, “The Legal Issues Involved in the Western Sahara Dispute,” which is a wonderfully clear and concise expression of the international law that Boukhars so flippantly ignores and Morocco so egregiously violates.
Boukhars on Sahrawi Nationalism
Boukhars’ discussion of Sahrawi nationalism in the occupied territory is, likewise, marred by misinformation and misanalysis. Take, for instance, the following assertions:
While ethnic nationalism was never a force to reckon with in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, ethnic identity is becoming more pronounced. This does not translate into support for separatism, but it does enhance the forces of divisiveness, which erode the rule of law and undermine the existing social fabric. 
Separatist tendencies have always been negligible and the Polisario’s credibility very low, as leaked U.S. State Department cables from Morocco revealed. “Extensive interviews and independent sources in the territory,” wrote senior American official Robert P. Jackson in a confidential document in 2009, “suggest that the principal goal of most Sahrawis is more self-government than self-determination.”
The disappointment of those Sahrawis who are disenchanted with Moroccan rule does not stem from ideological convictions but from political, social, and economic deprivations.
I find this denigration of Sahrawi nationalism and dismissal of Sahrawi separatist sentiment totally baffling given the large body of evidence supporting the opposite view, that a sizable portion of the indigenous Sahrawi population in the occupied territory is fervently nationalistic and supports independence, as well as the Polisario. From the original UN General Assembly mission to the territory in 1975 that concluded that a majority of the inhabitants supported independence and the Polisario to the periodic large demonstrations for independence from 1999 to the present, the strength of Sahrawi nationalism and “separatist” zeal are irrefutable. Boukhars’ blindness to this is truly delusional. Jacob Mundy’s “The Dynamics of Repression and Resistance: Sahrawi Nationalist Activism in the Moroccan Occupied Western Sahara” is a good place to start to get the real reality here.
And then there is the issue of Robert P. Jackson, mentioned above by Boukhars as his big authority on the lack of “separatist tendencies” among the Sahrawi. Yes, this is the very same Robert P. Jackson whose reporting from the U.S. embassy in Morocco was categorized by Stephen Zunes in his article, “Wikileaks Cables on Western Sahara Show Role of Ideology in State Department,” as “One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon of allowing ideology to interfere with honest reporting.” Jackson is a particularly clueless analyst of Western Saharan affairs and is hardly a reliable authority on any of this.
Boukhars on Polisario Terrorism
Another part of the report that is particularly reprehensible is Boukhars’ attempt to smear the Polisario with allegations of ties to terrorism. In his article summary, Boukhars tells us:
AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and its offshoots in the Sahel are already working to expand their partnership with smugglers from massive refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and to enlist recruits among the disenchanted youth there. If AQIM strengthened its alliance of convenience with the Polisario, the movement that has long fought for Western Sahara’s independence, a formidable terrorist organization could emerge.
The problem here is that there just isn’t any evidence of this mythical Polisario-AQIM alliance of convenience, outside of the trash talk coming out of Rabat. The Polisario has no history at all of cooperating with or supporting any terrorist groups, and they have never been on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Furthermore, U.S. officials who monitor the Polisario are extremely skeptical of any such ties. At a 2010 briefing, Daniel Benjamin, Ambassador-at-Large, U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, addressed a question about whether terrorists were taking advantage of the Western Sahara crisis. His response:
We are obviously always concerned that al-Qaida in the Maghreb could expand its operations, but frankly, I wouldn’t quite get it if they were expanding into that region.  I’m not quite sure I would see what the up side for them would be.  And in any case, we haven’t seen the proof that it is – that that is really what’s going on.
And emails coming out of the US embassy in Algiers are even more adamant about the Polisario’s anti-terrorism policies:
… the Polisario "government" severely punishes anyone caught trafficking persons or weapons that could aid terrorists. Polisario also restricts the refugees from accessing extremist websites in the camps. All such activities are seen as harmful and a liability to the Polisario's political goals. …They [extremists and terrorists] perceive the Sahrawi people as too close to the West and not pious enough, in part, these contacts believe, because Sahrawi religious leaders have encouraged Western NGOs to participate in seminars on inter-faith dialogue and women's issues.
What is even more bizarre about Boukhars’ attempt to pin the terrorist label on the Polisario is Morocco’s own lofty status as one of the largest incubators of terrorism in the world. In Boukhars’ own words from an earlier Brookings study, “The involvement of many Moroccans in international terrorism has raised pressing questions about the efficacy of the Moroccan regime’s strategy in preventing the spread of extremist ideology among the population.” In a similar vein, in the United States Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, we learn that despite huge Moroccan government counter-terrorism efforts “Reports of Moroccans either preparing to go or going to terrorist fronts in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to receive training from al-Qa-ida (AQ) linked facilitators and/or to conduct attacks suggest Morocco remained a source for foreign fighter pipelines.”  Likewise, Boukhars’ attempt to implicate the Polisario in narco-trafficking is a bit strange, given that Morocco itself is among the largest exporters of hashish in the world, coming out of its legendary hippie haven in the Rif Mountains.
