Morocco Should be Secretary Kerry’s priority in North Africa

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

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Americans have been getting a crash course on North Africa’s desolate Sahel region and our fight against terrorist organizations intent on establishing a new safe haven from which to launch deadly attacks on regional, European, and American targets.

A look at a map of North Africa brings into focus what military analysts are calling Africa’s “Arc of Instability.” This stretches from Somalia to the Atlantic and has given al-Qaeda and its allies a clear path to extend their center of activity from Afghanistan to Africa. This arc of instability stops dead at the border of Morocco, the only country in North Africa that has escaped the on-going march of terrorism and the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab uprisings.

Morocco has a positive reputation and credibility among North and West African countries.  It has a sophisticated intelligence network, and is a proven model for democratic reform and stability. The more the US understands the region, the more it will realize that a strong partnership with Morocco could help stabilize this part of the world.

In addressing the dangerous instability in North Africa, an anchor relationship with Morocco, one that benefits both countries and the region, should be a top priority for Secretary Kerry in 2013. Morocco is a country that shares our values and our priorities. It is a steadfast partner against the growing security concerns in North Africa, our ally in pressing for regional economic integration to create jobs, and a nation that is clearly on an irreversible path towards openness and democracy. In our rush to deal with the latest crisis in North Africa, it would be wise to further strengthen this sanctuary of stability in the region. As importantly, the Saharan region of Morocco shares much of the culture, social fabric and language of the other Saharawis living in the Sahel. Indeed it is the only part of the Sahara/Sahel region that remains calm and stable, and from which the US may draw several lessons from Morocco, as well as an opportunity to collaborate in addressing common concerns facing the Sahel.

Fortunately, Secretary Kerry inherits the result of Secretary Clinton’s efforts to strengthen this historic alliance: a US Strategic Dialogue with Morocco initiated last September.  This established an institutional mechanism for the two countries to enhance their strategic relationship regarding political, security, economic, and cultural issues; bilaterally as well as regionally.  There is however a lack of interest and priority attention by State Department bureaus for such initiatives.  Secretary Kerry must therefore signal to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and other bureaus of the Department his firm intent to reinvigorate this long-standing relationship and to support the important work of the Strategic Dialogue committees.

Unless Secretary Kerry clearly indicates that he places a high value on an anchor relationship with Morocco on the question of broader North African issues, the Strategic Dialogue will flounder. The Secretary should direct the Strategic Dialogue leaders to work seriously and diligently on a joint Morocco-US strategy for North Africa based on our shared values and priorities.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other regional terrorist organizations and criminal gangs are well armed since the fall of Gaddafi. Important American and allied interests and lives are clearly at risk. The French initiative to stop the jihadist march in Mali has bought some time, however, that is not good enough.

Now we need to help coordinate a regional solution that simultaneously addresses four issues. First and foremost, we must defeat the terrorists in their hideouts and prevent the creation of a terrorist safe haven in Mali. We must also work to support a legitimate government in Bamako empowered to negotiate with credible representatives in the north; enable that government to develop good governance and security capabilities, including holding successful negotiations on a realistic and credible autonomy for the north; and, marshal sufficient international resources to address the pressing development, economic growth and social needs that underline the continuing instability in the region.

We will gain desperately little if we defeat the jihadists and leave a power vacuum to be filled by the narco trade and other illegal activities. It is only through an integrated approach, combining elements of hard and soft power, that there can be an enduring and peaceful solution. In the midst of the chaos of North Africa, only Morocco is uniquely positioned to be an equal partner with the US in this engagement. Secretary Kerry should make this relationship an early priority so that US values and interests are advanced both in Morocco and the region.

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