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Morocco - Algeria Relations

Morocco has long viewed Algeria as a regional rival and has expressed concern about Algeria’s military modernization programs. Military tensions with Algeria began with the border conflict in 1963–1964 and increased over the next decade because of Cold War politics. Algeria’s open support of the FP in the Western Sahara conflict resulted in clashes between the two countries’ military units in 1976. Algeria subsequently provided refuge to elements of the Western Saharan populace who fled to Tindouf Oasis and established a government in the refugee camps there beyond the reach of the Morocco military. Despite the end of the Cold War and the ceasefire in Western Sahara, Algeria continued to provide the FP refuge in Tindouf. Although Algeria tried to downplay its support to the FP, this remains a major block to improved bilateral relations as well as efforts at regional cooperation.

Since the time of Algeria's independence from France in 1962, the perceived threat posed by that country has been a recurrent preoccupation of the Moroccan leadership. During Algeria's struggle for independence from the French, Moroccans provided Algeria's National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale—FLN) with financial assistance, volunteers, and some military supplies, and the Moroccan government gave sanctuary and diplomatic support to the Algerian revolutionary leaders.

After Algeria became independent, however, relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly, largely because of Moroccan claims on Algerian territory. The Moroccans insisted with some justification that the French, in drawing the border between the two countries, had blatantly favored Algeria (which had long been a French colony and eventually a department of metropolitan France, not merely a protectorate as Morocco had been). In pursuit of his claims, the king in July 1962 moved Moroccan regular forces into an area where the French had never specifically defined the border.

Occasional skirmishes between Morocco's Royal Armed Forces (Forces Armees Royales—FAR), Algerian regular troops, and local partisan forces culminated in sharp fighting in October 1963 for control of the towns of Colomb-Becher and Tinjoub. Although the Moroccans fought well, a stalemate ensued, and the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, which was established with the assistance of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in November 1963. This so-called war of the sands proved to be the opening of a long period of fluctuating hostility between the two countries that continued into the mid-1980s.

Algeria also concerned Hassan because the ideological gulf that separated the two neighbors also intensified their rivalry. Almost immediately after national independence, Algerian leader Ahmed Ben Bella loudly began to proclaim his country's socialist-revolutionary politics and opposition to conservative Third World governments such as Morocco's. When an alleged plot by Moroccan leftists to overthrow Hassan was discovered in July 1963, Algerian complicity was suspected because the plotters had close ties with the Algerian leadership.

The Algerians and Hassan continued to be divided by ideology after Houari Boumediene succeeded Ben Bella in a 1965 coup d'etat, but tensions began to ease somewhat, as evidenced by an agreement in 1972 that defined the common border. Beginning in 1974, relations between the two countries again became strained because of Morocco's move to annex and possess the Western Sahara and Algeria's strong support for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro—Polisario) that was fighting the Moroccan military there.

Despite their long antipathy and involvement on opposite sides in the Western Sahara war, both Morocco and Algeria seemed determined in the mid-1980s to avoid escalation of their differences. After the death of Boumediene and his replacement by President Chadli Bendjedid in early 1979, Algerian foreign policy in tone and substance appeared to be markedly less "revolutionary" and ideological than previously. Although Moroccan sources alleged the frequent involvement of Algerian regular forces in the Western Sahara fighting, informed observers have reported that Algerian units had only been involved in two clashes with Moroccan troops, which occurred near Amgala in the Western Sahara in early 1976. For his part, Hassan overruled his military commanders and had forbidden hot pursuit into Algerian territory or the bombing of Polisario bases in Algeria. Despite the caution on both sides, in June 1984 Moroccan and Algerian soldiers exchanged shots when a 60-man Moroccan patrol crossed into Algerian territory far north of the tense Western Sahara area. Two Moroccans were killed, and 31 others were captured in that incident, which was termed a "slight skirmish" and a "mistake" by Moroccan authorities. The fact that the problem was quickly and quietly settled without recrimination reflected an attitude of restraint on the part of both countries.

Although Moroccan-Algerian relations were better in the mid-1980s than they had been previously, the Moroccan leadership remained concerned by Algerian support for the Western Sahara rebels and by the balance of military power in the Maghrib. The Moroccan and Algerian armed forces in 1984 were about the same size in terms of manpower, but the Algerians possessed a tank force three times the size of Morocco's, a far larger navy, and an air force with three times as many combat aircraft. Given Algeria's stronger economy, it was likely that its military's material advantage over the Moroccan armed forces would continue. Moreover, almost all of the Moroccan army was committed to the conflict in the Western Sahara.

The unfavorable military balance was matched by an apparent polarization of political alignment among countries of the region in the early 1980s. Within weeks of a 1983 meeting between Hassan and Bendjedid, the Algerian government signed the Treaty of Fraternity and Cooperation with Tunisia. Morocco's isolation in the region was further pointed out in December 1983 when Mauritania joined in the pact, which was heralded by the signatories as an important step toward unifying the countries of the Maghrib.

The Algeria-Tunisia-Mauritania alliance, combined with Hassan's political flexibility, helped produce in August 1984 what Algerian spokesmen called an "alliance against nature" between Morocco and Libya.

Through the 1990s, Morocco did not consider Algeria a conventional threat because of the Islamic insurgency that beset its eastern neighbor. Morocco’s government was able to maintain Morocco’s borders and prevent any spillover of the conflict. However, when the Algeria government’s counterinsurgency efforts eroded insurgent capabilities in the late 1990s, Morocco began to express concern about a military buildup by Algiers. Algeria’s efforts to purchase major weapon systems remain a significant concern for Morocco’s government.

Since the late 1990s, Morocco began to shift some forces from the Western Sahara region to the Morocco-Algeria border region further east. The government claims this shift is being made to counter smuggling and extremist activity in the post-9/11 international environment.




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