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Morocco’s Military under Hassan II (1961–1999)

King Hassan II’s reign was militarily significant in several ways. First, Morocco’s military continued its external engagement throughout Africa and elsewhere, and became involved in Cold War politics. Second, Morocco’s government and military began (or, by some accounts, revived) its strategic rivalry with Algeria that started with the 1963–1964 border war. Third, attempts to overthrow King Hassan in the 1970s resulted in extensive changes in the FAR and Ministry of Defense. Lastly, the military underwent further organizational and doctrinal change due to King Hassan II’s occupation of former Spanish Sahara and the subsequent desert war there with the POLISARIO Front (Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, FP).

Over the years Hassan II demonstrated great ability at political manipulation, balancing this political party, that clique or that person off against one another. But he has also devoted a large part of his time to the pursuit of pleasure. If Hassan cannot buy the loyalty of his officers and administrators nor count upon his inherited role as religious and tcmporal leader to win him popular support, his future would seem to lie in changing his method of governing and giving thc appearance at least of having the welfare of his people at heart.

Under Hassan II, many senior FAR officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) gained combat experience in the Western Sahara conflict. Serving in the conflict provided a common experience for FAR personnel stationed in the Sahara between 1975 and 1991. More recently, deploying to support international peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and elsewhere has provided FAR personnel operational experience and career advancement.

The 1963–1964 border conflict between Morocco and Algeria resulted in few territorial gains for either side. Nevertheless, it was a major military operation for the new FAR, which did well in defending Moroccan territory. Although the countries agreed to a ceasefire, efforts to address differences regarding ownership of the disputed area between the two countries were unsuccessful.

The bloody coup attempt at the king's Skhirat summer palace in July 1971 and the nearly successful attempt one year later to kill him by shooting down his personal aircraft mark a watershed in the relationship between the monarchy and the military. Before the plots were revealed, most observers and apparently the king himself did not question the loyalty of the upper echelons of his officer corps.

The apparent suicide of General Oufkir in the early hours of August 17 removed an irreplaceable pillar of support. Oufkir's total devotion to the monarchy was important because he was both ruthless and well organized, traits which enabled him to command respect from and inspire awe in the military establishment. He supposedly lived by a severe code of honor which had once led him to threaten suicide should the King lose faith in him.

After the two coup attempts, in which most of the king's leading generals — including General Mohammed Oufkir, who was widely regarded as Hassan's most loyal and trusted commander — were implicated or killed (or both), the king began to treat his military with suspicion. "Henceforth," he stated in an interview one week after the second attempted coup, "I must never place my trust in anyone." Military appointments, the structure of the FAR and the high command, and the dispersal of forces have thus come to reflect Hassan's concern for the potential threat to his power inherent in the Moroccan military.

The danger of placing his trust in the military leadership was first revealed to Hassan in the Skhirat coup attempt. After this nearly successful plot was put down, it was discovered that five of Morocco's 13 serving generals were implicated. The reasons for the rebellion have never been fully established, but apparently they involved a combination of disgust at official corruption as well as personal ambition.

Hassan downplayed the significance of the coup, but he completely reshuffled the government, designating Oufkir as minister of defense and FAR chief of staff. After the second coup attempt, the king instituted a sweeping reorganization of the military designed to consolidate his power over all of its elements. Three days after the unsuccessful attack on his aircraft, Hassan told his top officers that the reputation of the army had been "degraded" and announced the abolition of the posts of minister of defense, chief of staff, and deputy chief of staff. "From this day," he stated, "you will deal directly with me."

It is noteworthy that both the July 1971 attempt to overthrow the King and the August 1972 effort were carried out by small groups of military officcrs. There was little hard evidence about the beliefs and ultimate aims of these men. Morocco had fundamental social and ecoilomic problems, and discontent was growing in many parts of the population, a state of unease which was reflectcd - though rather ineffectively - in the political parties. As far as was known, however, there were no contacts between the plotters and the civilian political leaders.

The military plotters were almost exclusively conservative, rural Berbers - the majority element in the officer corps. Availablc evidence indicated that the would-be regicides aimed at eliminating the King and getting rid of the corrupt and wasteful entourage that surrounded him. The officers did not appear bent on bringing about sweeping social and economic change, although they sought to constrict the monarchy's power severely at least.

