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Regional Security Concerns


Polisario troops at Tindouf, Algeria
Courtesy Theresa Smith

Since independence, Mauritania has been confronted with several potential challenges to its national security. Problems in addition to the Western Sahara war have included Moroccan irredentist claims, Senegalese meddling in racial disputes, and Libyan interference.


Figure 11. Nouadhibou and Vicinity, 1987

Source: Based on information from Charles Toupet (ed.), Atlas de la République Islamique de Mauritanie, Paris, 1977, 54.

Moroccan threats to Mauritania originated in the seventeenth century and continued into the twentieth century. In 1956 and 1957, Mauritanian and Moroccan members of the Army of Liberation (Armée de Libération--AL), the military wing of the Mauritanian National Liberation Front headquartered in Morocco, raided Mauritania's northern region. With no military forces of its own to defend the frontiers, the preindependence transition government called on France for aid. In February 1958, a joint Franco-Spanish land-air operation destroyed the AL in the Spanish Sahara and stopped the southward infiltration of Moroccansupported guerrillas.

In the 1960s, Morocco continued to support irredentist groups in Mauritania, especially the Reguibat Maures of the far north, who claimed allegiance to the king of Morocco. Following the revolt of the Reguibat Maures in 1962-63, the French again sent troops to the troubled area. Threats from the north subsided for a short time when, in 1969, Morocco officially recognized Mauritania.

Soon after, Mauritania's concerns with Morocco revived when Mauritania had to call on Moroccan troops for defense against Polisario guerrilla attacks. The stationing of Moroccan soldiers inside Mauritania gave rise to suspicion that in providing military aid, Morocco was trying to resuscitate its old idea of a Greater Morocco (see fig. 3). In addition, the Mauritanian military (15,000 to 17,000 troops) resented its role as a back-up force to the Moroccan troops (estimated at 10,000) garrisoned in Mauritania. At the same time, Mauritania feared that if it abandoned its claims to Tiris al Gharbiyya (that part of the Western Sahara it claimed), Moroccan troops would immediately occupy it, removing the buffer territory insulating Mauritania from Morocco.

In 1979 that fear was confirmed when King Hassan II annexed Tiris al Gharbiyya several days after Mauritania's August 5 peace treaty with the Polisario. Consequently the government of Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla again sought French support. French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing ordered a paratroop unit to Nouadhibou to defend Mauritania against a possible Moroccan invasion and to prevent the Polisario from using the nearby territory as a rear base for attacking Moroccan armed forces in the Western Sahara (see Foreign Military Assistance , this ch.). Mauritania expelled several Moroccan diplomats and withdrew the passports of pro-Moroccan politicians.

In 1980, as relations worsened between the two countries, Nouakchott renounced the Mauritanian-Moroccan defense pact and ordered Morocco to withdraw its troops from Mauritanian territory. Morocco initially refused the evacuation order and tried to make the removal of its last garrison at Bir Mogreïn in northern Mauritania contingent on the withdrawal of Mauritanian forces from La Guera in the Western Sahara (see fig. 11). Mauritania refused this request because it believed that continued administration of La Guera, with easy access to the iron ore port at Nouadhibou, was vital for security. The government claimed that a Moroccan presence only five kilometers from the port would invite Polisario attacks inside Mauritania and give King Hassan a potential stranglehold over the Mauritanian economy.

The two countries broke off relations in March 1981 when Mauritania accused Morocco of instigating a coup to establish a pro-Moroccan government in Nouakchott. In 1983 relations deteriorated further when Mauritania officially recognized the government-in-exile established by the Polisario, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

By 1983 Haidalla had aligned himself with leftist factions within the ruling Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National--CMSN) and strengthened relations with Algeria, which supported the Polisario. Subsequently, and against the advice and wishes of a majority in the CMSN, in 1984 Haidalla recognized the SADR. Mauritania's supportive stance toward the Polisario increasingly angered Hassan, who accused Mauritania of harboring Polisario troops.

Observers noted, however, that the Polisario also maintained bases in southern Morocco and had the support of certain nomadic tribes in the area of the Draa River. Thus, it was clear that the movement received support from various sectors of the population on both sides of the border, irrespective of governments.

Mauritania's foreign relations changed when the coup led by the Mauritanian military in December 1984 brought Taya to power. Taya distanced Mauritania from the Polisario, while continuing to recognize its rights to self-determination. Concurrently, Taya improved Mauritania's relations with Morocco and reestablished diplomatic ties in April 1985.

Nevertheless, the Nouakchott government continued to fear that Morocco would violate Mauritania's borders in pursuit of Polisario guerrillas. In May 1987, Morocco finished construction of a sixth berm (see Glossary) in the Western Sahara along Mauritania's northern border. The system of berms built along the Western Sahara's eastern and southern borders and manned by Moroccan troops effectively insulated the entire territory and forced the Polisario onto Mauritanian soil. This threat pushed the CMSN to station nearly two-thirds of Mauritania's military along the northwestern borders and to seek increased French military aid.

Data as of June 1988

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