Boukhars’ Incomprehensible Recommendations
The final part of Anouar Boukhars’ article I would like to comment on are his recommendations on “finding a way past the tensions,” as he puts it. The author summarizes his recommendations as follows:
Morocco’s proposal for autonomy for the Western Sahara and the country’s July 2011 constitution are the first steps toward a solution. Rabat’s friends in the West, especially the United States and France, must pressure Morocco to expedite a significant devolution of power to the Western Sahara to limit the threat of instability.
It is really no surprise that such a nonsensical plan should emerge from Anouar Boukhars’ faulty analysis of the Western Saharan crisis. First of all, Morocco’s proposal to impose autonomy under their sovereignty is clearly and unambiguously illegal under international law. And then there is the problem of getting the Polisario to buy into autonomy. They have already categorically rejected Morocco’s plan on many occasions, and after 40 years of the independence struggle I see almost zero possibility that they might accept it in the future. Furthermore, even If by some miracle the Polisario did accept it, I have no doubts that the Sahrawis would dump the Polisario and would continue the struggle with a far more radical leadership.
Instituting real autonomy and giving more power and democracy to the Western Sahara without an expression of true Sahrawi self-determination (a referendum with independence as an option) strikes me as complete lunacy. Morocco’s refusal to hold a referendum on independence, even if many of the illegal settlers are allowed to vote, tells me that Rabat completely mistrusts any Western Saharan electorate. Why Morocco should all of a sudden put their trust in the electorate of an autonomous and democratic Western Sahara is baffling. After all, the only thing that currently keeps a lid on the territory is Morocco’s totalitarian colonial rule enforced by more than 100,000 troops, or pretty close to one soldier per indigenous Sahrawi.
Any way you slice it, there are several hundred thousand Sahrawis out there who desire independence and are willing to die for it. Devolution of power to an embittered Sahrawi population with shattered dreams of independence would be a disaster for Morocco. Boukhars’ idea for the U.S. to expedite this devolution just doesn’t make sense.
So What’s Boukhars’ Story?
The emergence of Anouar Boukhars as a rabidly nationalistic pro-Moroccan voice on the Western Saharan issue is part of a much larger trend – namely the greater assertiveness in the U.S. of Moroccan-Americans and the Moroccan diaspora. Anouar Majid at the University of New England, Samir Bennis at Morocco World News, and Hassan Masiky at Morocco News Board are some of the others who have been particularly vocal on the Western Sahara. To a very large degree, the views of this group are similar: they tend to be democrats, support more democracy for Morocco, and are at times critical of the monarchy for not democratizing far and fast enough; they are critical of the corruption of the Moroccan elite and of Rabat’s heavy-handedness in restricting freedom of the press; they are deeply nationalistic; they believe that the Western Sahara has always been an integral part of Morocco; they strongly support Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara.
In “Simmering Discontent,” Boukhars describes the overwhelming support in Morocco for the King’s policies on the Western Sahara:
The Western Sahara is probably the only issue in Morocco that enjoys near-universal and unwavering popular support. For many Moroccans, renouncing their historical right to the Western Sahara—where thousands of soldiers have died and billions of dollars have been spent defending a territory that represents almost half the size of Morocco—would be a national tragedy. This deep-rooted belief in the righteousness of their cause has unfortunately led to the negation of the legitimacy of the other point of view.
This irrational, quasi-religious, and uber-nationalistic Moroccan worldview regarding the Western Sahara is shared by Boukhars and most of the other Moroccan American academics and intellectuals I am aware of.  Despite getting his doctorate in the U.S. and living here for over a decade, he is culturally incapable of overcoming his Moroccan identity. For Boukhars his greater Moroccan nationalism trumps all.  Thus, when we see him ignoring international law, totally misreading Sahrawi nationalism, fabricating Polisario terrorist dalliances, and supporting an illegal and unworkable autonomy proposal, he reveals his Moroccan blinders. In the end, all his arguments boil down to one thing. As he states in the conclusion of his article, “This insistence on independence for Western Sahara has always been ‘an unrealistic option,’….”

In a January 2011 Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper by Boukhars titled "Political Violence in North Africa: the Perils of Incomplete Liberalization," the author “extends his deepest gratitude and appreciation to Ali O. Amar for facilitating multiple visits to Morocco and setting up a host of interviews with Moroccan government officials and civil society actors.” Wondering who this helpful and facilitating Ali O. Amar character was, I dug around a bit and lo and behold found myself once again smack in the middle of the murky world of Moroccan lobbyists. Ali O. Amar, it turns out, is a lobbyist for an outfit called New Dominion PAC (NDPAC), “the voice of Arab-Americans in Virginia.” Ominously, the founder of NDPAC, Saba Shami, was a paid lobbyist for Morocco in the late 90s and founded “Friends of Morocco in the US Congress.”  And furthermore, NDPAC’s largest donor since 2010 has been a group called the International Institute of Islamic Thought(IIIT), set up in the 1980s, according to a 2004 Washington Post expose, “largely by onetime [Muslim] Brotherhood sympathizers with money from wealthy Saudis.” IIIT has been the object of several FBI investigations and raids since the mid-1990s over ties to international terrorist organizations, which have resulted in a number of arrests and convictions. The more you dig into the machinations of the Morocco lobby, the weirder it gets. And with friends like Amar (Amar and Boukhars also co-authored an article in 2011 titled "Trouble in the Western Sahara"), it is no wonder Boukhars’ interviews in the occupied territory yielded such biased results.

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