Relatively few officcrs were directly involved in each attcmpt, and among others who may have had advance knowledge none appeared to have been sufficicntly loyal to report the plans to the palace. Both attempts took place in almost complete isolation from the general public. There was little enthusiasm expressed for either, and few among the populace seemed to care whether Hassail survived or not.

Following the two attempted coups, King Hassan expressed his determination to go on ruling his country as before, but he could not be sure who is loyal to him and who is not. Members of the officer corps cannot be sure of their own position or that of their brothers in uniform. The ministers and senior officials for whom service to Hassan has been the routc to riches were bound to consider whether their fortunes were now tied to a waning star. Opposition political leadcrs considered whether recent events had made the time ripe for them to press Hassan for a share of power in the government or whether they should bide their time.

In addition to those executed and jailed, officers close to Oufkir, who was implicated in the plot, were dismissed or retired. The air force colonel who had skillfully landed the badly damaged royal aircraft after the attack was appointed commander of the air force, and the commander of the navy and the deputy commander of the army were also replaced. By purging thc top echelon of the armed forces, however, Hassan also ran the risk of putting into important positions officers in the ranks of major to colonel who may be even more disaffected with the monarchy. Thc younger of these men, frequently better trained and educated than their seniors, appear to have chafed under the command of older generals, many of whom were pampered by the King and had become tainted with his dissolute life style. The purge removed, howcver, virtually all the senior officers who had followings, and it would take some time before new leading personalities appeared and cliques formed around them.

Unwilling to accept, as he put it, a pattern of annual attempts on his life, Hassan virtually disarmed his army. Allowing them to retain their weapons, he directed that all ammunition be kept in locked depots scattered throughout the country under the control of the civilian provincial governors and guarded by the Auxiliary Forces. Only the army's Light Security Brigade, which had played a decisive role in quelling the Skhirat attack in 1971, and the members of the Royal Guard were allowed to retain control over their ammunition.

The desire to make a gesture of solidarity with other Arab nations in their conflict with Israel induced Hassan to contribute Moroccan military forces in the October 1973 War in the Middle East. Several months before the outbreak of fighting the king had dispatched an expeditionary force consisting of two tank brigades to supplement Syrian troops arrayed against Israeli units on the Golan Heights. During the war these units, in position since July 1973, reportedly engaged in sharp fighting against Israeli armor and artillery. After the outbreak of hostilities Hassan sent a second force consisting of Morocco's best infantry and armored units and a squadron of fighter aircraft to Egypt. A cease-fire went into effect before these units could be committed to action, but the king's quick and timely actions and his troops' performance won him praise in the Arab world and at home. Some observers indicated that the king's sending troops to the Middle East was basically a political move — a show of solidarity with the Arab cause designed to enhance his domestic and international status, particularly with the troublesome radical critics — rather than an indication of Morocco's direct national security concerns.

Indeed, the sending of Moroccan troops to the Middle East came during a relatively brief period in 1973-74 when the king was seeking to reemphasize Morocco's role in Arab, African, and Islamic affairs and its policy of nonalignment in the political conflict between the superpowers. This contrasted with his usual tendency to identify his country with Western values and policies.

Moroccan attitudes were more sharply defined, and Moroccan troops had far more effect when on two occasions — in 1977 and 1978 — they were sent to Zaire's Shaba Province to help repel invasions launched from neighboring Angola. A self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist state with close ties to the Soviet Union and some 20,000 Cuban troops and advisers assisting its government, Angola was suspected of supporting the destabilization of Zaire, which was more closely linked to Western interests.

In April 1977 — with the assistance of France, which provided an airlift capability — 1,500 of Morocco's best troops were dispatched in quick order to Zaire. Hassan declared that Morocco's intervention was necessary to prevent Soviet- influenced forces from "encircling, weakening and neutralizing West Europe by controlling its sources of key minerals in Africa." As the king further reasoned, "If the Shaba operation had succeeded and if the Middle East were allowed to continue to drift, not one moderate regime would survive."

It was thought that Hassan was also motivated by a desire to improve Morocco s security relations with Western nations that had become somewhat distant at the time because of increasing international criticism of the kingdom's human rights violations and its controversial annexation of the Western Sahara.

The following year, after a second invasion of Shaba Province by the Angolan-based secessionists was halted by the intervention of French paratroops, Moroccan soldiers returned to Zaire as part of a pan-African peacekeeping force. Hassan was unwilling for Morocco to be the only outside power to commit troops, as it had been in 1977, saying that "we want friendly countries neighboring Zaire to make at least a symbolic effort to show that it is not a problem that concerns only [Zai'rian] President Mobutu and me. It is a strategic problem for the entire region." In June 1978 the first of a 1,500-man Moroccan contingent began arriving to join nearly 1,000 troops from several other moderate African states in maintaining order in Zaire. These troops, which were withdrawn in 1979 were widely praised by outside observers for their disciplined performance in difficult conditions.

By his actions in Zaire, Hassan reinforced his reputation as a reliable partner of the West. This image of an anticommunist defender of Western interests was further bolstered by Morocco's reported involvement in furnishing arms and other supplies to Jonas Savimbi's guerrilla movement — the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — directed against the Angolan government. In addition, the king strengthened military ties with the West through agreements with the United States in 1982 that established a joint military commission and allowed the American military to have transit privileges at certain Moroccan airfields. His 1984 pact with Qadhaafi's Libya — no friend of the United States — demonstrated, however, that Moroccan security interests could vary significantly from those of Washington.

Hassan also committed Moroccan security personnel to serve in the personal guard forces of various friendly Arab and African leaders. Notably, in the early 1980s it was reported that a French-trained, 2,000-man contingent of Moroccan guards provided security for the members of the Saudi Arabian royal family and that a smaller number of Moroccans helped protect the leader of the United Arab Emirates. These two examples were seen by some as a demonstration of Hassan's ideological fellowship with his fellow Arab monarchs. Others preferred to emphasize the dispatch of Moroccan guards as a means for Hassan to help pay Morocco's financial debts to these countries.

Moroccan troop commitments to certain African countries, including the stationing of 300 to 400 FAR troops in Equatorial Guinea in the early 1980s, were widely regarded as a means of bolstering the kingdom's influence and prestige in those areas. This was especially true when Hassan was seeking African diplomatic support for Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara.

Perhaps the biggest domestic security challenge Hassan II faced was the Western Sahara. His claim to the territory after Spain evacuated, and the hostility of the FP, which sought independence, led to a regional conflict from 1975–1991, which also involved Algeria and Mauritania. Morocco’s losses were initially heavy and its forces were outmaneuvered through 1979; after this date, Morocco constructed a defensive berm that limited the FP’s ability to occupy Moroccan-controlled territory or attack defensive installations. This led to a ceasefire that has lasted since October 1991. Despite the end to armed hostilities, however, Morocco retains a robust troop presence in former Spanish Sahara.

King Hassan was the target of two coup attempts in 1971 and 1972. His defense minister, General Mohamed Oufkir, was evidently involved in the latter coup and likely in the first one as well. As a result of these two unsuccessful coup attempts, the king completely restructured the FAR and replaced most of the senior officers in the force. The new FAR structure allowed the king to have much greater oversight of military affairs but also ensured that loyalty rather than ability determined which officers received and retained key assignments. Observers noted that a main change in senior ranks was that many officers of Berber origin were replaced with Arab or Arabophone officers.

Confronted throughout his reign with crises of the sort that have toppled other regimes, he succeeded in maintaining his primacy over the nation's political affairs. As the preeminent dispenser of patronage, the ultimate arbiter of justice, the commander in chief of the military and other security services, and the religious leader of the country's Muslim population, Hassan left little doubt in the minds of observers that Moroccan national security was equated with the perpetuation of a strong monarchical system. The king possessed an extensive system of military and police forces to defend territorial integrity, maintain public order, and contend with domestic and foreign threats to the regime.

In the last decade of King Hassan’s rule, the post-Cold War environment saw significant changes in the regional geostrategic environment. In Western Sahara, the FP agreed to a UN-monitored ceasefire in 1991, pending a referendum. The referendum ended in a stalemate in the 1990s over a disagreement about the terms of the intended vote and remains to be resolved. Algeria, once Morocco’s Cold War rival, underwent a troubled period of political liberalization (1988–1992), followed by a descent into civil war as radical armed Islamists fought the regime through the remainder of the 1990s. The 1990s also saw Morocco’s involvement in international peacekeeping in Bosnia, a major point of pride for the FAR. Through this period, the king’s efforts at political and economic reforms slowed, and his health gradually deteriorated. Nevertheless, through the 1990s, the challenges of the future became gradually apparent, namely increasing ties between Morocco and Europe, as well as the increasing challenge presented by radical Islam.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2018 23:35:08 ZULU